Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear is a comprehensive biography of the brilliant creator of the Tale of Peter Rabbit and all the wonderful tales that followed.

In this well-researched biography, Lear steps to the side, and lets her subject shine, unclouded by biographer ruminations or speculations. Based on Beatrix’s journals, letters, artistic works, and in-depth research into all the people that touched her life, Lear’s biography gives us a more complete portrait of Potter than ever before. Seeing her in this now fully rounded view, we discover that Beatrix Potter—you mean the lady that wrote those little stories?—was by any definition of the phrase, a renaissance woman, capable of scientific, artistic, and practical genius.

All of her life, Beatrix leapt from science to art to fancy and back again as effortlessly as a child playing hopscotch. She started out at as a precocious naturalist, sketching and painting the animals that she managed to draw close to her during summer vacations in Scotland. Her purpose was to capture the subject with ever-increasing accuracy. For every adorable mouse in a print apron or rabbit in a blue coat on the pages of her little books, there were probably hundreds of sketches and paintings of this animal over years. The secret to the charm of her anthropomorphism is the precision of her knowledge of the responses of the creature in movement and emotion.

In writing and illustrating her books, Beatrix, as in all else, was a perfectionist. She created her illustrations from life again and again, poured over her manuscripts to perfect cadence and rhythm, edited and re-edited her text to make sure just the right word was there and no more. “’Leant against’ instead of ‘stood’ and ‘conversed,’ children like a fine word occasionally,” she wrote to the proofer at Warne’s, her publisher. It is this minute attention that made the stories so taut, balanced, wry—and, well, perfect.

Make sure you have Potter’s tales by you as you read this biography, because Lear does a wonderful job of mapping the animals, rooms, gardens, doll houses, and landscapes of the illustrations in her books to Beatrix’s life and environs at the time she wrote them.

In her review of Lear’s biography for The Guardian, Kathryn Hughes lamented that Potter “endured one of those dark, musty girlhoods which has come to stand as a kind of shorthand for what the Victorians did to their clever young women. Her wealthy parents had all the financial and intellectual resources required to prepare their elder child for a useful, creative future. Instead she was kept confined to the upper floors of their gloomy house in Bolton Gardens in London, where she populated her old nursery with a small army of pets, from store-bought snakes to wild mice enticed from behind the skirting board.”

Beatrix with one of her pet rabbits.

But if Beatrix’s was a typical musty Victorian childhood, where are all the other Beatrix Potters? And she led an extraordinarily useful and creative life, which is undeniable to anyone who has read the book. She was isolated by her parents’ Unitarian religion and her mother’s snobbery, but her childhood blossomed in other directions. Although Beatrix’s relationship with her mother was never without tension, how many mothers permit a child to bring an assortment of mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, bats, newts, toads, frogs, lizards, birds, and insects into the nursery in a London house, where they are housed, fed, tamed, drawn, played with, and lost and found—not to mention pack up the whole menagerie in their cages to go on summer holiday with the family? Beatrix’s father, aside from taking her to the British Museum and encouraging her artistry, introduced her to his own peers who became significant mentors in Beatrix’s scientific endeavors and later her preservation efforts. Although her family may have been aloof from her book creation and business dealings to get her books published, within the Potter household, her intellect and imagination were given full rein to flourish in whatever directions they might flow. By the time she was a young woman, she was an accomplished artist, botanist, and naturalist; was fluent in German; and had many of the classics of literature under her belt.

Beatrix was a mycologist and even secretly brought dry rot into the house for examination.

For Beatrix there was no boundary between art and scientific accuracy. She was schooled in art by her father, himself an amateur painter, but her sense of scientific inquiry was prompted by her ability to absorb herself in the world around her and her desire to know it in detail—to know how it ticked. This ability to concentrate fully on the life outside of her own being and to grasp it in all its rich aspects is the gift that carries her throughout her life and across the spectrum of all of her interests. Her love and knowledge of all plants, animals, lichens, fungi, and fossils enriched each other. In the same years that she was painting illustrations for the great classics of children’s literature, she was avidly studying mycology and in 1897 submitted to the Linnean Society a scientific paper on her discovery of hybridization in the reproduction of lichens, “On the Germination of the Spoors of Agaricineae.” The paper was rejected by the Society’s challenged botanists, because she was a mere young woman without a degree, but her theory, it was later recognized, was absolutely correct.

Hilltop Farm, the first and beloved farm that Beatrix bought with proceeds from her Tales.

Beatrix translated her love of the natural world into fantasy and books that delighted children worldwide and to husbandry and breeding, with equal success. She devoted the latter half of her life to preserving the fell farming and husbandry of the English Lake District, where she had spent so many happy summer months. As with her publishing operations, she proved to be a formidable businesswoman. She became a master of the region’s ecology, daily directing her shepherds and managers in minute detail on what had to be done.

Despite her crustiness and refusal to allow electricity or radio antennas on any of her properties, she extended herself to bring medical care to this isolated region. Alarmed by the way in which the 1918 influenza epidemic had ravaged the families in their cottages, she led neighbors in the area in 1919 to gain certification for a District Nursing Association, which would enable a Queen’s nurse to come serve the Lake District’s hills. Beatrix directed the local association for several years and was often the first to inform the nurse in which cottage she would be needed on any given day.

Perhaps because as a young girl Beatrix was without playmates and had only her brother Bertram to play with, and perhaps because she had given up at a fairly early age on marrying and having children, Beatrix reached out to any children that came within her purview—the offspring of her former governess and the nephews and nieces of her fiancĂ© and publisher, Norman Warne, among them. Her Tale of Peter Rabbit first took shape in an 1893 letter to Noel Moore, the oldest son of her governess. In her later life, she opened up her land to the Girl Guides, coming down to their campfires and telling stories and inviting them up to her house for tea. She was a great friend to the American Bertha Mahoney, editor of the children’s Hornbook magazine, who promoted Beatrix’s work stateside and who like, Beatrix, was devoted to nurturing the imagination of children.

Watercolor of the view of Hilltop.

Although eminently practical in all of her dealings with animals and in her farming enterprises, Beatrix never squelched the wonder-filled child within her. The Fairy Caravan, her last book, was written when she was 56. All of her life, she drew close to the plants, the animals, the trees, and hills to learn their secrets—in science and fancy. In a remembrance of “The Lonely Hills,” the elderly Beatrix wrote: “In the calm spacious days that seem so long ago, I loved to wander on the Troutbeck fell. Sometimes I had with me an old sheep dog, ‘Nip’ or ‘Fly’; more often I went alone. But never lonely. There was company of gentle sheep, and wild flowers, and singing waters. I listened to the voices of the Little Folk.”

And so when you read this book, you will not want it to end.

1 comment:

gsk said...

Speaking of her use of words, I'll never forget my inner struggle over whether to "translate" some pages for my wee ones, or to just go with "they implored [Peter] to exert himself," and let the kids figure it out with context. It was a phrase that stuck with me all these years.

Great post!