The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Between the ages of fourteen and thirty, she fastidiously recorded observations about her stiff Victorian world in several journals. Her parents, descendants of wealthy cotton merchants in the North of England, were rich and exceedingly proper. Perhaps to protect her work, Potter wrote in a minuscule handwriting using a code that only she could understand. Her journals remained a mystery until 1958, when a collector, searching through them, identified a passing reference to Louis XVI, and then painstakingly decoded years’ worth of Potter’s innermost thoughts. (Fans are nosy, too).

Born in London, Beatrix Potter felt drawn to the country.Photograph from Hulton Archive / Getty

In public, Potter, the author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny,” whose books have now sold more than two hundred and fifty million copies, was demure and perfectly respectable. In private, the journals suggest, she was forthright and opinionated, a budding artist, who delighted in the detail and humor of everyday life. “She was quite a strong and determined personality,” Annemarie Bilclough, who co-curated an exhibition on her life at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, told me. Born in 1866, Potter lived with her parents in a grand house in South Kensington, a rapidly growing community, until she was forty-seven years old. She felt like an outsider much of the time. She hated the noise and grime of the city—“Why do people live in London so much?” she wondered—and longed to be in nature. She called her birthplace “unloved.” “My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,” she wrote. “But our descent—our interests and our joy was in the north country.”

What was Potter doing all that time she lived at home with her parents? In childhood, she rarely ventured into the rest of London, and she had few friends besides her younger brother, Bertram. Mostly, it seems, she spent her days drawing. She drew compulsively, rapturously, from a young age, in a sketchbook that she made from drawer-lining paper and stationery. “It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye,” she wrote. She drew when she was unsettled, regardless of the subject. “I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things,” she wrote in her journal. “Last time, in the middle of September, I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round.”

Potter’s sketchbook and coded journal, and many of her other belongings, are on display at the V. & A. through early next year, in an exhibition titled “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature.” (Rizzoli has recently published an accompanying book by the same name.) Some two hundred and forty eclectic objects, including manuscripts, sketches, tchotchkes and collectibles—even the alleged pelt of Benjamin Bunny–—tell the story of a remarkable transformation. Having lived the first two-thirds of her life in near-total acquiescence to her family’s wishes, she made a sudden turn in her third act. “A town mouse longing to be a country mouse,” as Bilclough put it, Potter gave up the trappings of her privileged life in London and bought a cottage in a remote part of the English countryside. She became a farmer and conservationist, with muddy shoes and prize-winning sheep. She walked the fells and lakeside paths around her new home, sketching them, and ultimately saving them from destruction.

Potter may not have had many friends as a child, but she had lots of animals. She and Bertram sneaked a rotating cast of pets into their nursery, including snakes, salamanders, lizards, rabbits, frogs, and a fat hedgehog. The V. & A. exhibition, which includes a series of dark rooms that evoke the cloistered atmosphere of Potter’s childhood, showcases her early drawings of the natural world as she would have known it then: a mouse, a caterpillar, a beady lizard. The siblings loved animals, but they were “unsentimental about the realities of life and death,” as the show puts it. When their pets died, they would stuff them, or boil their skeletons for further study. There’s a drawing by Bertram of a pickled fish next to a human skull, and a note from him about his pet bat: “If he cannot be kept alive . . . you had better kill him, + stuff him as well as you can,” he wrote to Potter from boarding school. Nearby, stretched out in a display case, is a flattened rabbit hide and the disturbing sign, “Rabbit pelt, thought to be that of Benjamin Bouncer.” Benjamin Bouncer was one of a series of rabbits that Potter owned, and a favorite muse. She brought him home in a paper bag when she was in her teens. Later, she brought home the rabbit Peter Piper, who learned how to jump through hoops but “flatly refused to perform” in company.

In early adulthood, Potter observed her pets closely, inventing narratives about them, and filling her letters to the children of friends with their adventures. Her dispatches are playful and alive, illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings of rabbits. In 1892, she wrote a letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, about an encounter that Benjamin Bunny had with a wild rabbit in the garden. (Benjamin hardly noticed; he was eating so much.) After Benjamin died (“through persistent devotion to peppermints”), Peter Piper became Potter’s leading man. In 1893, she wrote to Noel again: “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” A drawing of a whiskered Peter on his hind legs, ears perked, immediately suggests mischief.

Potter sent the Moore children story after story in illustrated letters, until Noel’s mother suggested that she try to turn them into books. (The children had saved their copies.) In 1901, Potter self-published the first edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” which appeared almost exactly as she had written it to Noel, down to Peter’s “blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new.” A series of established publishers had turned her down, partly because of her insistence on keeping the book’s price low. “Little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book, and would never buy it,” she wrote to a friend. She was also particular about the size of the book; it had to be small, for small hands. The following year, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to put out an abridged version. Potter compromised on the cover image, which she called the “idiotic prancing rabbit.”

“Peter Rabbit” was an instant hit, selling out multiple editions. (“The public must be fond of rabbits! what an appalling quantity of Peter,” Potter wrote.) Her publisher asked for more books, and she began pumping them out one after another, beginning with “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” and “The Tailor of Gloucester.” She also patented her characters. In the exhibition, there’s a fraying Jemima Puddle-Duck doll, with a fabric bonnet and shawl, and a Peter Rabbit teapot, as well as a complicated-looking board game. “She was very savvy in what was created, and what was made,” Helen Antrobus, who co-curated the show, told me. Potter believed that her first books found an audience because they were written for real children. “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child,” she wrote. “I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child—not made to order.”

She also had a knack for making the familiar strange. Her attention to the practicalities of being an animal, even a very civilized one, produced beguiling images. If a hedgehog wears a bonnet, as one does in “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” her quills will certainly poke through. If a tortoise is invited to a dinner party, as happens in “The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher,” he’ll probably bring a salad in a string bag. She took silliness seriously. At the V. & A., one display case holds tiny folded letters that Potter wrote as if they were sent from one character to another: “Letters between Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry Squirrel and Rt Hon. O. Brown, Esq. MP.”

Potter’s funniest tales are understated, and occasionally gruesome. Peter Rabbit’s father had an “accident” in Mr. McGregor’s garden, and Mrs. McGregor put him into a pie. The disrespectful Squirrel Nutkin, who loses his tail to an owl, is drawn in the owl’s talons with the caption, “This looks like the end of the story; but it isn’t.” In “The Tale of Ginger and Pickles,” a cat and a dog running a shop that caters to rabbits and mice struggle to rein in their appetites. “It would never do to eat our customers,” Pickles says. “They would leave us and go to Tabitha Twitchit’s.”

As Potter’s career was taking off, something else was happening, too: she was falling in love with her editor, Norman Warne. It wasn’t exactly a whirlwind romance—they saw each other with chaperons—though it must have felt that way to Potter. At thirty-nine, she was still living with her parents, who disapproved of Warne’s background in “trade.” (Gasp!) They wanted her to stay at home and continue running their affairs. Still, when he proposed, Potter accepted without hesitation. A month after the engagement, while Potter was vacationing in Wales, Warne died suddenly of lymphatic leukemia. She didn’t make it back in time to say goodbye.

Potter had long dreamed of owning a farm. A few months after Warne’s death, she completed the purchase of the thirty-four-acre Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lake District, in the far north of the country, an area that her family had visited for years. She bought it with money that she’d made from her books. The act was a “turning point,” Linda Lear wrote in the biography “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature,” “a courageous assertion of personal freedom and emotional independence.” In Potter’s grief, she set about planting a garden. Years later, she wrote of the house, “It is in here I go to be quiet and still with myself. This is me, the deepest me, the part one has to be alone with.”

When I visited Hill Top recently, in the tiny village of Near Sawrey, the area looked to me like a storybook drawing of the English countryside: whitewashed houses, stone walls, and rolling, green hills. Lots of sheep and lots of rain. Near Sawrey contains just a handful of streets, a few dozen cottages, and a pub called the Tower Bank Arms. (There’s also a Far Sawrey, down the road, but no Sawrey.) Today, Hill Top is maintained as a house museum—a kind of Beatrix Potter shrine—by the National Trust, a conservation charity. The area is popular with hikers and families visiting nearby Windermere, and has become a place of pilgrimage for fans.

Hill Top itself is a two-story farmhouse originally from the seventeenth century, with a pitched roof and vines that creep up the outside. In the summer, the garden is full of roses, hollyhocks and saxifrage, but in late winter it is in hibernation, with just a few shoots poking through the hard ground. The site is still a working farm, and I could smell the animals; dogs were barking nearby. John Moffat, who manages National Trust properties in the area, showed me around. “It’s all still very much as it would have been when Beatrix was here,” he said.

Some people shut down after tragedy; others become extraordinarily productive. The eight years after Warne’s death were Potter’s most prolific in terms of literary output. She wrote more than a dozen books, including “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck,” “The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher,” “The Tale of Tom Kitten” and “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.” She also threw herself into the renovation of Hill Top. Her letters during this time were full of practical problems—the house had rats and a bad roof—as she tried to find her feet among the locals. “I had rather a row with the plumber—or perhaps I ought to say I lost my temper!” she wrote in one. “If he won’t take orders from a lady I may pack him off & get one from Kendal.” She also bought up additional land to conserve it. She married a local lawyer named William Heelis, and moved into a cottage with him, but she kept Hill Top to herself, as a place to write, garden, and be alone.

Many of the stories that Potter wrote while living in Near Sawrey take an interest in country life. For “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck,” about a fussy duck determined to find a place to hatch her eggs, Potter drew the Tower Bank Arms, as well as the gate to her garden. Her characters are genial country folk who retain their essential animal natures. (The sly fox whom Jemima speaks to reads a newspaper and sits on his tail to keep dry, but is also quite interested in her eggs.) In “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers,” Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, both rats, are drawn running around Hill Top, gathering ingredients to bake Tom Kitten into a pie. (“ ‘No,’ said Samuel Whiskers, ‘make it properly, Anna Maria, with breadcrumbs.’ ”) Upstairs at Hill Top, there’s an intricate doll house with a miniature ham that Potter drew in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice.”

Looking over her things, I was struck by the house’s modest proportions. (By the end of her life, Potter was the equivalent of a multimillionaire.) She could have remained in London, patiently keeping house for her parents, but instead she chose this life. The rooms felt cozy and curated, filled with knickknacks collected over the years, like a magpie’s nest. Her joy in having a space of her own is obvious. She was a late bloomer, but she grew decisively into herself.

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