Beatrix Potter:
A Life in Nature

by Linda Lear


St. Martins Press, 2007. ISBN 0312369344.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/24/2006

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Have you ever had the feeling that Fate has handed you a certain new book, or a particular new author—that you were meant to read that book you've just found on a shelf or read about in a catalog?

That happened to me several years ago, with an author named Linda Lear, whose definitive biography of Rachel Carson (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature) I had read with an intense interest. When I discovered that Lear had begun a new project, a study of the life of Beatrix Potter, the beloved children's author/illustrator, I could hardly wait. I had a special interest in Lear's new subject, for I had already begun to write my new mystery series, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter—a series of eight mysteries set in the Lake District and focused on Beatrix's life between the years1905-1913. I had collected shelves of research material, but there were pressing questions to which I couldn't find answers. I was eager to read Lear's biography and waited anxiously for it to be published.

When I sat down at last with Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, I was not disappointed. It is simply the finest, most comprehensive study of Potter that has yet been produced. If you have fond memories of the Tale of Peter Rabbit from your childhood; or if you have an interest in women who bravely challenged a social destiny that seemed foregone and inevitable; or if you are interested in naturalism and the history of preservation—you, too, must read A Life in Nature. You simply must.

Miss Potter
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 to wealthy Victorian parents. From early childhood, Beatrix was passionately interested in the natural world and drew what she saw in meticulous, painstaking detail, using as models the many animals that she and her brother collected during family holidays in Perthshire and Cumbria. These animal drawings became increasingly imaginative until they at last came to life in the delightful characters that populate The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and other books, all of which became phenomenal bestsellers.

In 1905, after the death of her fiancé and editor, Norman Warne, Potter used the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from an aunt to purchase a farm in the hamlet of Near Sawrey, in the Lake District. There, she met Willie Heelis, a country lawyer who in 1913 became her husband, and together they set about fulfilling a dream they shared: preserving and protecting the Lake District from the despoliation of commercial development. They lived and worked happily together until 1943, when Beatrix Potter Heelis died. Her husband survived her by only 18 months.

But her books have lived on, loved by generations of children and grownups. The books have been translated into many languages, and made into ballet, dramatic productions, and film. Miss Potter, a biographical film starring Rene Zellwegger as Beatrix and Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, was released in late 2006.

Three Biographers
Linda Lear is not Potter's first biographer. That honor goes to Margaret Lane (The Tale of Beatrix Potter, published in 1946, only three years after Potter's death, and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter, 1978). For Lane, the books published between 1902 and 1913 were the crowning achievements of the artist's life, and her biography is primarily an enthusiastic appreciation of the enchanting, inimitable "nursery tales." The four decades after 1913, when Miss Potter became Mrs. William Heelis, stopped creating books, and took up residence in a rural village in the Lake District were for Lane a kind of regrettable afterword, a long slide into obscurity. "The inspiration faded," Lane says sadly. For her, Potter's creative life ended when she put down her pen and her brush.

We are given a broader picture of Potter's life by her second biographer, Judy Taylor (Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman, 1986, revised edition 1996). Taylor went farther and deeper into Potter's life story, painting a broad picture for the general reader of the emerging young artist, the talented storyteller and maker of books, the happily married wife, the serious farmer, and the dedicated preservationist. Taylor's biography gives us a stronger sense of the whole of Potter's life, especially those long and happy decades after her marriage, and puts the early triumphs of the charming "nursery tales" into a clearer perspective. In addition, Taylor (who has devoted much of her life to the study of Potter's work) collected a large amount of unpublished letters, documents, and photographs, and through a long-term association with Potter's publisher, Frederick Warne, had access to many other documents.

Linda Lear takes up where Taylor left off. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is the most exhaustive and rigorous examination of Potter's life to date. Lear skillfully covers the old ground—the solitary childhood, the astonishing literary success, the dutiful attention to elderly parents, the retirement to marriage and rural farming life—but she breaks a good deal of new ground, as well, taking us deep into the experience of a gifted but very private woman who, as Lear says, had a "talent for reinventing herself." A trained and experienced biographer, Lear not only tells the riveting story of a woman who seems to have led three lives, but also fully and meticulously documents her sources. Scholars will appreciate the endnotes, sources, references, and lists of primary and secondary material that Lear has provided. This is the first time in the history of Potter scholarship that such a full and complete documentation has been made. It is simply invaluable.

But Lear never allows her responsibilities as a scholar to overshadow her fascination with the human story of Beatrix Potter. With tact, sensitivity, and a profound respect, she goes deeply within her subject to bring us a woman whose tragedies and triumphs seem very personal, compellingly immediate, and entirely real. It is impossible not to celebrate with Beatrix when her "little books" begin to achieve success, to the chagrin of Mr. and Mrs. Potter, who did not intend their daughter to have a career in commercial art. It is impossible not to agonize with her when she loses Norman Warne, her editor, dearest friend, and beloved fiancé, for whose love she had dared her parents. angry opposition. And it is impossible not to triumph with her when she and Willie Heelis are married and she begins her new life in the tiny Lake District village she has come to love, a life devoted to the fine art of hill-country sheep farming.

One of the biographer's tasks is to correct the record where it is wrong, and Lear does this ably. An unfortunate legacy of Margaret Lane's work is the mistaken idea that when Potter stopped drawing imaginary animals, she stopped being creative. Lear clearly demonstrates that throughout Potter's long life, her imagination was fueled by a passion for nature, whether this was expressed in drawings of rabbits in blue coats with brass buttons, or in paintings of fungi, lovingly rendered, or in her love for the tenacious Herdwick sheep that populated the hills of the Lake District, or in her profound admiration for the traditional Lakeland lifeways of farmers and artisans. From her earliest childhood to the time of her death, as Lear shows, Potter was passionately, imaginatively, and creatively engaged with nature.

Lear also succeeds in placing her subject in the larger context of English social and intellectual history. Given the religious, political, and social environments within which Beatrix grew up, it is easier to understand the seeming docility with which she usually (but not always!) bowed to her parents' wishes—and to applaud her courage when she breaks free: to make books and earn her own living, to accept Norman's proposal, to buy her own farm, to marry Willie Heelis and become a shepherd and farmer. And within the larger context of environmental history that Lear provides, it is easy to see why and how she became one of England's most important preservationists and greatest benefactors.

Mrs. Heelis
When Beatrix Potter married, she happily relinquished her life as an author and illustrator and turned to a larger, more enduring passion. Perhaps the most significant of Lear's contributions to the study of the life of Beatrix Potter are her descriptions of Mrs. Heelis's preservation efforts in the Lake District—a commitment she shared with her husband, Willie. As Lear points out, they met when Willie helped Beatrix negotiate the purchase of some property—and the acquisition of farms and land, not for their present enjoyment but for preservation, became a major theme of their marriage.

Beatrix's parents had a close personal friendship with Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, and Miss Potter early began to share Rawnsley's passion for protecting the landscapes and traditional ways of the Lake District from the ravages of land speculation and commercial development. Beatrix profitable literary career and later, the Potter family fortune, made it possible for her to purchase large pieces of land as they became available. Two of these, Troutbeck and Monk Coniston Park, were large and important properties that land speculators were determined to use for holiday cottages. Others were small, scattered fell (mountain) farmsteads, complete with sheep and shepherds.

Mrs. Heelis bought shrewdly, with the help of her country-solicitor husband, and she bought with an eye to preserving not just the land but the traditional farming methods that had shaped it. And she involved the National Trust, often as a silent partner, in her acquisitions, intending that it should manage the fell farms after her death. In 1944, the Trust accepted the Heelis Bequest: some 4,300 acres, including 15 farms, dozens of cottages, houses, and over 500 acres of woods. It was a magnificent gift, a model for gifts to come, but still, to this day, unique.

One of the things Lear does best in this study of Beatrix Potter is to show the development of this fascinating woman's interest in the small farms, the sheep, the people, and the traditional way of life: a "regional ecology," as Lear puts it. It is an interest that is compelled, throughout Potter's life, by her creative imagination, which, "like wonder," Lear writes, "allows us to value something."

Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. [Her] stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening...With her early desire to do something useful with her life, she had written books and drawn pictures that will forever conjure nature for millions of big and little children. Through her passionate and imaginative stewardship of the land, she challenged others to think about preservation, not just of a few farms or fells, but of a regional ecology, of a distinct farming culture, and of a particular breed of nimble-footed grey sheep.

Linda Lear, a professor of environmental history and author of the prize-winning biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, is an enthusiastic horticulturalist and collector of botanical art. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Visit her website at www.lindalear.com.

Susan Wittig Albert, an avid student of the life and times of Beatrix Potter, is the author of many bestselling mysteries, including The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Visit her website at www.mysterypartners.com.

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