An Interview with Linda Lear - August 2014
Interview published at http://www.readmeblogsite.net/interviews/ August 2014.
What was the best thing about writing this book?
The best thing was that I discovered a Victorian woman of great brilliance who could
have been almost any sort of natural scientist she wanted to be had she lived in
another time. I discovered not only her well known genius as a story-teller and
artist, but also her love of nature and her scientific curiosity that had not been
written about before. Her fame as “the Peter Rabbit Lady” (which only involved a
dozen years of her life writing Little Books) overshadowed the other passions and
accomplishments that she had. And in the end, I believe I gave Beatrix Potter a
wider, fuller and more amazing life.
What situations/people influenced me to start writing?
I have been a history professor all my career. But in 1994 I got two big fellowships
that enabled me to quit teaching at the university and become a full time writer.
Writing as a teacher and scholar has been something I have always done. But writing
as an academic and writing for the general public is quite different. So being a
non-fiction writer was a completely new challenge.
It was my Mother who has always been my literary muse. When others (some male professors
in graduate school) criticized my writing, or were less than encouraging, my Mother
believed in me. She died in 1994 just a few years before my prize-winning biography
of Rachel Carson was published. (1997). But she was behind every sentence and was
the inspiration to write about nature and saving the environment that was Carson’s
story, my mother’s story, Beatrix Potter’s story, and my story.
In 1994, I was far away from home on a fellowship at Yale University. Before she
died, my Mother created a banner out of paper bags stapled together to put over
my desk to encourage me. It reads, “You do write so beautifully, dear.” And to this
day, it still has the place of honor in my study and still inspires me!
What inspired me to write this book?
Penguin UK bought my biography of the environmental pioneer, Rachel Carson, whose
book “Silent Spring” helped to ignite the world environmental movement warning against
the misuse of pesticides. They invited me over to the UK on a book and lecture tour
in 1998. One of my first stops was the London Science Museum, and after the lecture
my husband and I were looking around at the exhibits. In the lobby there were these
fantastic watercolours of fungi, but there was no indication in the exhibit cases
who had painted them. Now I happen to be a very amateur collector of botanical art
and I know what is good and what is ordinary, and these watercolours were “mind-blowing!”
So I inquired about the artist and learned that they were fungi painted by Beatrix
Potter in the late 1890s. “I didn’t know she did botanical art or scientific drawings”
I said to my Penguin editor that night at dinner at her London club. “Oh,” she said.
“Most Brits don’t know that either!” And she added almost as an afterthought… “Beatrix
Potter also had a hand in saving the Lake District, and most Brits don’t know that
either.” My husband looked at me, and said, “Well, Linda! There’s your next project.”
And so it was. And it was a perfect one too!
It also turned out that the timing was right for a new biography. Margaret Lane,
a journalist and frequent writer of what I call “ladies biographies” had published
a life of Potter in 1946 just three years after Potter’s death. It was popular and
well-written, but based too much on conjecture and not enough on scholarly evidence.
The best portrait of Potter was and remains Judy Taylor’s “illuatrated biography”Beatrix
Potter. Artist,Storyteller and Countrywoman published in 1986. Since then
no one had interpreted Potter’s life and work as flowing from her love and knowledge
of the natural world. It was a perfect theme for an environmental historian and
But there’s more. As a trained environmental historian, I seem to be drawn to write
about literary artists whose lives and work are somehow intertwined with the natural
world. My biography of Rachel Carson came about first of all because my history
students at University did not know who she was or what she had done. I found that
appalling and set out to remedy that ignorance. The result was a much bigger project
that I had initially planned, but it was a wonderful decade long adventure which
has not stopped yet.
With Potter, it was my childhood knowledge and love of reading her books and the
images of animals and gardens that stayed with me. It was also about childhood,
about being mothered so beautifully that I could hear my mother’s voice in all the
tales. It included my love of gardening as well inherited from my family. I think
it was all about following what one loved.
What was the most interesting fact/thing you discovered when writing this book?
I discovered that Beatrix was a young woman of ambition and enormous scientific
talent. But the most important discovery was that her ability to observe – was nothing
short of extraordinary. It impacted everything she did: art, story, science, sheep
raising, and conservation. Her ability to observe was central to her being and to
She wanted to make something of herself other than being a “decorative” lady of
the upper middle class. As a Unitarian family, the Potter’s were excluded from the
wider society of their social and economic class. But as Unitarians from the North
of England (eg. Manchester) they were proud of their roots in trade and in invention
and art. Beatrix was an accomplish artist from an early age. She had a fiercely
independent streak and hated art lessons – wanting to do art her way. Thank goodness.
Her ability to observe: people, society, nature, animals, landscape was at the core
of her genius. There have been few artists whose observation has been more acute
or more effectively applied to her art, story and nature.
What do you love/admire most about Beatrix Potter?
I admire her inner resilience and courage in the face of disappointment, tragedy
and loss. She had a deep sense of herself, a drive to achieve even in areas that
Victorian women were excluded. She had enormous fortitude and cleverness. If one
avenue was blocked, she would find another way to learn something, or discover a
way to do it differently. She was a very talented businesswoman in addition. It
was Potter who designed and patented the first “Peter Rabbit” doll, made up a Board
Game based on the Tale of Peter Rabbit, designed figurines, wall papers,
tea sets and even hot water bottles and had them manufactured to her rigorous specifications.
By the time she stopped writing and turned to full time sheep raising and conservation,
she oversaw an empire of merchandise based upon her Tales.
What I love about her most I think is her imagination. Her love of fantasy, her
ability to see whimsy in situations, to find humor in animal behavior and in human
society – even stuffy Victorian society – and to imagine the natural world and its
creatures in ways that even today make us understand a larger truth. Her imagination
was key to her resilience in her personal life, especially as a young woman living
in a difficult time and household. Her imagination gained her fame and fortune as
a writer and artist. Finally her imagination enabled her to see that the fragile
environment of the Lake District of northern England could be lost if others did
not act to save it from development and preserve its agrarian character. She was
a woman ahead of her time in almost every way, yet very much a product of her generation.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book?
There were two wonderful things that happened: first, my husband and I were able
to travel all over southeastern Scotland and the current area of the Lake District
now known as Cumbria, Westmoreland and Norfolkshire. We found all the homes, save
her home in London which was destroyed in the war, that Potter lived in or vacationed
in. We visited all the farms she owned, the Tarns that she loved and all the lakes.
It was essential to me as a writer who needs to absorb the actual places and landscapes
to write about them. A life is deeply impacted by place and one’s sense of place.
This was crucial when it came to understanding Beatrix Potter, where she lived and
what she loved.
The second thing was the friends I made as I travelled and did research in the UK
and Scotland. Archivists, local shop keepers, people who lived around the Lakes,
farmers, sheep herders, especially the National Trust employees who farm her land
and keep her flocks. I even held a baby Herdwick in my arms at one of Potter’s NT
farms! What a thrill.
The members of the Beatrix Potter Society, a membership Society open to anyone interested
in Potter’s life and work, were essential in helping me not only find material,
but in interpreting it for an American audience. I learned how to write exclusively
in British spelling, and my Editor was delighted to tell me that no one could have
known I was an American! I think that was a compliment
Perhaps best of all were the personal friends I made, the young editor who became
my London research assistant and the passionate Potter collectors and scholars who
shared their knowledge and their collections, and whom I count among my closest
What was the hardest part of your job and why?
The hardest part for most writers is the writing itself. The discipline required
day after day to stare at a blank page on the computer and turn out a daily quota
of words or pages. The research for me is the most fun. It is also the part that
is hardest to stop, and to gain discipline over. I employed a former student who
is a professional archivist to help me organize over twenty boxes of notes, research
materials and computer records. Those materials are now open to researchers at the
Linda Lear Center at Connecticut College in New London, Ct.
We all have different styles of writing. For me it is essential to document carefully
everything I write so that I have the references correctly placed even if whole
sections never make it into the final draft. After making an outline and dividing
material into chapters, the hardest part is to get the narrative flow. I usually
try to write five pages a day, I read them aloud and then I edit them. The next
morning I read them again, and usually re-write most of them and then try to move
forward bit by bit. It is tedious but it is exciting. But it is also very lonely
work because it all comes from the writer’s mind, spirit, and ability to tell a
life. Such a writer is blessed as I am to have an understanding family.
What is the best part of your job and why?
The very best part is when the book is finally published and you can see the results
of all those years. Writing “A Life in Nature” (the original and my favourite title)
was an eight year process from the time I went to the UK until the time the book
was published by Penguin (UK) and St Martin’s Press in the US. The joy is sharing
that labor and enthusiasm with others in book talks, in public lectures, at book
clubs, on-line, and with anyone who will be kind enough to ask “what do you write,
and why did you write the life of Beatrix Potter?” Now that is a great question!
Do you collect anything?
This is a question I am rarely asked. I am an avid gardener, and I love plants.
But before I ever knew about Beatrix Potter’s paintings, I collected botanical art
– starting with Basilius Besler of Nuremberg who worked in the 17th century. And
from his famous Florilegium I branched out into 18th and 19th century botanical
artists. Having a background in horticulture helped draw me to Beatrix Potter even
more than her Little Books and and helped me to understand her life in nature.
Now some of my Potter friends in the UK have introduced me to Victorian greeting
cards, some produced by Hildesheimer and Faulkner who was Beatrix’s first publisher,
to Frederick Weatherly’s verses which she illustrated, and to some of the female
artists who were Beatrix’s contemporaries and whom she admired. So now I avidly
watch for Victorian card auctions and find this a charming addition to my writing
All the materials that I collected for the Potter biography, as well as my Victorian
card collection are donated to the Linda Lear Special Collections and Archives in
the Shain Library at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut where I went
to undergraduate college. The Lear/Potter Collection is open to the public as well
as to students for research. I am proud to be able to share my work with others
for years to come. http://LearCenter.Conncoll.edu There is also a description
on my website: www.bpotter.com and more about my life and work at www.Lindalear.com