Conversation with Linda Lear
Q. Beatrix Potter is suddenly in the spotlight with your title publishing in
January to coincide with a movie of her life starring Renee Zellweger. Did you anticipate
this interest in her when you began writing her biography?
No, But I'm delighted she's getting the attention that is long overdue. I discovered
Beatrix as a subject for biography purely by happenstance. Eight years ago I was
visiting London when I stumbled on an exhibit of Potter's fungi watercolors. I knew
nothing about her skill as a botanical artist, her importance as a natural scientist,
or her life as a countrywoman the Lake District. It seemed very few others knew
about this other life either, so I decided to tell her amazing story. That the biography
is finding its way in the world at the same time as the movie is released is a happy
coincidence. I am confident the "rest of the story" will be told for the first time.
Q. You're eager for people to see her as more than a children's author and illustrator.
What do you most want people to know about her?
There are so many extraordinary facets to her life, and so much that's been neglected
in the focus on her children's writing and art that it's impossible to give a short
answer. Beatrix Potter came from a merchant family with artistic skills and reformist
inclinations. She was the first children's storyteller to see the possibility of
merchandising her literary characters, and she shrewdly patented a Peter Rabbit
and Jemima Puddle-duck doll, drew wallpaper friezes, designed tea-sets and handkerchiefs,
even created a Peter Rabbit board game with rules, long before her publishers caught
on to what a business opportunity she had laid out.
She was a talented naturalist, but born into a world that discounted the contributions
of amateur scientists, especially women. She discovered how fungi reproduce, did
microscopic drawings of the process, and was the first person in Great Britain to
theorize the process of symbiosis between algae and fungi into a new organism, though
no one listened. She even understood and observed the anti-bacterial properties
of penicillin. Most importantly, at a time when nature was viewed as a commodity
to be exploited, Beatrix Potter had the vision and environmental understanding to
try to preserve a unique landscape. She bequeathed more than 4000 acres, roughly
the equivalent area of five Central Parks, to the National Trust, the largest gift
of that time, and was instrumental in preserving much of what we know of the Lake
District National Park today.
Q. You see Beatrix's life as playing out in three acts. Can you elaborate?
Beatrix had a talent for reinventing herself. She was driven by her imagination,
and by a desire to do something useful with her life. Whenever one avenue of creativity
and purposefulness was closed, she found another way. So when her contributions
to natural science were dismissed, she turned her earlier letters to children into
books, and finally found a publisher for what became the famous Little Books that
have been read by generations the world over. Crushed when her editor/fiancé died
just a month after their engagement, Beatrix, bought a working farm and began a
new life in the Lake District as a farmer and sheep breeder. Eventually her country
life became all consuming and lead to her visionary stewardship of the land.
Q. To what do you attribute the enduring popularity of her work?
That becomes obvious with just one look at her illustrations and her stories for
children. She was both writer and artist, and one of the very few who illustrated
her own work, and no one else's. Potter loved language as well as landscape. She
understood cadence and word play, and the importance of a blank page to heighten
suspense. Her art and her storytelling were integrated in a way that has never really
been matched. Her characters may have been anthropomorphized, but Peter, and Benjamin
and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle never lost their essential animal natures. Beatrix was a child
herself and she was in love with childhood. Her stories were authentic interpretations
of animal nature and her illustrations were a perfect rendering of the countryside
and country life that inspired her. Her books have an integrity that has made them
both ageless and priceless.
Q. You discovered that after her marriage to William Heelis, she became much
less interested in creating her children's books. Why did her interest in writing
wane when her books remained as popular as ever?
A. Beatrix was a fascinating combination of traditionalist and reformer. She always
thought marriage was the "crown of a woman's life." When Norman Warne, her editor
and fiancé, died in 1905 she was devastated and poured that grief into creativity
in the Little Books that followed for the next decade. When William Heelis, the
country solicitor who had first helped her buy property in the Lake District, asked
her to marry him, she became Mrs. Heelis, farmer, sheep breeder, and countrywoman.
Her life now revolved around the countryside, its farms, fells and sheep. Coincidently,
her publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. fell on hard economic times. They pressed her
for more books, which for a time, she dutifully turned out. But she was heartily
sick of rabbits. As she grew older drawing and painting became increasingly difficult
and she had enormous farms to manage, and thousands of sheep and cattle to care
for. She was ahead of the times in animal husbandry, and instrumental in preserving
a unique breed for fell sheep, the Herdwick, in the Lake District. In 1928 she brought
an immense property for the National Trust, and in her seventies personally managed
it until the Trust could take it over. She actively worked to protect the unique
architecture and crafts of the countryside. Whenever there was time to write, she
wanted to write about country life; when she painted, she drew the beauty all around
her. When she died, many of her neighbors never realized that Mrs Heelis had been
Beatrix Potter, the creator of famous stories for children, in another lifetime.
Q. Beatrix Potter's book sales and licensed merchandise is generating hundreds
of millions a year. In the UK, she's become a tourist attraction, which is ironic,
since she was eager to maintain a private and simple country life when she was alive.
How would you guess she would feel seeing how her legacy is playing out?
Potter cared deeply about how she would be remembered, but never felt confident
that she was taken seriously as a children's writer and illustrator. She would be
endlessly gratified to see how popular her work remains, and how beloved her stories
are. She would be amazed to see how her ideas of creative merchandising to extend
her characters and tales for children has multiplied and expanded in to a multi-million
dollar empire with items that remain faithful to her original work. As far as Hill
Top Farm, Beatrix wanted it to be a museum of her life and work in the countryside.
She herself arranged her china and porcelain, her artwork, and her antique furniture
as she wanted them to be viewed. She would be deeply gratified to know that thousands
of tourists come each year to find Tom Kitten's garden and to look for Jemima Puddle-duck's
missing eggs. She would be equally proud that some of the farms she donated to the
National Trust offer teas for tourists, allowing them to visit the old houses and
see fell farming at first hand. She believed that visitors should be able to walk
freely over the fells, so long as they took care and respected the land. But she
also understood that the Trust faced a precarious balancing act in preserving a
unique landscape and at the same time providing for a self-sufficient agriculture.
Her imaginative stewardship of the land is as much a part of her creative legacy
as her art and stories for children.