"I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations."
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 to parents Rupert and Helen Potter. Potter’s parents were wealthy, having inherited a fortune, and did not need to work for a living. The Potter home was run with the help of household staff and Beatrix spent much of her time on the third floor of the family’s Kensington home, cared for by her nannies and governesses. Beatrix’s parents did not play an active role in their young daughter’s life, eating separately and seeing her only for a short time in the evening.
A brother, Walter Bertram, was born when Beatrix was five years old. Beatrix and her younger brother kept numerous small animals as pets and enjoyed observing and drawing the frogs, mice and rats. Her parents chose to employ teachers to educate Beatrix within the home rather than sending her to school, although Bertram was sent to boarding school when he reached the appropriate age. With very little input from her parents, Beatrix began writing and sketching as a means of occupying her time. She began a journal in 1881 which she kept for over a decade. The journal was written in code and in handwriting so small that it was almost unreadable.
As a child, Beatrix’s sole excursions were to the newly-built museums in Kensington. Beatrix was fascinated by the skeletons of animals and her study of them helped her understand the way that animals’ bodies functioned. The family also spent four months of the year in the Lake District which gave Beatrix a further opportunity to study the animals she would later draw as part of her stories. Beatrix’s parents did not encourage her interest in art and at times would even try to curtail it.
Beatrix lived an almost reclusive life up until the age of thirty, with few trips away from her parents, but trips that she did take had a great impact on her future writing. During one visit to Annie Moore, Beatrix’s previous governess, Beatrix became friendly with Annie’s children. The story of Peter Rabbit was first written in a letter to Annie’s son Noel after he contracted scarlet fever in 1893. Noel kept the letter until Beatrix asked for it back in 1900, when she made the story into a book. Another excursion that impacted on Beatrix’s writing was to Gloucester in 1894 when she visited a cousin. During the trip Beatrix heard a tale about a local tailor was assisted in his work by nice. The Tailor of Gloucester (1902) was later based on this tale.
After encouragement from a family friend, Beatrix began looking for a publisher for her children’s stories. After the first publisher that Beatrix approached was uninterested, she decided to publish the book herself with money she had made from illustrating greeting cards and the stories of other authors, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1901. The book came to the attention of Warne, a publishing house with experience in the field of children’s stories, and they agreed to reprint the book with full colour illustrations. Following the success of Peter Rabbit, Warne requested that Beatrix produced another book to be published as quickly as possible and The Tailor of Gloucester was published the following year. Beatrix published two stories a year from this time up until 1913, which included The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (1905) and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908).
Beatrix’s working relationship with Warne had led to a personal relationship with Norman Warne, Beatrix’s editor and the youngest brother of the firm. Beatrix and Norman became engaged in 1905; however, Beatrix’s parents disapproved of the relationship and refused to acknowledge the engagement, although Warne’s family were welcoming to Beatrix and gave her the affectionate nickname “Aunt Beattie”. Beatrix purchased Hill Top Farm in near Sawrey, a tiny village in the Lake District near Ambleside in 1905, with the intention of living there with Warne. Sadly just one month after their engagement, Warne was taken ill suddenly and died of leukaemia.
When she was forty seven, Beatrix became engaged to William Heelis, a country lawyer whom she met in the process of buying further small farms. Once again Beatrix’s parents objected to the relationship. However, Beatrix went ahead and they were married on 14th October 1913. Beatrix’s only love story, The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913) was inspired by her impending marriage. She wrote few books following her marriage, but The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918) indicates her contentment with married life. Her productivity slowed as she felt that her eyes were too tired to do the fine work needed for her illustrations and she complained that her domestic responsibilities consumed too much of her time.
Beatrix Potter died on 22nd December 1943 at Castle Cottage from complications from pneumonia and heart disease; her remains were cremated at Carleton Crematorium. Beatrix left nearly all her property to the National Trust, including over 4,000 acres of land, sixteen farms, cottages and herds of cattle and Herdwick sheep. Her creations have continued to enjoyed enormous popularity ever since.
TITLES BY BEATRIX POTTER