Hundreds have enjoyed Beatrix and her bunnies. Today’s woman from history, Beatrix Potter, was a champion of many causes. She was a writer, illustrator, natural scientist, sheep farmer, businesswoman and conservationist. As such, this amazing woman, Helen Beatrix Potter was a woman pioneer in many fields, paving the way for women in writing, farming and business and inspiring nature-lovers to fight for conservation of natural land.
Generations of children and many parents have enjoyed the children’s animal stories that Beatrix Potter wrote.
Beatrix’s Bunnies Live On
Her small books called Tales, are author illustrated with the animal characters, and are still available. They are a testament to her innocent stories of little bunnies, squirrels, frogs, birds and mice, and her adorable illustrations.
There still seems to be a market for cute animals and their woodland adventures though over a century has passed since Peter Rabbit’s appearance in 1903. I note that there are still 1400 copies of her books on Goodreads with 70, 000 ratings.
Beatrix’s animals also grace nursery plates, clothing and are made into toys. Early in his rabbit life, Beatrix fashioned Peter Rabbit into a soft toy to delight children as well as featuring in his own tales. Peter was registered with his own patent and is the first licensed character to emerge from the pages of a book.
Beatrix therefore pioneered the art of merchandising, which companies like Disney have engaged in big time. Now you can buy any Disney film characters as a plush toy. It’s great add-on marketing for authors and film makers. Beatrix seems to have thought of it first. She also devised board games, painting books, China sets, baby blankets, China figures and even wallpaper, to feature her animal creations.
What Inspired Beatrix?
Beatrix inspired many, but what inspired Beatrix to write and illustrate for children? The answer lies in her special childhood. Beatrix and her brother Bertram were home-schooled. This was not unusual in well-off Victorian families of the time. Agatha Christie was also home-schooled.
Like Agatha, Beatrix liked to write little stories and draw. She loved the garden and woods around her home and had freedom to roam their West Brompton property. Bertram was more interested in insects than the pets, but was a good companion for his sister. They met very few other children as their life was centred at home.
The nursery school-room was also the home to pet bunnies, mice, squirrels, even bats. How that worked is open to conjecture. One hoped they were somehow restrained from free range. I had a free-range pet rabbit for many years and know how messy they are.
Beatrix Loved and Observed Nature
So, Beatrix could watch her pets while she learnt, and was an avid sketcher of their antics. Perhaps this is why the animal characters appear so lifelike. She captures them in all different poses as they hop about. Beatrix had an excellent gift for observation and re-creation on paper.
Her drawings of fungi are still used today for identification in the wild. Beatrix was a very capable scientist and, if not for the limitations of her gender that barred her involvement in sciences, she could have become a mycologist, or fungi scientist. She proposed a theory on their reproduction by germination, that was scoffed at because she was a woman, but later an apology was offered by the Linnean Society as to her treatment. Her paper is now considered a valid research article.
Beatrix loved all the natural sciences, botany, microbiology, etymology, geology and archaeology. She was in awe at the beauty and symmetry of nature in all its forms.
Beatrix Becomes an Author
Unusually, despite her love of the natural world, Beatrix dressed the animals in human clothing. Her bunny tales were originally just for herself, but she sent illustrated letters to the son of one of her governesses, Annie Moore. Later, Annie encouraged Beatrix to form her letters about Peter Rabbit into books. The idea coincided with Beatrix’s dreams of becoming independent of her parents. This was a novel idea for an adult, unmarried daughter at the time.
Beatrix’s journals written in code, but now translated, reveal her keen interest in nature, her reflections on the absurdity of human nature and her desire to be her own woman away from her demanding mother. Finally, as a woman in her thirties, her dream of being published became a reality.
First, she sold illustrated cards, then approached London publishers with her Peter Rabbit tale. In 1902, Frederick Warne & Co. decided, albeit hesitantly, to take a chance on her ‘bunny tale’, mainly because other publishers were doing well with children’s stories.
The story sold well. Beatrix was on her way as an author. Her illustrations were included and in color, using new print technology.
Beatrix Falls In Love
She became friends with the editor and ultimately became engaged, much to her mother’s disapproval, because of publishing being a trade. But their love story was not to be a long one. A month later, he died of pernicious anemia leaving Beatrix devastated. This tragic event is well depicted in Chris Noonan’s film, Miss Potter. (A real tearjerker, starring Rene Zellweger as Beatrix.)
A Retreat in the Country and Marriage
As part of her recovery, Beatrix retreated to the countryside of her childhood holidays in the Lakes District. Here, now having her own money from publishing and a legacy from her aunt, she purchased Hill Top Farm. She continued to write and later, in 1913, married a local solicitor, William Heelis, when she was 47.
They had thirty happy years together, farming sheep and buying fell and valley land to preserve it from development. The vast stretches of land, now under The National Trust in the Lakes area, are due to Beatrix’s foresight and love of the natural world.
Beatrix wrote and illustrated 23 tales about small animals that, along with her scientific drawings, leave a legacy of another time when people had the time and inclination to sit and observe nature in all its beauty.
Ladies, maybe find a quiet place to get away from this crazy invasive world of screens and motors. Just sit and enjoy the silence and beauty of the natural world like Beatrix did.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.