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Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943)

Potter, Beatrix

Beatrix Potter was born in South Kensington, London, as the only daughter of Rupert Potter, a wealthy rentier. Potter spent a sheltered childhood with her brother Bertram, who was five years younger. She amused herself by painting, using specimens from the Natural History Museum or sketching the nature in the Lake District, where the family spent summer holidays. Potter had several pets, including rabbits. She later described her London home as "my unloved birthplace." Potter never went to school, but was taught at home by a governess. She learned to read from the works of Sir Walter Scott's and Maria Edgeworth. As a young woman she still lived at her parent's house. From the age of fifteen until she was past thirty, she recorded her everyday life in her own secret code-writing.

As a writer and artist Potter made her debut in the 1890’s when she sent a sick child illustrated animal stories. Those stories found their way to the publisher Frederick Warne & Company, but were rejected. In 1890 she published a small book of animal drawings under the signature H.B. P. The book was called A Happy Pair and was accompanied by verses written by Fredric Weatherley.

In 1893 Potter wrote a letter to a young friend, Noël Moore, the five-year-old son of a former governess. The text was illustrated with drawings of animals and contained the first version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a high-spirited bunny. The text also included some other characters like Squirrel Nutkin, which had first appeared in Potter's letters. The book was privately printed in 1901 and then published by Frederick Warne and Co.: the publishing company that had first rejected it. Potter and one of the publishers, Norman Warne were engaged to be married in 1905, but Warne died of leukemia only a month later. Potter turned once again to her books.

"If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher - you are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work." (from The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane, 1978)

From 1905 Potter spent her time on Hill Top Farm, a farm she owned in Sawrey in the Lake District. The following years were Potter's most productive. She published a number of children's books with watercolor illustrations and oversaw both their production and design. Her illustrations usually showed animal characters wearing human clothes, but Potter treated her characters, human and animal, without too much sentimentality. Betsy, the fisherman's wife from The Tale of Little Pig Robinson(1930), has rheumatics, and Peter Rabbit is nearly caught by Mr. McGregor, who chases the frightened rabbit determinedly. It was important for Potter to write the stories in both a simple and direct manner. When an attempt to issue The Pie and Patty Pan (1905) and The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908) in a larger format did not gain success, the original format of the book was found to be the best and most suitable for small hands.

LITTLE Benjamin said,
"It spoils people's clothes
to squeeze under a gate;
the proper way to get in,
is to climb down a pear tree."
(from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny')

At the age of forty-seven, Potter married the solicitor William Heelis. The two met when she bought Castle Farm, and the purchase had been made through W. Heelis and Sons, an old, established family business. On her father's death, she received a substantial inheritance and in 1923 she bought a sheep farm, where she spent her last thirty years raising Herdwick sheep. She continued the life she loved best - as a conservationist, landowner, solicitor's wife, and farmer. Her literary work, which had deteriorated with her eyesight after 1918, was diminishing gradually by 1930s. Tale of Little Pig Robinson was the only story of note to appear in her declining years. Potter told her husband little about her life before her marriage.

Potter died in Sawrey, Lancashire on December 22, 1943. Her home in the Lake District is now open to the public. She left several thousand acres of land, including Hill Top Farm, the setting of several of her books, to the National Trust. Potter's journal, which she kept from the age of fifteen and which was written in an elaborated code, was deciphered and published in 1964. From 1992 to 1995 an animated series based on Potter's characters, was broadcasted every Christmas and Easter around the world.

Suggested sites for Beatrix Potter:

Encyclopedia article about Beatrix Potter
Texts by Potter
The Original Peter Rabbit Books
Series of books that detail the character Peter Rabbit and his adventures.

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