I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter. In terms of children’s authors, she’s always been one of my literary heroes. The movie, Miss Potter, was also one of my favourite films growing up. Her persistence as an artist and as a woman is inspiring. She was, ultimately, more than an illustrator and an author. She was a woman who carved out a space for herself in a male dominated world, made independent choices and investments.
She was, in some ways, a classically Victorian writer. In others, she was far from it. Born in 1866 to a wealthy family, Helen Beatrix Potter lived a life of privilege. Nevertheless, her talents were evident from a young age as she was said to have been restless, keenly observant and like the rest of her family, somewhat nonconformist.
Family holidays were taken in the countryside where nature fuelled her imagination and inspired her art. Her fascination with small creatures and various plants manifested itself in more than just her artwork.
The mycological aspect of her life has been greatly ignored, though given more attention in recent few years.
Historian Linda Lear wrote that Beatrix Potter:
“was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”
Her obsession developed beyond artistic interests and Potter’s investment in mycology (the study of fungi) led her to draw hundreds of specimens. By studying various specimens microscopically, Potter eventually became interested in spore germination. In 1897 she wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores. The paper was presented to the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest biological society.
So while Beatrix Potter is remembered as Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit’s creator, Potter was equally interested in the study of fungi. Historians and scientists have debated her contributions. Some claim that her contributions were subject to the patriarchal suppression commonly attributed to Victorian society while others described her work as ambitious, of lesser importance and given more credit than deserved. Her connections, in particular, gave her her standing. Nevertheless, she challenged the era’s gender stereotypes by developing and pursuing interests in the sciences.
In 1892, she met with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist she’d known since the age of four. With his support, Potter went on to produce some 350 accurate sketches of fungi and mosses. Later, McIntosh advised in a letter:
Since you have begun to study the physiology of the funguses you seem to see your drawings of them as defective in regard to the gills, but you can make them more perfect as botanical drawings by making separate sketches of sections showing the attachment of the gills, the stem, if it be hollow or otherwise, or any other details that would show the characteristics of the plant more distinctly.
Then, after being introduced to a mycologist at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, George Massee, Potter began to further experiment with spore germination, using her microscope to measure growth. She considered her work groundbreaking despite Massee’s skepticism and advice. He advised her to read the work of an older German mycologist but she paid him little attention.
That said, in March 1897, Massee agreed to submit Potter’s paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society. As the Society didn’t admit females until 1905, Potter was absent when her paper was discussed. Despite comments that it was “well received,” she withdrew the paper. It was never published and no copy exists today.
Her work is fascinating and I advise anyone interested to read more elsewhere. For now, however, I loop back to Potter’s social and artistic life.
In addition to challenging gender stereotypes in the wold of science, Beatrix Potter sought financial independence through her art. She began by seeking a publisher. Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Four more of her books were published following Peter Rabbit’s story, including Potter’s personal favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester. What ensued was far more than the printing of a book. Within three years Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter fell madly in love. If you’re looking for a tear jerker, watch Miss Potter. The movie provides a heartfelt account of their love story and unless you have a heart of stone, you’re sure to feel moved.
When Warne proposed in 1905, Potter accepted despite her family’s opposition. As a tradesman, Potter’s family scorned Warne and disapproved of their union. Their love, meanwhile, was a story unto itself, a love that was tragically cut short when Norman Warne died of Leukemia a month later. The following years of Potter’s life were thus characterized by intense grief, solitude and a flourishing of her creative side. In the wake of Warne’s death, Potter purchased a farm called Hill Top near Sawrey, Lancashire. She purchased the 34 acres as a single woman at 39 years old using the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from her aunt. It was the home she and Warne had planned to share. Thus, in purchasing Hill Top, Potter was, in a sense, memorializing their unfinished story.
Over the next years, Potter wrote and illustrated 13 new stories. The farm provided a sanctuary where she could write and paint in peace. As she embraced country life, The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers reflected joys derived from life on the farm. At Hill Top, though artistically productive, Potter’s endeavors were not limited to writing and painting. She’d become a woman of the countryside with a myriad of responsibilities such as tending to her many animals. Included in her initial stock were ducks and hens, sixteen Herwick sheep, collies, six dairy cows and some fourteen pigs. She’d later own sizeable flocks of turkeys and chickens.
Then, in 1909, Beatrix Potter purchased a second property. Aided by a local solicitor, William Heelis, Potter bought Castle Farm, a property across the road from Hill Top. In 1913, at the age of 47, Potter and Heelis married. Their relationship had developed companionably and steadily. Prior to their engagement, Heelis had become Potter’s principal legal advisor and managed her properties when she returned to London (for a period, she spent a significant amount of time in the city caring for her elderly parents.) Nevertheless, she married Heelis in 1913 and they would remain together for thirty years.
Linda Lear reflects on Potter’s two great loves:
She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William’s love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it.
In 1914, Potter’s father passed away and she was further engaged with caring for her mother. Additionally, the onset of war added to her struggles. Labour and food shortages forced her to kill rabbits, something she particularly disliked having to do. Her favourite collie, Kep, also died and the loss added to her gloom. But of course the war came to a close and for the most part life at Hill Top reclaimed a normal pace. Over the course of her lifetime, Potter became committed to her community and various causes such as opposing hydroplanes on Lane Windermere or founding a nursing trust to improve local health care. Eventually her eyesight began to wear, making The Tale of Little Pig Robinson her last book.
Her contributions were enormous as her stories continue to thrill us today. Just last year I sat in my room making water colour paintings inspired by her characters. I feel delight upon revisiting her books and am certain they’ll continue to enchant following generations.