Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

Beatrix Potter

by Colleen Mondor

Lately I have been trying to channel Beatrix Potter. She was a very sensible woman in life and is not a likely candidate for ghostly visitation, but I'd like to sit with her a bit, ask her how she felt about her legacy. I'd like to know if Ms. Potter ever thought Peter Rabbit would be an icon, that you could find him on plates and silverware, sheets and blankets, even, in the latest catalog to grace my mailbox, as a "gift tin" which serves as the "perfect vessel for springtime gift giving." Peter Rabbit as a vessel for other little bunnies or chicks! Did you ever think, Ms. Potter that he would end up there? Did you ever?

I didn't think so.

Here's the thing. I agree that Peter Rabbit is cute. He's downright darling, and so are Jemima Puddleduck, Squirrel Nutkin, and all the rest. Beatrix Potter did cute very very well as evidenced by the scads of crib sets and infant outfits that sport her creations. Everybody loves her animals. But cute was actually only twenty-three books that she wrote first as a diversion and later published solely for the cash to foster her long overdue independence. (She did not leave home permanently until she married, at age forty-seven.) What Beatrix considered her work, what she did religiously from the time she was quite young, was make scientific illustrations of plants and animals, particularly fungi. These drawings eventually saw her accepted by the very male fraternity at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She even had a paper read before the very learned Linnaean Society of London. Although she could not read the paper herself—ladies did not present to the Linnaean—her piece entitled "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae" was recorded in the organization's records for April, 1897. Her interest in mycology continued long after that particular event, and her drawings of mushrooms are preserved at the Armitt Library. There is also a Beatrix Potter Collection containing many botanical drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I am fascinated by 18th and 19th century scientific illustrators. In many ways I think their drawings are more complete and impressive than modern photographs and computer renditions. Scientific illustration is an art as well as a craft, for it must capture completely and minutely the details of its subject. In A Victorian Naturalist, excerpts from Beatrix's letters to the naturalist Charles McIntosh and others illustrate her efforts to be as exacting as possible in her depictions. She worked hard at it, very hard, and developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the subjects she drew. Such knowledge was necessary to be accurate, and accuracy was all important. So Beatrix studied, crafted friendships among specialists in her fields of interest, and constantly practiced drawing. The most amazing thing about all this work is that it was done by someone who was almost completely self taught, who struggled throughout her life against nearly overwhelming parental constraints.

In Jeanette Winter's very charming children's book, Beatrix, the author uses excerpts from Beatrix's own diary to form her narrative: "I had been disconnected and never strong as a young person in London," she writes. Because of real or perceived illness, Beatrix was never sent to school or allowed companions. Her closest friend was her younger brother, Bertram, but he was sent away to school at a young age, and she was abandoned. Her deep affection for the natural world was born mostly out of desperate loneliness; her only friends were the animals she found. "I seem able to tame any animal," she writes, and later, "I was always catching and taming mice." It is an incredibly sad and disturbing image that develops when you read about the life of Beatrix Potter. How anyone could dedicate her life to creating beauty instead of degenerating into an extremely disturbed state after such a miserable childhood is a miracle. That she stayed the course and became one of the superior artists of her time, as well as an early conservationist and environmentalist, is a tribute to the personal life she created for herself within the austere and confining world her parents controlled. Eventually, the money from Peter Rabbit and her other books allowed for her escape.

It is worth noting that at the time she informed her parents of her pending marriage, her brother came home to offer his support and confessed that he had secretly been wed for over a decade!

Clearly, the Potters didn't live on Waltons' Mountain.

So, I've been channeling Beatrix Potter. I'd like to have a conversation with the dear lady, like to know what she thinks of the bibs and bobs that carry her name, ask if she ever planned to inhabit a "cozy village mystery" as Susan Wittig Albert has assigned her in The Tales of Hilltop Farm. I wonder what she would think of the Peter Rabbit plant pot that I received when my son was born, the silly, kitschy ornament that I can't seem to part with both because of sentiment and the unstoppable cute factor.

It defeats even those most determined to resist it.

What bothers me is that I doubt many fans of her children's collection have any clue as to the very grown-up work that Beatrix diligently completed throughout her life. They probably have not seen her fossil studies, her perfect pine cones, her fish, or her close-up studies of feathers. They have not have seen the depth of her ability to capture her subjects, to render them both objects of great art and science. They do not know just how talented she truly was, or how great were her personal and professional struggles. It is not easy to draw cute, as any illustrator will attest, and the characters Beatrix Potter created, with their little hats and coats and human-like problems, have stood the test of time for good reason. They are simply well-written and well-drawn literary creations. But Beatrix Potter was an artist of a scale that far transcended the world she is best known for. She was a rare talent in a field that did not welcome her sex, did not understand her lack of academic achievement, and did not reckon with her personal resolve. She was a surprise in the world of illustration, a gift to artists and scientists.

She was more than cute, but nobody seems to know that. Nobody seems to know her at all.

So I've been channeling Beatrix Potter lately, hoping for a conversation with the great lady. I've been hoping for a chance to ask her just what it was like to draw such beautiful things, what it was like to be that kind of talent.

I've been hoping for some insight into such unconquerable will.

I think we all could benefit from knowing Beatrix Potter, and I think that introduction is long overdue.


Further reading:

A Victorian Naturalist
Eileen Jay, Mary Noble, Anne Stevenson Hobbs
F. Warne & Co. (1992)

Jeanette Winter
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2003)


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