This snowy month is a good one for slim books of poems and thick biographies. Because I often read history and biographies for research, I don’t always make time to reach for them for pleasure reading. This meant a thoughtful gift from my husband, Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, a gorgeous, carefully written, but undoubtedly hefty volume has been on hold for a time when I could immerse myself in this life. From the first page, I was swept in as Linda Lear began with references to Beatrix Potter’s work as an artist and writer, while showing her on the land she bought at mid-life when her career was established. The farm in England’s Lake District satisfied her love of the pastoral and mystery, while also giving her the routines of farming life and a sense of permanence.
Linda Lear shows us Beatrix’s childhood and the third floor nursery, with its menagerie including rabbits, frogs, mice, bats, snails, and a hedgehog or two. She shows the love she had for her younger brother, the guidance her father, an avid photographer, gave to vision, and a relationship with her mother that couldn’t be called tender. But she breaks the myths of bars on the nursery windows, and while not suggesting that Beatrix’s mother was an ideal one, she generously and astutely reminds us that her pretentions might well have come from the powerlessness she found as a woman in upper class Victorian society.
Beatrix always loved stories, and the fairy tales told by her Scottish nanny seemed as pivotal to her as those C.S. Lewis’s Irish nanny told him: bringing enchanted forests and winged creatures to stave loneliness. Beatrix read Edward Lear’s nonsense verse when she was four and Alice in Wonderland when she was six or seven, and began doing her own illustrations for these works. Linda Lear notes that later she’d enjoy and find creative inspiration writing letters to children just as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll did.
Beatrix also enjoyed reading what she’d later call “good-goody, powder-in-the-jam books.” But perhaps, at age eight or nine, she found more of herself while drawing rabbits in jackets and scarves ice skating and such. Later she had art lessons, and her father’s friend John Millais gave her instructions and advice on painting. She was drawn to watercolors and felt she learned most from visiting galleries. Turner was her favorite, though she was interested in the work of women such as Angelica Kauffman and Rosa Bonheur.
Beatrix studied ferns and fungi, painting these close-up as well as landscapes. She became an accomplished amateur scientist, writing papers and setting forth theories, though her gender excluded her from some scientific circles. We get the particulars of this work and how she came to write, illustrate, publish, and market small books for small hands. Linda Lear paints a less romanticized version than we’ve seen before of the two important men in her adult life, but says she fell in love “slowly and companionably” with both and was “lucky in love, particularly for a woman of her class and era. The book ends with Beatrix bequeathing land to the National Trust “at a time when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation.”
Beatrix loved fairy stories as a child and surely never entirely lost her attraction to the fanciful, but in her last years she was most known as a good friend to many, a clear-headed sheep farmer, a happy wife, a grand protector of the land, and someone who valued simplicity, no nonsense. Lear quotes the death notice in the local paper that has no mention of the work which made her famous, and ends with “No mourning, no flowers, and no letters, please.” Beatrix’s ashes were scattered in her beloved hills, though exactly where has remained secret, as she wanted.
It’s all exquisitely told and researched (with almost 100 pages of notes!), as is Lear’s prize-winning Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature This is a big book, but now that I’ve finished I am miss Beatrix. Maybe I’ll pick up one her small books.