Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 24, 2015

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

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.

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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.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for this, Jeannine. You expand and enrich our lives.

    • How lucky we are that there’s so much to read to enrich all of our lives!

  2. I have this book on a little stool next to my nightstand. I read “into” it from time to time–I bought it when it was new. It is a beautiful book and comforting to turn to when everything else I’m reading doesn’t suit at the moment.

    • I love that you have this on a stool nearby, and you keep turning back to it. You and Jama are giving me another way to look at biographies. I do go in and out of poetry books, but would forget too much if I tried that with a novel I read for the first time. But Beatrix’s life is one with its chapters, and why not go in and out. This is a change I can actually make in my life! I enjoyed the immersion, but it took too long to find that time. Thank you!

  3. I also own this book and read parts of it from time to time. Visiting Hill Top Farm remains one of my fondest memories ever. Nice to hear what stood out for you.

    • Peter gave me this book when it first came out, and it’s been a treasure on various shelves. Thanking you and Candice for introducing me to the idea that a biography need not be read in one great train of days! There is one main character to follow, and a general direction that could stay within my unsturdy memory; good idea to vary it up. I’m with you on a fond memory of Hill Top, that gorgeous part of England. On my facebook page a friend who’s an art historian mentioned loving this book, then mentioned looking forward to seeing Hill Top one day. I was surprised she had not, and hope she does! (One book I do enjoy dipping in and out of is Susan Branch’s A Fine Romance which you made so enticing on your blog — it is! thank you!)

  4. I read another Potter biography a long while ago, and remember some of what you’ve written, Jeannine. I did enjoy learning of her life and how those lovely stories and art came to be. I’ll keep this book in mind for another ‘snowy’ time. Thank you!

    • Beatrix Potter is an inspiration in so many ways. Thanks for reading, Linda!

  5. As a child, I spent happy hours poring over Beatrix Potter’s books, equally enthralled with her clever tales and dreamy paintings. I’ve never been to Hill Top, but now I want to go! Thank you, Jeannine, for recommending Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. I’d like to add it to my shelves! xo

  6. How funny, and utterly charming, to have found your FB link to this blog entry about Beatrix Potter after having just chased a rascally rabbit away from the tender shoots on my (once decimated) Pope John Paul II rosebush.

    I didn’t read Beatrix Potter’s books as a child, but I sure enjoyed reading them to my boys, for as long as they’d allow me. She reminded me of the wonders to be found in our own backyards–mischievous bunnies who turned gardens into salad bars, among them.

    What a thoughtful gift! And how nice that you are savoring it at your leisure, instead of racing from engine to caboose. Like you, if I tried that with a novel, I might forget what came before. But a biography…makes perfect sense! I’m thinking I should add this book to my reading pile.

    • I’m glad you found your way here, after the rabbit chase. Hope your roses can thrive! Lovely to think of your reading those books to your boys: precious memories, I’m sure. There’s lots of garden and nature love in this biography to savor!

  7. Jeannine, thank you for this! I’ve just been reading a lot about Jane Goodall, and for the first time ever I am thinking of these two women in the same breath! Also, I bought the movie POTTER after loving it in the theater, but have never watched it again. Will remedy. xo

    • It is nice to have Jane Goodall and Beatrix Potter in the same sentence. I do think Jane had a happier childhood, being allowed to wander, and I love that her mother came along with her to Africa when Jane’s supervisor thought she needed human company. But both British women loved nature, were keen observers, and followed their amazing and individual hearts. Hope you’re up to something wonderful!

  8. I remember visiting Hill Top, and so enjoying the gardens there. Thanks for this lovely review, Jeannine – this might be just the book to save for my first summer read.

    • Thanks, Tara. It’s nice to think of you there and already planning your summer reading. Maybe in a garden?

  9. Here’s my funny Beatrix Potter memory! My parents and grandparents always read me many wonderful animal stories, and I got very mixed-up between Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess. When we went on a big family excursion to the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Hampden, we were greeted by a delightful woman introducing herself as Old Mother West Wind. I was certain it was truly Beatrix Potter – who else would know the animal so well? To this day I still muddle the stories and authors a bit!

    • Cathy, Why don’t we just leave it that you met Mrs. Potter?

      Even if not quite so, I’m happy to know you went to Laughing Brook, as until recently a good friend oversaw that sanctuary along with some other Mass. Audubon places. I guess these days when few have heard of Thorton Burgess marketing is a dilemma: I assume the days are gone when Old Mother West Wind greeted children!


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