The World of Beatrix Potter by Janice Carter

"Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were -
                              Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-Tail, and Peter."
                                                                              from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter



Many, perhaps most, of us know those opening lines from that iconic children's book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and have read it to our children or grandchildren (as I plan to do some day!), but how much do you actually know about the life of its prolific author-illustrator?
       Speaking for myself, not much, as I learned on a recent rip to the Lake District in England and a visit to her final home in Hawkshead, near Lake Windermere.

Hawkshead
Lake Windermere

    Helen Beatrix Potter was born in London England in 1866 to a wealthy family of cotton merchants, artists and photographers. Like many girls of the upper-middle class in the late Victorian era, Beatrix was educated by governesses and expected to lead a life devoted to the arts, as well as family. But Beatrix was no ordinary Victorian woman.
    The trajectory of her life veered off that proscribed course when she was twenty-seven. She'd written a letter to the sick child of her former governess - an illustrated story of a family of rabbits. The story became so popular among friends and friends of friends (through the social media of the day - word of mouth) that she decided to send it to a publisher. Her subsequent rejection didn't deter her, however. She had it privately published and its success soon led to a commercial publication in 1902. It was then that Beatrix showed her flair for business, as she negotiated terms with her publisher that included the size (small enough to be held in a child's hands) and sale price. Three years later, Beatrix bought her own home - Hill Top - with the royalties from The Tale of Peter Rabbit and went on to write 22 more books over the next 20 years.

Hill Top


   But her story didn't end there, as my imagining of her life had. Hill Top, on the edge of the village of Hawkshead, was a place where Beatrix found consolation from the recent death of her fiance and the inspiration for her series of books. But the countryside was also where she could expand her interest in science (illustrating and writing about the local flora, especially fungi,for scientific journals) and in conservation, as she began to purchase large tracts of land for farming as well as forest preservation. A long swath of shoreline along Lake Windermere was planted with every variety of tree native to England, altering its once sparse area to a verdant landscape.
    Her interest in farming led to the raising and breeding of sheep, an endeavor for which she also became famous locally, and that led to the acquisition of 13 farms and over 8000 acres of land. By this time, Potter's skills in business were as widely-known as her talents as an author-illustrator.
    When The Tale of Peter Rabbit became such a success, Beatrix had the foresight to license the book and its characters, taking control of it and all of her future books and characters. She created and developed her own brand, an innovation unique for the times, and was thus guaranteed a lifetime revenue on all merchandising for heirs that continues today.


     By the time Beatrix was in her forties, she was already a famous writer, a respected naturalist and botanist, a well-known breeder of sheep indigenous to the area and a conservationist.  But what about her personal, romantic life?
    Eight years after the death of her fiance/editor, 47 year old Beatrix married her long-time friend and lawyer, 42 year old William Heelis. Ever the shrewd businesswoman, she no doubt continued to consider the pragmatic interests of her personal life, over the romantic ones. In a letter to a friend after her marriage, she wrote that her husband was "satisfactory in every way."
    I pondered that phrase, which I read from a biographical excerpt on display at Hill Top, for some time. It reveals much about a woman as extraordinary as Beatrix Potter - suggestive of a practical, realistic nature ("satisfactory"), but also of a woman with an earthier side, in the slyly written last three words: "in every way".
    Helen Beatrix Potter died in 1943, bequeathing more than 4000 acres of her land to the National Trust, and the net worth value (in today's dollars) of her estate was equal to 20 million dollars. She was definitely a woman who strove and succeeded way beyond the expectations of the times - a woman for all time.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/celebrating-beatrix-potters-anniversary-in-the-lake-district

*Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter story?

Celebrating the first anniversary of my first Harlequin Heartwarming,
I will be happy to send a copy of For Love of a Dog
to the first four people who comment here and email me
your address:  janicecarterbooks@gmail.com

Janice Carter

Comments

  1. Thanks for the post. I love hearing about famous people as real, not glossed over or made to seem like plastic molded to fit some pat image. I thought the movie about her a few years back captured well the woman you describe here, including her interest in science and innovation. I also thought her two love stories were very romantic. Your trip sounds fabulous!

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    1. I haven’t seen the movie, Virginia, but will have to. Happy it was an accurate portrayal. And yes, a wonderful trip!

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  2. Great post. What a talented woman she was and rather unique in that time.

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    1. That’s what drew me to her story, Leigh. She could clearly navigate what was very much a man’s world in that time.

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  3. What a great post! I love the photos. She was so interesting. It's been fun reading her books with my son.

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    1. I agree about reading the books, Claire, they’re so different from current children’s picture books and a nice intro to some classics.

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  4. What a great post and the photos are super. I wish I could have accompanied you on this trip. I'm such a huge Beatrix fan. Always was. I saw the movie with Renee Zellwinger and loved it so much. This reminds me to buy the DVD! What a treasure Beatrix was.

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    1. What a good idea, Catherine! I must buy a copy myself. I’m a tad sheepish that I knew so little about her before that visit. :)

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  5. As someone who loved Peter Rabbit and so did my children and grands, it's great to learn so much about the author. In her day few women went into business or even aspired to higher education. Thanks for the biography. BTW, I subscribe to Heartwarming, so please send your wonderful book to the next person to comment.

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    1. Her business acumen was something, wasn’t it Roz? Figuring out that she ought to license her work and any merchandise. She had a good sense of self-worth!

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  6. I didn't realize she was such a renaissance woman, or that she had so many farms. I'll have to look for that movie everyone is referencing. And I think "satisfactory in every way" is the highest compliment a husband could have.

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  7. I didn't know all of this about her! What an impressive woman! Thanks for the post!

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    1. Same here Patricia! I had no idea, so nice to learn new things.

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  8. Wow! I had no idea. Just her name invokes this image of a little old granny type sitting in a rocking chair drawn close to the hearth, wearing bifocals and scribbling in a notebook. To think that such an extraordinary life was launched by the tale of four little rabbits is both astonishing and inspirational. She believed in herself, and created a legacy that has endeared and immortalized her to millions. I'd love to visit Hill Top!

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    1. Hill Top was a highlight of our trip, for sure, Nadia. I highly recommend the sidetrip there if you’re in the Lake District.

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  9. Love this! Loved those books for myself and read them for my children. If I had been eligible, would have enjoyed winning your book.





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    1. Send me your address, Cathy! Happy to mail you a copy anyway. 👍👍

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    2. Send to my email address above, Cathy.

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  10. I love this post! I knew nothing of her life until I saw the movie "Miss Potter" several years back and loved it. Now I want to go to England just to visit the places you did. Thank you so much for sharing them.

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    1. Thank you, Liz! I knew when I toured the place and learned about her that I wanted to write about her, too. And yes, you should go! Wordsworth’s home, Dove Cottage, is in a village in the same general area. Beautiful country.

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  11. Oh, I love tidbits like this! Thanks so much for sharing. I took my son to see the recent movie. I like the cartoon better :) But, definitely, Peter has perservered.

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    1. I must see that movie, Pamela, since so many have mentioned it. I vaguely remember the cartoon....Disney? And yes, who doesn’t know about Peter Rabbit? :)

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  12. Fascinating post, Janice! What a role model Beatrix Potter is to have the creativity and the business smarts. Looks like a fabulous trip. I'll put this on my list of places to see when I go to England.

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