- Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
Aficionados of children's literature are inclined to think of Beatrix Potter chiefly as the creator of the books about Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Jeremy Fisher, and assorted other small animals. The creation of these stories was but one element in a long and varied life, however, and in this substantial biography Linda Lear pays equally detailed attention to many facets of Potter's life. As well as artist and author, Potter was a notable naturalist whose scientific efforts were undervalued because of her gender, a landowner and activist in the cause of preserving old ways of managing land and livestock, an animal breeder of some distinction, and a philanthropist who left thousands of acres in the Lake District to the National Trust of Great Britain. This book addresses some though not all of the contradictions in this life story.
Born during the heart of the Victorian era, Potter died during the Second World War and thus lived through an period of significant social transformation. The photographs in this book present a demure, pretty, and daintily dressed child who eventually grew up to be a redoubtable woman clad in formidable tweeds and a range of unbecoming hats (mostly held in place with elastic). It is hard to see the genius of Peter Rabbit and his ilk in either image—the highly conventional or the manifestly indifferent. Somewhere along the way, Potter learned to develop, present, and value the detached eye and the skeptical voice, attending to the demands of society but always from an oblique and sardonic angle.
Lear's analysis of the twists and turns of Potter's life finds coherence, as her subtitle suggests, in her relationship to nature:
Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.(447)
Readers of Potter's books will know that she was no sentimentalist about those "old ways." Lear draws on the journals of her youth to demonstrate that this lack of sentimentality was a feature of her life from very early on. She looks in some detail at Potter's history as a painter and visual chronicler [End Page 271] of nature. What she does not do in any depth is explore the development of the voice that speaks with such austere eloquence in the later books. The books appear in this biography more as events in Potter's life (and as events with financial consequences) than as subjects of analysis in their own right, or as any kind of metaphor for Potter's perspective on the constraints and limitations of that life. In the Times Literary Supplement review of this book, Nicola Shulman points out that many of the small stories are about the theme of escape and suggests that Lear might have pursued this theme more vigorously. It is a telling point, but Lear displays little interest in such a project. She describes the individual books in relatively perfunctory terms and does not devote any real energy to exploring the sources of their literary appeal.
The question of escape is unavoidable in any biography of this woman, however. Potter's life was in many ways dominated by her relationship with her mother. Helen Potter was deeply conventional and very restrictive about what her daughter should and should not do. She objected to both Norman Warne and William Heelis as possible suitors for her daughter, and Potter's brother Bertram was cowed enough by his parents to keep his own marriage a secret from them for many years. The roots of this tyranny are not really explained in this book, and it may be that we...