Amy M. O’Quinn has written a very interesting book about the life of Beatrix Potter—Becoming Beatrix The Life of Beatrix Potter and the World of Peter Rabbit.
Beatrix Potter was born into a very wealthy family on July 28, 1866 in London. (p. 1) Because of their wealth Beatrix was raised by Nannies, who introduced her to the wonders of nature, and encouraged drawing and painting at an early age. (p.6)
When Beatrix was still young she was introduced to a summer holiday house in the Scottish countryside by her Grandfather Potter, and her own father, Rupert, continued the tradition for years. The place made a huge impact on Beatrix and some of her happiest moments came from this place. (p.9) Here she observed wildlife, sketched, and recorded everything she saw. (p.10)
Beatrix was not allowed to play with other children because she was frequently sick and her mother (Helen) was afraid she would catch germs from the other children. When Beatrix was almost six, she got a permanent playmate, a baby brother named Bertram. (p. 12-13)
Beatrix’s family was part of the Unitarian church. “Unitarians during this time were known as ‘dissenters’ or ‘nonconformists’ because they were Protestants who disagreed with, and refused to follow, the doctrines and traditions of the church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. Many Unitarians were well-educated and wealthy, however, and most were very concerned with social justice and reform.” (p. 15) The Potters were close to their minister and his wife, Elizabeth Gaskell who was a well-known British novelists of the time. (p. 15) Beatrix became close friends with her pastor, William Gaskell. (pp. 15-16)
Over the years Beatrix and her brother welcomed many pets into their home that included dogs, mice, salamanders, water newts, lizards, frogs (one named Punch), bats, a canary, snails, a tortoise, a wild duck, a ring snake, birds, guinea pigs, and rabbits. (p.21)
At age eleven, Bertram was sent away to boarding school. Beatrix was finished with her schooling and thought she would concentrate on her paintings as she was left at home alone with only her parents. (p.35) But her mother, Helen, had other ideas. She hired a new governess to tutor Beatrix in German and Latin. (p.36) The governess, Annie Carter, opened up another world for Beatrix as she had traveled and was financially independent. At this time in the Victorian age, Beatrix was expected to either marry or remain at home with her parents. This opened a door for her to look toward becoming financially independent of her parents and that is eventually what she did. (p. 36)
In March 1885 Beatrix became very ill with what may have been rheumatic fever. (p.39) She suffered for about a year and a half with recurrent sickness. (pp.40-42) While recovering she spent time, reading, sketching, and using Bertram’s microscope to see the fine details to enhance her drawings. (p.42)
Annie Carter married and had a little boy named Noel. He was sick and Beatrix decided to write a letter in the form of a story for him. The story of Peter Rabbit was born. The next day, she sent a letter to Noel’s younger brother, Eric, so he wouldn’t feel left out. The illustrated story featured a frog named Jeremy Fisher. (p. 51) Annie eventually encouraged Beatrix to create children’s books based on the pictures and letters she’d sent to her children throughout the years. (p.61)
Publishers rejected Beatrix’s books initially so in 1901 Beatrix visited a London printer and arranged for them to print 250 copies of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” (Like many writer’s today, she first began as a self-published writer.) With the help of friends eventually she was able to be traditionally published. (p. 63)
Norman Warne worked with Beatrix on her books and eventually asked her to marry him, but her parents felt he was not good enough and were furious. They refused to give their consent to the marriage. Beatrix was now nearing age 40. Her parents wanted her to remain at home and care for them in their old age. Norman died of a sudden illness in 1905. He had just turned 37. Beatrix was heart-broken. (p.79)
Beatrix began to buy land. Her first purchase resulted in her paying twice the amount the previous owner had paid just six months earlier, but she learned from her mistakes as she bought more land throughout the years.(p.83) Beatrix continued to publish books.
As Beatrix bought more land she hired a solicitor, William Heelis, to act on her behalf. (p.91) In 1912 he asked Beatrix to marry him. She was 46. Beatrix’s parents once again refused consent, but Bertram arrived home and confessed to being secretly married for 10 years. He insisted that Beatrix should have the opportunity to marry. Rupert and Helen gave their reluctant permission. (p.95)
Beatrix now owned two farms located across from each other, Hill Top Farm, and Castle Cottage where Beatrix and William moved when they first married in 1914. (p. 102) These two farms fulfilled a dream for Beatrix to own land in the north England countryside. (p.82)
Rupert, died of stomach cancer in May 1914 and Beatrix leased a house for her mother near Sawrey. Beatrix’s aunt became a companion for her mother. However, Beatrix still had to travel back and forth to continue to check on her demanding mother.(p.103)
Both Beatrix and William continued to be plagued with sickness over the years. In 1943, Beatrix developed a cold that turned into bronchitis. She died December 22, 1943, at the age of 77, with William at her side.(p. 135) Beatrix left behind an amazing legacy. She owned 15 farms with 4,000 acres of land. (p. 137) And her stories are still read and enjoyed by children today, including my grandchildren.
I have left many parts out as I’ve tried to sum up an amazing life. I highly recommend you get the book to delve into more on the hardships of Beatrix Potter, her determination to succeed and move forward with each setback, and to learn more about her relationship with her mother who we would label as narcissistic today.
The author did a great job pulling all the information together into a very readable book and the copyright page lists the book as suitable for ages 8-12 or grades 4-6. I personally think that adults would also enjoy the book as I did.
Sometimes you learn more from reading books written for children than adults.
Did you grow up on the Tales of Peter Rabbit? If so, comment below. How did these stories impact your childhood?