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Jo'Burg Days: Beatrix Potter - A Wonderful Life

Barbara Durlacher tells of the life of Beatrix Potter whose stories, featuring such characters as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs Tiggywinkle, brought delight to millions of children – a delight which for many has lasted throughout their lives.

Early evening, and The Antiques Roadshow is on the telly.

‘Such an interesting program, I always say,’ chatters Mum as she pours herself another cup of stewed tea and helps herself to a third digestive biscuit.

‘Now just look at that little fellow, he’s made an complete collection of old toy steam engines … remember the fire engine Dad bought for our Edward when he was six, do you dear?’ she calls to me as I breathe in the steam from another sinkful of dirty dishes.

‘No, Mum – did he?’ I reply, muttering under my breath, ‘stupid damn kid, what’s he want to clutter up his room with a lot of dust collectors for, leaving his poor mother to look after them while he spends his time kicking a ball around?’

Then Mum calls, ‘Come and watch this,’ and reluctantly drying my hands I go into the sitting room just in time to catch her concluding remarks. ‘Here’s a charming young girl with an interesting collection of Beatrix Potter china figurines. Just look what she’s got there!’

The expert examines several of the items, mentioning their importance to collectors and estimating their value. He ends with a stocky little black figure called ‘Duchess’ a miniature of a small pug dog and instantly I’m whisked back to my early girlhood and the stories of Beatrix Potter and her magical creations. Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Tabitha Twitchit, Mrs Tiggywinkle and the Flopsy Bunnies, and even Duchess, who was her mother’s pet and loathed by the entire household. All those wonderful animals she created and to which she gave such enchanting life.

Beatrix was a real one-off. Her life merits understanding and sympathy. Born into a well-to-do family with substantial private means, she spent her childhood, adolescence and early womanhood in the nursery. Up until she was in her mid-thirties her domineering and impossible mother expected Beatrix to live by the adage that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and while her parents led a busy social life she was never included. From early childhood she was, apart from a series of nannies and governesses, left entirely alone to amuse herself, although a few books, paints and paper were provided.

Each year in summer the family rented a large house in Scotland or the Lake District and these annuals holidays were considered so important that they employed two large horse-drawn carriages and a wagonette, a number of servants and an exclusive train carriage to get them from London to their destination. It was during these holidays that Beatrix, finally allowed a little personal freedom, roamed the hills and dales with her brother and a game-keeper and closely observed the wild-life around her.

Back home she returned to the restrictions of the nursery only alleviated by the company of the small wild animals she captured and smuggled back to London. She had frogs and newts, and even a pet bat. Among them were several rabbits of which the first was Benjamin Bunny, whom she described as "an impudent, cheeky little thing". Later she acquired a second rabbit and named it Peter, and she grew so fond if him that she took him everywhere with her, even on trains, on a little lead. Some succumbed to the restrictions of living in a London nursery, but others lived for a number of years. During this period Beatrix practiced drawing and sketching and became very proficient at depicting their fey charm. At one time she filled some unfortunate gaps with a family of house-mice on whom she based her delightful story ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’ … and who could ever forget those memorable words, “No more twist”?

In her teens she had shown a great interest in natural history and produced a meticulously researched and illustrated thesis on British fungi which she hoped to present to the Royal Society. But, true to the conventions of the time, as she was a woman, she was not allowed to address the assembly and had to engage a man to read on her behalf. The work was published later under the reader’s name and she was never credited for her remarkable achievement.

Too repressed and well-brought-up to ever openly rebel against the restrictions imposed on her by her demanding family, as the years passed she began to quietly illustrate and sell a series of Christmas cards and then her little books. These had started as ‘picture letters’ written for the eldest son of one of her early governesses of whom she had become extremely fond. This lady had married and was soon the mother of a growing family. Beatrix took great pleasure in visiting them, and when Noel was taken ill she sent him a number of ‘picture letters’ featuring Peter Rabbit and his relations.

Beatrix began to establish herself with her Christmas card illustrations and when she was 36 she met Frank Warne, a director of her publishing company, and an ‘understanding’ developed between them. A quiet and retiring man, Warne was the ideal partner for Beatrix, sympathetic, undemanding and understanding – quite unlike her selfish and difficult mother who, as she aged, expected more and more of Beatrix’ time and attention. Although Beatrix and Warne had declared their love for one another, her parents were horrified at the thought of her marrying somebody ‘in trade’ and had forbidden their marriage. It came as a heartbreaking shock to Beatrix when Warne died suddenly from peritonitis. The shock was compounded by the unnatural silence imposed by her parent’s restriction, which meant that she had no-one with whom she could mourn. Her only solace was talking about him to his sister on the few occasions she was able to get away to visit her.

Time passed and Beatrix’s output grew; one ‘little book’ followed another and her dedicated readers increased annually. He father died, then her beloved brother Bertram. It says something about the restrictiveness of the family relationship that Bertram had been secretly married for years but had never dared tell his parents and visited his wife on rare occasions. The strain of this secret life led to Bertram becoming an alcoholic and he died while he was still in his thirties.

Eventually at an advanced age, so did her mother. Finally Beatrix found herself free of family responsibilities and able to think about a life of her own. Some years earlier, having grown fond of the Lake District, her mother had purchased a large property on the banks of Lake Windermere and Beatrix had echoed this by buying a working farm in the same area. During the time she had spent in London, the farm was leased to a manager until finally Beatrix decided to take up permanent residence. After some alterations she moved in, and began unobtrusively purchasing other farms and parcels of land until thirty years later she was the owner of a number of cottages, fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres of prime Lakeland property. She also attended local auctions at which she bought a many pieces of furniture and articles made in the area, thus ensuring the preservation of these unique local artefacts.

Her property purchases had brought her in touch with the head of the local firm of lawyers and land surveyors and it was not long before they decided to marry. So, at the at the age of 47, she became Mrs William Heelis. Although she continued to write her popular books, basing her illustrations on everyday scenes of the countryside and farms around her, her attention was gradually shifting. Some years earlier, she had started breeding hardy Herdwick sheep and as time passed her flock grew until she became well-known in the district as a specialist farmer and breeder. Her expertise led to her being asked to judge at many of the local shows and gradually her output of the ‘little books’ dropped off until she stopped altogether. But her interest in the Lake District never waned and when she died in 1943 she left the whole of her substantial estate to the National Trust to ensure that this beautiful area would never be spoilt by developers or ruined by incorrect farming methods.

It seems almost disrespectful to comment on a life lived with gusto and flair by a woman who overcame such a lonely and dysfunctional upbringing to leave such a legacy of enduring beauty and creativity, but to repeat my earlier remark – “Beatrix was a real ‘one-off’ and they don’t make them like that any more”.

Catch the recently released film on Beatrix Potter and her extraordinary life with Renee Zellweger in the title role. Many of the scenes are filmed in and around places in the Lake District that Beatrix made famous in her ‘little books for little children’.



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