Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2011

Beatrix Potter, by Linda Lear

After enjoying Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lewis, I felt like reading another biography of a children’s author from my neglected non-fiction TBR, so I picked up  Beatrix Potter, The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius by Linda Lear.  This one was especially appealing because on Christmas Day ABC TV had screened a biopic about Beatrix Potter (1866-1943).  It was called Miss Potter and starred Renee Zellweger as Beatrix and Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne, her publisher at Warne & Co.

Well, maybe it was because the biopic had focussed on the romantic tragedy of Beatrix Potter’s life, or maybe it was because Valerie Lewis had a more crisp and engaging writing style not to mention a subject whose eccentricity was more interesting, but after 30-odd pages of Beatrix Potter I was discouraged.  You know the warning signs:

  • flick through book to look at the photos (again)
  • put book aside and do Sudoku (deliberately choosing difficult level)
  • wander disconsolately into the library to choose ‘the next one’ and put it on the bedside table
  • ‘just have a quick look’ at the next one ‘to see what it’s like’
  • read the next one
  • wander back to the library to choose another ‘next one’; speak sternly to self about not having finished the requisite 50 pages of the book before jettisoning it (who made up this annoying rule?)  and put ‘next one’ back on the shelf
  • plod on with a few more pages
  • stop reading and mentally write scathing thoughts for blog
  • waste more good reading time by writing draft blog post with really mean thoughts about the book despite having no intention of ever publishing such a mean blog post
  • turn to the back of the book to see how many pages there are
  • breathe a sigh of relief that 582 of them are reduced to 447 by the copious end notes and index
  • plod on…

What’s wrong with this book? Well…

  1. Ominously, it’s written by a professor of environmental history who is ‘fascinated by how the lives of artists and writers have been influenced by the natural world’;
  2. It’s long-winded;
  3. It reveals most of the interesting things about Beatrix’s life in a summary in chapter one and everything else after that just seems like padding;
  4. It includes very boring stuff about ancestors, fungi, fossils, sheep, foot-and-mouth disease and the landscapes (which is really weird because the Lakes District is beautiful);
  5. The temptation to tell everything, is poorly controlled.  There’s even stuff about a bedspread that belonged to Beatrix Potter’s mother including Lear’s careful explanation that there is no evidence that her mother made it;
  6. In places it feels like a PhD turned into a book.

What’s good about it? Why did I go on with it? It reveals:

  1. The details of Beatrix Potter’s education under a succession of able governesses and art education classes;
  2. Her good fortune in having mentors who encouraged her interest in drawing plants and animals, and her parents’ tolerance of an in-house menagerie;
  3. Her misfortune in being a woman – of necessity an amateur – interested in natural history at a time when British scientific establishments were defining professional turf and defending it against unqualified amateurs;
  4. The influence of one Charlie McIntosh, a self-taught but distinguished natural historian who
    1. Gave her the help she needed (but as a woman was denied) to develop a scientific understanding of fungus and plants;
    2. Collaborated with her in the study of fungi in Dunkeld (where the Potters took holidays), which led to her discovery in the house grounds of a rare pine cone fungus named Strobilomyces strobilaceus but known commonly as The Old Man of the Woods;
    3. Was the unwitting model for Mr McGregor in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
  5. Her achievement in having a scientific paper about fungi germination presented at the Linnean Society (even though it was presented not by her, since women were not admitted);
  6. Her enthusiastic commitment to preserving the Lakes District landscape and ensuring the survival of fell-farming of Herdwick sheep.  She purchased one bit of farmland after the other, became an expert on breeding these sheep and bequeathed the estate to the National Trust.  She was very involved in village affairs and nice to Girl Guides who came visiting.

Well, ok, No 8 was rather dull to read about and I skipped most of the chapter about Troutbeck Farm and the initiative to protect the sheep.  City girls like me have a short attention span when it comes to sheep.

The Peter Rabbit books are now such a phenomenon that everybody knows the story of how Beatrix created The Tale of Peter Rabbit when she wrote a picture-letter to a sick little boy called Noel Moore to cheer him up. Less well-known is that she followed it up the next day with a story for his brother Eric, The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher. (He doesn’t rate a mention on Beatrix Potter’s Wikipedia page.)  Actually Potter was an indefatigable letter-writer and sent heaps of these charming picture-letters to the children of friends and relations, borrowing the letters back when she wanted to turn them into a story for publication.

What is interesting, is the synchronicity of her achievements in science and literature:

The ironic coincidence of Beatrix’s activities at Eastwood in September 1893 would not be recognised for nearly a century.  But in the space of two days she had found and painted a rare and important specimen and created two fictional characters that one day would be world-famous.  Both were products of her skill as a naturalist, her acute observation of people and places, her creative imagination and her sure sense of audience. (p87)

Beatrix Potter the natural historian experienced the usual discrimination against women when it came to getting any recognition for her work on fungi, but it was a different story (oh! pardon the pun!) when it came to her literary career.  Her books were a success right from the start and provided her with a career and an independent income at a time when it wasn’t easy for women of her class to do so.

Curiously, Lear doesn’t mention much pressure on Beatrix Potter to marry and produce progeny.  This dawned on me on page 89 when Beatrix is noted as being 28 years old.  Didn’t her termagant of a mother nag her about it and offer suitable prospects at social occasions?  Or did I get the idea that her mother did this from the biopic?  Beatrix was definitely ‘on the shelf’ by 28, but Lear only notes that Beatrix wrote in her journal that  ‘latter day fate ordains that many women shall be unmarried and self-contained, nor should I personally dream to complain, but I hold an old-fashioned notion that a happy marriage is the crown of a woman’s life (p90).  As these parents aged it was obvious that they needed their daughter to look after them, but it does seem odd that there were no early references to parental pressure to marry in the journal that Lear relies on so much.

Reading biography is always a bit of a gamble.  Occasionally I will venture into reading a biography of someone I’ve never heard of because it’s written by someone I admire.  On my TBR I have Brenda Niall’s biography The Riddle of Father Hackett,  a Catholic priest I’d never heard of, because I loved her biography of Australia’s pre-eminent family of art, The Boyds. If Brenda Niall wrote a biography of a complete nobody, I know I’d enjoy it. But like most people, I tend to read biographies of people I’m interested in (mostly authors, of course), with the expectation that the book will reveal an interesting story about the person’s life, be properly researched and be an entertaining read.  I’m a general reader, not a scholar, after all.

Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Beatrix Potter (even if you saw the movie)

  1. When Rupert Potter, late in life and suffering from kidney stones and ‘pulmonary difficulties’ was advised to go abroad for his health, Beatrix sabotaged the trip by privately visiting the family doctor to tell him she couldn’t abide the idea of being stuck in ‘an isolated hotel in a foreign city with her discontented parents’ (p137).  Apart from showing a selfish lack of concern for her father’s health (and I know at first hand what a London winter can do to a parent with ‘pulmonary difficulties’) it also shows an insularity about other countries and cultures (and their flora and fauna) and – astonishingly, though Lear makes no comment – that Beatrix had no inclination to see the great works of art of Europe.  This, from a ‘Victorian genius’ interested in art and science, and fluent in French and German!
  2. It was Beatrix who was the enterprising soul who dreamed up Peter Rabbit merchandising – and made a lot of money out of it.
  3. Bertram, Beatrix’s brother was a craven fellow, so intimidated by his parents that he didn’t tell them when he took up with a woman up north and married her, instead maintaining a fiction of bachelorhood by living with his parents for part of the year. He offered no support to Beatrix in her struggle to get them to accept her engagement to Norman Warne and even when Beatrix eventually got his support for her second engagement, this time to a lawyer, he tackled his parents about their prejudices without revealing that his wife was the daughter of a wine merchant.
  4. If, as the movie suggested, there is evidence for a genial paternal deal that her parents would allow the marriage with Warne after a year’s secret engagement, there is nothing about that in this book. In fact arrangements were in state of limbo when he died, prematurely, of a type of rapid-onset leukaemia.
  5. Beatrix bought her first investment in farming not only with royalties from her books, but also with a nice legacy from her Aunt Harriet Burton.
  6. The inspiration for the rats in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (originally titled The Roly-Poly Pudding)  came from an invasion of rats in the farmhouse, and Beatrix drew herself in the book, at the end of Smithy Lane next to the Ginger and Pickles shop.
  7. Beatrix wore the engagement ring that Norman gave her even after she married William Heeles.
  8. After years of nagging about delayed payments of royalties and F.W. Warne & Co’s failure to send her any statements, the reason became clear when Harold Warne was arrested for forgery.  He’d been siphoning off funds to rescue a fishing business in the Channel Islands and was sent to gaol for 18 months.  Beatrix out of loyalty to the Warne family helped to rescue the firm from bankruptcy with various new projects although her farming responsibilities were onerous (due to wartime labour shortages and the need to produce food for the nation).
  9. Her second husband William Heeles took not the slightest interest in her art or books but theirs was a loving marriage based on companionship and he died 18 months after she did.
  10. The precious printing plates for the original Peter Rabbit books were stored at Beatrix’s farm during the Blitz.

My advice is, unless you are really, really keen to know all about Beatrix Potter or you are writing a thesis about 19th century female scientists, sheep breeders or authors, you may not really enjoy Linda Lear’s book much.  And it’s long.

But Under the Gables liked it better than I did and so did lots of reviewers at Amazon so you shouldn’t take any notice of me.

Author: Linda Lear
Title: Beatrix Potter, The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius
Publisher: Penguin 2008
ISBN: 9780141003108
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop, $26.95AUD


Responses

  1. I also have good memories of the movie about Beatrix Potter, that is, if it is the one that was shown in the U.S. several years ago.

    I also enjoyed a book about her which was much better than the one you endured. It is described on the Internet:

    “The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane. When Beatrix Potter died in 1943, few knew the full story of her life. Originally published only three years after Beatrix Potter’s death, this book tells her story. It was extensively revised in 1985 to include new material that had come to light.”

    I think I must have read the 1985 version in paperback. Her farm in the Lake District is open to be public, or used to be. I didn’t visit it but saw it from a distance. Beautiful country.

    Like

    • Yes, I noticed that the Lane biography gets more cheerful reviews than this one does.
      What I think is amazing is that Potter kept a diary in code for several years, and finally someone managed to decode it. I kept a diary in Indonesian for a few years (not out of privacy paranoia but to practise my written Indonesian) and I reckon that would be hard enough to bother with, pages and pages of daily trivia – whoever persisted with the Potter one deserves a medal.

      Like

  2. Biography is always a challenge isn’t it? I often like to read them – and autobiographies/memoirs even more – but so many can be disappointing. BTW, don’t be so self-deprecating Lisa – why shouldn’t we take any notice of you?! You make some good points here which make sense to me …

    Re her not wanting to go to Europe – might it have been more to do with being stuck with her parents than with a lack of interest in Europe??

    I saw her house in the Lakes District in 1980 but I don’t think it was open – either it wasn’t open at all back then, or it was closed over winter. Nonetheless, it was fun to walk by it.

    Like

    • Well, Sue, I do try not to be grumpy about books, and I sometimes wonder if it’s just me. This author has done all the indexing and end-noting that I whinged about in Ekaterinburg, and she won the Lakes District Award for this book, so I guess I feel a bit hesitant.
      Re not wanting to go: Lear paints it as being trapped by her parents, but I still think it’s amazing that she passed up an opportunity to widen her horizons. Actually, now that I think of it, it’s odd that her wealthy parents didn’t take her on The Grand Tour when she was younger; it was part of a lady’s accomplishments to have seen European culture…

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      • Good point re the Grand Tour. Still I’m willing to cut her a little slack. Seeing the great sights in difficult company may not have been worth it for her. The film shows her mother as being rather difficult and non-understanding of someone who wants to live her life differently, her father less so, but that could have been romanticised in the way that biopics often do.

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        • The problem with the film was that the parents were a bit one-dimensional and the problem with the book is that it seems to rely too much on BP’s journal and letters as the primary source materials. (There are lots of secondary sources, other bios, background materials etc). I didn’t plough through all of the end-notes, but up to about p100 there was no other diary, letter or note about BP or her parents from any perspective other than BP’s.
          What made me very suspicious of the film at the time I saw it was the succession of caricatured chinless wonders that were paraded as potential suitors for Beatrix. And I was right: they were one-liners, taken I now realise, from her journal where she was often hyper-critical of other people.
          I think it’s possible that her biographers are stuck with a problem: the woman who wrote these charming stories for little children was not really very nice.

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          • Yes, you’re probably right about her and her biographers … That little parade of suitors was very much in the style of caricature (and a little odd in the movie as a result). It makes sense, now, to know that they were based on one-liners.

            Still, perhaps it was hard to be nice if you were a woman with her passions in a society like that? (Though of course many can manage to follow their hearts and be pleasant as well, can’t they?)

            BTW Jane Austen could be quite critical/biting in her letters too — and who knows what she wrote in the hundreds (or more) that Cassandra destroyed.

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