Beatrix Potter: Scientist Naturalist Conservationist And Best Selling Author
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Beatrix Potter: Scientist Naturalist Conservationist And Best Selling Author

Beatrix Potter is one of the best selling children's authors of all time.

She was born in Kensington, London, on the 28th of July 1866. She died on the 22nd of December 1943.

Beatrix Potter was not a woman of her time. She had courage and intelligence and she escaped the restrictive roles of marriage and children. Her legacy is more than the delightful stories she wrote for young children.

She was also a conservationist, scientist and an astute business woman. Her achievements were not openly acknowledged at the time because she was a woman.

Her family was wealthy and this ensured she had a lot of opportunities to follow her interests. Her parents lived in London but were also interested in country life. The family enjoyed many country holidays. The family’s annual summer holidays were spent in Scotland or the Lake District of England.

Beatrix and her younger brother Walter had many small pets such as, mice, hedgehog, bats and a variety of insects. They also had collections of butterflies. The children observed them closely and made many drawings of them.

She received a private education studying languages, literature, history and science. She was taught by governesses who well-educated women unable to pursue a career of their own. Women who worked outside the home were frowned upon. I often wonder how the women who had to work or starve thought about this restriction.

Potter's artistic ability was noticed early. She favoured water colour as the medium to produce her drawings of animals (both real and imagined), fungi, insects, fossils and archaeological artifacts.

Her particular interest was mycology the study of fungi. Her understanding and drawings of fungus spores were so accurate that they were recognised by the 1890’s scientific establishment. She questioned one of the scientific theories of the day. Her goal was to have them published together with her scientific findings.

Because she was a woman, her work was rejected by the Linnean Society of London (established in 1788) which published zoological, botanical and biological journals. .

Beatrix Potter would never know that her work was eventually recognised. The mycologist W.P.K. Findlay published her drawings in his book ‘Wayside and Woodland Fungi and in 1997, the Linnean Society published an apology for its sexism in the way it handled her work.

She was influenced by the work of other authors for example:

  • The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley
  • Alice in Wonderland- Lewis Carrol
  • Book of Nonsense – Edward Lear
  • Brer Rabbit Stories-Uncle Remus

Her intelligence enabled her to appreciate the art and literature of her time and this gave the background for her work.

Beatrix had a difficult time relating to her parents especially her mother who did not believe in a women’s right to work.

Good fortune intervened and she became financially independent. She had sent picture letters to the children of her last governess Annie Carter. It was Annie who suggested she publish the letters as children’s books.

The illustrations in her books reflect the beauty of the English landscape and country life. The drawings of the animals are meticulous and delightful.

‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit ‘was published it privately in 1901. “But Peter, who was very naughty, ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s garden, and squeezed under the gate.”

A year later Frederick Warne & Company published it as a small, three colour illustrated book. Other books followed.

Beatrix eventually claimed her own life thanks to the royalties from her books. She also bought a number of farms in Lancashire and the Lake District. Her first farm was Hill Top Farm near the village of Near Sawrey. She purchased farms with the goal of preserving the unique hill country landscape.

In 1913, she married solicitor William Heelis. She was in her forties. This was a happy marriage and Beatrix was parent to a number of step-children.

Together they were prosperous farmers, animal breeders and conservationists. They worked with the National Trust to preserve the rural landscape.

Beatrix Potter’s books are well regarded due to beauty and liveliness of the illustrations and the way she displayed the imaginative qualities of the animals in each story. The stories do not talk down to or preach to children. The way the rural countryside is depicted is also enchanting.

She published 23 books which have been published in many languages. The most widely known are those published between 1902 and 1922. Some have been retold in film, ballet, television and stage productions.

I recommend the film Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger.

The National Trust of Great Britain was gifted Hill Top farm and it is preserved as it was when Beatrix Potter lived and wrote there.

The National Trust also owns the original illustrations for her books. Her publisher Frederick Warne & Co, which is now part of the Penguin group, received the copyright to her stories and merchandise. The copyright expired in Great Britain on January 1, 2014.

This means her work is in the public domain. I can't see it ever disappearing.

Beatrix Potter was born into privilege and comfort and used this to live an extraordinary life.


Street Talk

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