By her own choice, Beatrix Potter, one of the world's most enduring children's authors, went largely unnoticed in her own lifetime. Normally a very generous person, she was sharp-tongued and evasive with newspeople, refusing to permit her publisher, the Frederick Warne Co., to issue a biography during her life. Yet she carefully preserved her home, papers and drawings for posterity.
This year two new books by Judy Taylor add to our understanding of this fascinating woman. "Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman" and "That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit" present a wealth of material not available to earlier biographers. They are generously illustrated with Potter's own watercolors and nature studies, which are currently on exhibit at the Tate Gallery in London and which will travel to the United States in May, 1988.
By today's standards, Potter's upbringing seems extremely odd and constricted. Taught at home by governesses, she had no childhood companion other than her brother, Bertram, nearly six years younger.
"Beatrix Potter: Artist" casts her father in a more favorable light than does Margaret Lane's earlier biography, which served as the basis for the Masterpiece Theatre production. Taylor says that Potter's father kept her away from other children because he feared germs. This was a common attitude among the middle class in the aftermath of the cholera and typhus epidemics of the mid-Victorian period. With her father she shared a passion for realistic drawing of animals and later for art museums.
Potter missed having friends her own age and sought comfort in her diary, written in code to conceal her thoughts from her mother's prying eyes and in animals--bats, lizards, mice, rabbits (of course), and even a hedgehog. She also turned to fantasy, writing animal stories like "Peter Rabbit" and "The Tale of Mr. Tod."
Taylor demonstates that Potter witnessed the darker side of human nature. Alcohol proved to be a curse for both her Uncle Willie and her beloved brother, Bertram. One may speculate that Peter Rabbit's craving for the vegetables of Mr. McGregor's garden, despite his mother's warning that his father was baked in a pie by Mrs. McGregor, is a projection of Bertram's addiction to alcohol.
The growing income from her stories, together with her increasingly warm relationship with the Warne family, gradually induced Potter to become confident, independent and assertive. She purchased Hill Top Farm in England's Lake District, though she felt compelled to live with her parents in London most of the year. After the death of her fiance, Norman Warne, when she was 39, Potter increasingly turned to the "details of pig farming and checking the accuracy of the farm's butter scales" to assuage her sorrow. An astute businesswoman, Potter made virtually all the decisions, big and small, concerning editing, layout and marketing of items ranging from her "little books" to a host of other related merchandise from dolls to calendars. Potter demanded regular royalty checks and a clear accounting from business manager Harold Warne. When Harold absconded with company funds and went to prison, Potter, the company's largest creditor, was instrumental in reconstructing the firm under the leadership of Harold's brother.
Like the Potters' former washerwoman, Kitty MacDonald, who was the inspiration for "Mrs. Tiggy-winkle," Potter found no honest work beneath her. So unassuming and diligent was she in managing the workers and animals on her growing farmland that she earned the solid respect of the farmers. They made her the first woman president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders' Assoc.
A stocky, serious little figure, trudging about in men's shoes, Potter was blessed with a self-deprecating sense of humor. She reported with delight that "an old, jolly farmer . . . likened me to a prize cow!"
At age 47, over the objection of her parents, she entered into a loving marriage with William Hellis, a solicitor.
Her interests and charities were legend. She wrote political pamphlets urging protection of the environment and small farmers. She personally provided a public health nurse for her area of the Lake District, 30 years before National Health. She even authored a paper on mold spores that was read before the Linnean Society--read by a man, alas, because the custom of the time barred women from appearing before so distinguished a fellowship.
"Beatrix Potter: Artist" provides new insight into a complex personality whose stories remain fresh, taut, and exciting. I find it most pleasurable reading. Perhaps the book's chief joy for this reviewer was in encountering Potter herself via Taylor: "There was something rapturous to us London children in the unlimited supply of new milk." Potter is a tonic on almost any subject.
Taylor's second book, "That Naughty Rabbit," is obviously intended for a more limited audience. It tells of the genesis, successive editions, translations and "merchandising side-shows" (dolls, etc.) connected with Potter's most successful book. While her discussion of "Peter Rabbit" is interesting, much of the book simply expands upon material well-covered in "Beatrix Potter: Artist." The recent "reorigination" of all the little books takes advantage of modern technology to present reproductions of Potter's watercolors that are even closer to her original drawings than were the first editions. Unless one is involved in graphics, sales, photography or publishing, however, the second half of the book may prove tedious.
Notwithstanding, Taylor's first book, "Beatrix Potter: Artist," is, like its subject, a rare jewel.