THE BACK PAGES

FINALLY A BOOK ABOUT...THE MYSTERY OF SMELL

January 15 2007
THE BACK PAGES

FINALLY A BOOK ABOUT...THE MYSTERY OF SMELL

January 15 2007

Miss Potter finally comes of age

books

A new biography and a Renée Zellweger film put Peter Rabbit's creator on the road to becoming a feminist icon and an environmental saint BY BRIAN BETHUNE

If ture loves, there’s in the it’s dead one new British thing millennium pop authors. culFull-bore resurrection—films, fresh editions, biographies-

began with the first instalment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2001, and carried on with Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander) and C.S. Lewis {The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Now it’s the turn of Beatrix Potter, whose tales of mischievous bunnies and foolish waterfowl have been fixtures in our collective childhood memory for a century. But in a Hollywood twist—one that will be emulated later this year in biopics of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters—the film doesn’t offer the less than epic adventures of Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddle-Duck. Instead, Miss Potter is about the author herself, a woman whom her contemporaries found far less interesting than moderns do.

Born in 1866, the elder child of upperclass Victorian parents, Helen Beatrix Potter used to seem just another wealthy spinster (for most of her 77 years) who took a classappropriate interest in natural history, nursery stories and watercolour art. Unlike her books, which were immediate bestsellers starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902, Potter herself attracted little attention. But every generation looks at the past with fresh eyes, and she is well on her way to becoming an icon. Two icons, in fact. Miss Potter picks up one thread of the emerging mythology, spinning a feminist tale of thwarted genius finding a way out of an unhappy childhood and a Victorian woman’s restricted place. With a romantic gloss, of course: the eternally cute Renée Zellweger stars as Potter, a pretty child who grew up to be an adult even her adoring biographer can only describe as “handsome, though somewhat rounded;” Ewan McGregor is the love interest.

A different storyline runs through Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (Penguin), Linda Lear’s massive new biography. Lear, a professor of environmental history at George Washington University and author of the prize-winning biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, concentrates on Potter the ecological saint, whose careful purchase and later donation of 15 Lake District farms in northern England established the core of one of Britain’s most beloved national parks. The two mythic versions of Potter don’t always mesh neatly, but together they present an intriguing portrait.

The Potters were a 19th-century Industrial Revolution success story. On all sides Beatrix’s ancestors were iconoclasts: “Puritans, Nonjurors, Nonconformists, Dissenters,” she wrote an American friend, the sort of religious minorities who took the Mayflower to the New World. Her ancestors of the same era, Potter continued, “were sticking it out at home, probably rather enjoying persecution.” Both of her grandfathers were devout north country Unitarians who made vast fortunes ^ in textile manufacturing. Although her father, Rupert, trained as a barrister, he had no financial need to work; her mother, Helen, brought her own money— and social ambitions—to the marriage. When Helen became pregnant with Beatrix in 1865, the Potters bought a new-built house in London’s Kensington borough, the “unloved birthplace,” in Beatrix’s words, that would be her home for the next 47 years.

Contrary to entrenched Potter lore, the dormer windows on the third-floor nursery were not covered with iron bars. The barredwindow story, Lear muses, may have begun as a metaphor for what has always been seen as Beatrix’s oppressive childhood. But Lear, who needs to account for the upbringing of a scientifically literate environmental heroine, is eager to point out holes in the story of deprivation. It’s true that Beatrix’s parents, hampered by their lingering Lancashire accents and minority faith, had a restricted social circle. They compensated in part by becoming more conservative than their parents and—ignoring the source of their own wealth—snobbish about those who made their living by trade.

Beatrix, educated at home, had little opportunity to meet other girls, but governesses taught her art, mathematics, science, French, German and Latin. Her very first minder, a Highland nurse named Ann Mackenzie— Scots nurses were as de rigueur among the wealthy then as generic British nannies are today—may have been more influential than all the rest. Mackenzie, Potter recalled years later, believed with equal ferocity in “witches, fairies and the creed of John Calvin.” Unitarian Beatrix managed to ignore the Calvinism, but never lost the sense that the countryside was alive with fanciful creatures. By age 9, her sketchbook featured ice-skating rabbits wearing coats, hats and scarves.

And in one regard the Potters showed an indulgence that would make most modern parents blanch. The nursery was home, at various times, to two rabbits (Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper), numerous frogs and lizards, newts, salamanders and a tor-

two snakes, toise, and mice snails, even of different a hedgehog several species, bats. or When they died—occasionally chloroformed by Beatrix—

they were treated with proper Victorian scientific rigour: their bodies boiled down to skeletons, their bones articulated, drawn, measured, labelled and preserved.

Beatrix’s family position meant regular childhood visits to some extraordinary landscapes. There was her grandfather’s manicured English estate at Camfield Place—later the home of fiber-romance novelist Barbara Cartland—with gardens that were first laid out by Capability Brown. And when the family began vacationing in the Lake District in 1872, Beatrix found her spiritual home in the beautiful region first celebrated by the Romantic poets of the earlier 19th century. However solitary her childhood was, Lear concludes, “it was rich and enviable in terms

was of exposure to the world of art, literature, fantasy, travel and natural history.”

POTTER PROVED HERSELF A SHREWD MARKETER, QUICK TO CREATE A PETER RABBIT BOARD GAME AND DOLL, AND TO GET AN ENDORSEMENT FROM THE CREATOR OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

As she grew into adulthood, a proper young lady still under the parental thumb, Beatrix did begin to chafe. Circumstances combined to make her marriage prospects poor: her family’s narrow social circles, her own deep shyness and, especially, her domineering mother’s sky-high demands for family name and landed estate in a suitor. Beatrix’s journals started to refer to Helen as “the enemy.” The era’s open sexism ground her down too, in part, paradoxically enough, because of her superior education. Throughout the 1890s she was obsessed with fungi, turning out hundreds of beautiful, highly detailed paintings of various species. Even tually she became well in

formed enough to challenge conventional wisdom among the (male) establishment. Potter became the first person in Britain to germinate certain rare species, and wrote a pioneering paper arguing—correctly—for the symbiotic nature of lichens. But London scientific circles refused to pay serious attention to a woman amateur, and es sentially blocked her one attempt to publish. In 1997, a century later, the executive secretary of the Linnean Society officially admitted that Potter had been “treated scurvily” by his predecessors.

Whether it the slammed door of the scientific world or because her restless imagination had moved on, in 1900 Potter abandoned mushroom study for an arena more welcoming to female talent. She took an illustrated letter about the misadventures of Peter Piper that she had sent a friend’s sick child in 1893—the enthralled boy had carefully preserved it for seven years—and turned it into The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Six publishers rejected it, including F.

Warne & Co.—at least until Warne

of a competitor’s book, Little Black Sambo.

Warne began corresponding with Potter, proved herself a shrewd negotiator and decidedly unshy marketer, quick to create a Peter Rabbit doll and board game, and to get endorsement from Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. (Her professionalism stood in contrast to Warne &

Co., who later bungled the U.S. copyright, allowing that country to be flooded with pirate editions.) Sparked by Potter’s distribution of 250 copies she had already printed herself,

Warne’s first run of8,000 sold out before publication; within a year more than 56,000 copies were in print. (To date more than 150 million copies oîPeter Rabbit have been printed.)

As Lear notes, given that Beatrix Potter, respectable spinster, was chaperoned at all times, it’s impossible to establish how she and publisher Norman Warne ever communicated their feelings for one another, let alone fell in love in the first place. (In the film, Norman is as squashed by his domineering family as Beatrix is by hers, and Peter Rabbit is as much his liberating project as hers; its success unleashes suppressed emotion in them both, under the unseeing eye of a supremely bored chaperone.) In any case, onjuly 25,1905,37year-old Norman proposed, Beatrix, three days shy of her 39 th birthday, accepted—and the Potter household exploded in anguish.

She could not marry “a man in trade,” her enraged mother declared. In love, financially

independent and capable of digging in her heels Beatrix might be, but she still possessed a deep-rooted filial piety. Unable to flatly reject her parents’ entreaties, Potter agreed to a compromise: for the balance of the summer, until—her mother hoped—Beatrix came to her senses, there would be no formal announcement. But the fall showdown never happened. Four days after the proposal, Norman fell ill; a month later, with shocking suddenness, he was dead of leukemia.

Devastated, Beatrix nonetheless carried on with the purchase of her first Lake District farm, a home she had planned to share with Norman. Although she continued to live in London with her elderly parents for another eight years, she increasingly spent time in

the north. There she threw herself into her writing, and took solace from her immersion in nature. There too she met country solicitor William Heelis, the man she did marry in 1913 .Miss Potter ends then, with that meeting and the hope of new love. A Life in Nature, however, is barely halfway through, with 30 years of sheep-farming, pioneering conservation and patriotic philanthropy yet to come. Both stories say something about a remarkable woman and her time and place, but even more about the power of story itself: we only care about the tale of Beatrix Potter because of a mischievous rabbit in a blue frock coat. M