Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Review of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature By Linda Lear


Book Synopsis
Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), creator of the immortal Peter Rabbit, is known as an avid writer of comical illustrated letters to friends and as an assertive marketer of her illustrations, and this lively volume also captures her energetic participation in Victorian-era natural history research and conservation. Environmental historian Lear (Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature) relates that, as a child in an upper-middle-class family, Potter sketched flowers, dead animals and live lizards, insects and rodents that she brought home. "Rabbits were caught, tamed, sketched, painted" by young Beatrix and her brother, Bertram. In 1893, while traveling with her pet rabbit, Peter Piper, and seeking unusual fungi with self-taught mycologist Charles McIntosh, Potter jotted an illustrated note "about a disobedient young rabbit called 'Peter' " to an ailing child friend and sketched Peter's nemesis, a McIntosh–look-alike farmer called Mr. McGregor, creating "two fictional characters that one day would be world-famous." Lear judges Potter "a brilliant amateur" naturalist who expressed strong convictions about land preservation. Potter's witty journals, with their close observations of people, animals, objects and places, serve as the basis for Lear's engrossing account, which will appeal to ecologists, historians, child lit buffs and those who want to know the real Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Benjamin Bunny.

A PAGE OUT OF BEATRIX POTTER'S DIARY

For sixteen years Beatrix Potter kept a diary written in code and whose work dealt almost exclusively with the doings of small creatures whose fictional lives and homes were cunningly hidden in hedgerows, wainscots, woodlands, farmsteads and floorboards.

REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST
One of my earliest memories is snuggling with my grandma at the age of three years old listening to her read this book that she says I repeatedly requested. If she did not, I would burst into tears. It was Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. I remember laughing at Mr. Mcgregor even though he clearly wanted to harm Peter Rabbit for sneaking into his garden and eating all the vegetables until he got sick! Even Mrs. Mcgregor wanted her husband to catch Peter so she could put him in a pie! This certainly never scared me. I just thought it was funny! This is partly because my grandma would explain to me that it is a story or a tale and Peter really wouldn't get eaten in a pie but you shouldn't be 'naughty' and 'misbehave'. Apparently, I was worried about the rabbits getting cooked! I won't say anything about what happened when my mother and I went to see Fatal Attraction, years later...


Peter Rabbit, his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, and his mother are anthropomorphic rabbits who dress in human clothing and generally walk upright on their hind legs, though they live in a rabbit hole under a fir-tree. Mother Rabbit has forbidden her children to enter the garden of Mr. McGregor: it was there that their father met his untimely end and became the ingredient of a pie. However, while Mrs. Rabbit is shopping and the girls are collecting blackberries, Peter sneaks into the garden. There, he gorges on vegetables until he gets sick, and is then chased about by Mr. McGregor. When Peter loses his jacket and his shoes, Mr. McGregor uses them to dress a scarecrow. After several close encounters with Mr. McGregor, Peter escapes the garden and returns to his mother exhausted and ill. She puts him to bed with a dose of camomile tea while his sisters (who have been good little bunnies) enjoy bread and milk and blackberries for supper. In a 1904 sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Peter returns to McGregor's garden to retrieve his lost clothes...The scene when Peter and Benjamin fall down a hole in the ground while Peter is carrying a sack full of 'those beastly onions' still makes me giggle until my stomachaches

ON TO MY THOUGHTS ABOUT BEATRIX POTTER: A LIFE IN NATURE
While biographer Linda Lear gives Beatrix Potter's life its full due, she's also aware that there were only five years out of 77 in a life lived productively and to the full. Lear is an environmental historian, and while she is an enthusiastic if uncritical appreciator of Potter's books for children and unabashedly writes of Potter in her private and her public life, her main interest is in Potter's aptitude and skill for science and natural history and the way it transformed her in her later years into an expert in land management and sustainable farming.

Partly through her books and partly through inheritance, Beatrix Potter Heelis was in her later years a very wealthy woman, and she became one of the largest landholders in the Lake District. Most of this land she managed and preserved with Britain's National Trust. Through what Lear calls "her passionate and imaginative stewardship of the land", she "created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the 20th century: a paradigm of environmental awakening".

However, there are some long and impressive stretches that concentrate on Potter's life as a scientist and an artist, for the two were not separable in her work. Before the era of Peter Rabbit, Potter was already a trained artist, a skilled photographer and a gifted amateur naturalist, prolific and photographically accurate in her botanical drawings and profoundly knowledgeable about fungi.

For her biographer, the turning point in Potter's life was the late summer of 1893, when she was 27: "On 4 September, the very day after discovering and drawing the rare pine cone fungus, Beatrix sat down in the sunshine and wrote a picture letter about a disobedient young rabbit called Peter." The picture letter was to the older son of a former governess; fearing that his younger brother might feel left out, she then wrote one for him as well, about a frog called Jeremy Fisher: "In the space of two days she had found and painted a rare and important mycological specimen and created two fictional characters that one day would be world famous." In her picture letters to the various children she knew, Potter honed her storytelling skills; she experimented in them, says Lear, "with the intricacies of matching drawing to text, and with the structural elements of storytelling: they served as the medium for Potter's artistic transition between natural science and fantasy". She had considerable training as a child and teenager in drawing and painting, including some handy tips from her father's friend John Everett Millais, the most gifted of the Pre-Raphaelites.

There seems to have existed in Potter's parents a tendency to be repressive and controlling on the one hand, and generous and tolerant about Potter's love of drawing and of plants and animals on the other. As children, Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram had a permanent zoo in the family home, which seems to have been full of animals brought home - often smuggled - from country holidays.

The sense of Potter as a real, compelling artist in this book is very strong. At just 18 she wrote in her journal: "I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have had a bad time come over me, it is a stronger desire than ever." At the other end of her life, now a north country farmer and sheep-breeder, she asked her manager to take up the next lamb that died, cut off its head and "skin it back to the shoulder". He did as asked, and the following day "he came to find the sheep's head pinned against a wall in the meadow and Beatrix sitting on a stone sketching it".

The great achievement of this book is the way it brings together Beatrix Potter's lifelong activities in art and science and shows how they are all part of an extraordinarily integrated life: how her feeling for plants and animals and her finely detailed observations of the natural world were the foundation stones of her children's books as well as her land management skills and environmental awareness. In the last year of her life, she wrote to her cousin Caroline: "As I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough lands, seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton grass where my old legs will never take me again.

Please feel free to leave any comments or questions,

7 comments:

Robert Parry said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you.

Kimberly Eve said...

You're welcome Robert. Thanks for visiting!

Anonymous said...

A very personal and interesting review of this "Review"....nice job...and happy memories of Peter Rabbit, et al. gigigirl

Kimberly Eve said...

Hi Gigigirl, thanks so much for commenting. Yes, I think if you have personal memories of a favorite author or their work, you should share it with anyone interested! Afterall, isn't that part of how your connection developed?

Hermes said...

You might find this link between your interests of use:

http://walkawhile.tripod.com/id16.html

I'm sure I saw a quote somewhere she wasn't keen on the prb which surprised me.

Kimberly Eve said...

Thanks for commenting Hermes.
Yes, the link is rather interesting.
Author, Linda Lear, of course, mentions Millais and the family history siting illustrations and examples but never once have I come across Beatrix Potter having anything negative to say about the PRB. I too would be surprised! Thanks for sharing!

Hermes said...

Sorry I was looking in the wrong book:

"It's quite disgusting how people go on about these Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic painters'

Her Journal 1883
quoted in Jeremy Maas 'Victorian Painters' p. 124

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