Laurie Thayer penned this review.
I like biographies, especially author biographies. When I was a small child, I was absolutely fascinated by a copy of a children’s biography of Louisa Mae Alcott that I found in my elementary school library; I thought it was an even better story than Little Women. I had a copy of a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and I loved to read it and look at the pictures included in the center. And Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien has long been a favorite of mine.
Margaret Lane’s The Tale of Beatrix Potter follows much the same tradition as those books. Most people are familiar with Miss Potter’s children’s books, especially The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Who has not heard of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and naughty little Peter? Who does not know about mean old Mr. McGregor whose wife made a pie out of Peter’s father? Who does not remember seeing as a child the picture of Peter losing his fine blue coat as he tries to escape from Mr. McGregor? Even if you may not be familiar with any of Miss Potter’s other fine children’s books, you have almost certainly seen Peter Rabbit in some context, since he has become an icon of childhood.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in London to a very well-to-do Victorian family. Her father and mother both came from families who had made their money in cotton farming. In the time in which she was born, children were to be “seen and not heard.” Accordingly, Beatrix spent most of her childhood alone in a third floor nursery; even after she was old enough to be out in the world herself, she still lived in the nursery.
Her younger brother Bertram was born when Beatrix was five years old and, for a short while, he was a precious companion. The two children would collect all manner of creatures on family vacations, from bugs to fox skeletons; if the skeleton were not available, they’d boil the dead animal down until it was. They played together and both developed an early interest in drawing. Bertram later became an artist himself. All too soon, however, Bertram was sent off to boarding schools and Beatrix lost her playmate. She had no others, not even her cousins, as she was extremely shy.
Educated at home by a series of governesses, Beatrix remained interested in drawing, becoming more skilled as time went by. Sometimes her lifelike drawings would contain an element of the absurd, a scarf, say, on a rabbit, or a frog with a waistcoat. The animals were never exaggerated, however, but always as true to life as she could make them; she had a great many pets over the years that she used as models.
Although Beatrix did not have many friends as a child, as she grew older (and remained trapped in the nursery), she developed correspondences with the children of cousins and former governesses. If she had no news for the children, she would send them illustrated tales on the doings of her animal “friends.” Peter Rabbit made his debut in a letter to Noel Moore, the son of her German governess.
It occurred to Beatrix that she might be able to publish her letters as children’s books. In 1901, she had Peter Rabbit privately printed. It was a hit with family and friends and a small second printing was done in 1902. With that in hand, she approached the publishing company of Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Tale of Beatrix Potter is fascinating both as a story and as a glimpse into the world of the privileged in the Victorian era. It is also interesting to see how Miss Potter practically turned her back on her fame when, in middle age, she finally won free of the nursery and married. Once she became Mrs. Heelis, she had very little time for writing.
For an online peek at some of Beatrix Potter’s work check out Ohio University Telecommunications Center’s Wired for Books Web site. Their Kids Corner features several of Miss Potter’s works, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Two Bad Mice and everyone’s favorite, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Unfortunately, The Tale of Beatrix Potter is out of print, but a library could undoubtedly secure a copy if they did not already have it on their shelves. If you should come upon a copy in a used bookstore, I recommend snapping it up, especially if, like me, you love to read biographies about writers.
(Fontana, Collins, 1968)