The Tale of Beatrix Potter

by Margaret Lane

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In The Tale of Beatrix Potter, Margaret Lane has re-created the life of the renowned nineteenth century artist and writer of books for children using Potter’s journal and private papers, recollections of family and friends, and the assistance of William Heelis, Potter’s husband. Photographs depict a posed Potter at different stages of her life, an original version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), and a page from a journal that she kept, in code, from her childhood until she was in her twenties. An appendix provides a listing, by date and publisher, of her published work.

The first part of the book recalls details of Potter’s childhood. Her parents, mem-bers of the wealthy middle class in Victorian England, followed a schedule that gave the appearance of busyness but that did not entail work for pay. Although their round of clubs, holiday visits, afternoon drives, and occasional forays to a local museum gave direction to their lives, it did not appear to include time to consider the emotional needs of their young daughter.

Potter was raised in the virtual absence of other children until the birth of her brother when she was five. Governesses provided her with food, clothing, exercise, and the basics of education. As Bertram, her brother, grew older, he gave her both companionship and encouragement, but these were not sufficient to overcome the shyness and poor self-esteem that was partly self-induced and partly the result of the indifference of her parents.

The second part of the book explores the events leading up to, and the results of, the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Potter’s first book. The story was a great commercial success for Potter and the Warne Publishing Company, on whose guidance she began to rely. Its reception gave her confidence in her ability to write more stories for children and provided her with a reason for living other than one dictated by her parents’ wishes and habits. The book’s popularity also gave her the means to consider purchasing some farmland of her own, away from the city of London. The purchase of Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of England, a region frequented by her parents during their seasonal vacations, was a significant event in her life. According to Lane, it was symbolic of Potter’s continuing effort to achieve some independence from her parents. The struggle between her need for freedom and the sense of obligation that she felt for her parents until their deaths was a recurring theme in her life.

What Lane calls the creative period in the life of this author-illustrator lasted from the publication of her first book until the year of her marriage to William Heelis in 1913. During these years, she produced a total of nineteen books, including The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907), The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908), and a painting book that featured the popular character of Peter Rabbit.

In the last part of the book, Lane analyzes the qualities of those books written during Potter’s creative period and those written afterward. Among the qualities that she believes characterize Potter’s best work are the freshness of the stories coupled with the high quality art. Her illustrations were notable for their homely details, their evocation of the beauty of the countryside, and their fidelity to the characters of the animals that she portrayed. By contrast, Lane considers most of the work completed after 1913 to be inferior. All but The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, published in 1918, lacked the style and spirit that she associates with Potter’s earlier work.

In the...

(This entire section contains 668 words.)

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final chapter, Lane concludes the story of the life of the author-illustrator. After her marriage to Heelis at the age of forty-seven, Potter continued to produce illustrated and unillustrated stories for an admiring American, rather than English, audience. Lane leaves little doubt that Potter’s most creative period was over, but marriage and the freedom to do as she liked were satisfactions that Potter did not regard lightly.

Setting

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Born in 1866, Potter grew up in London during the last decades of the nineteenth century, an era usually referred to as the Victorian period. In many ways her life, confined as it was, is but a reflection of this period's oppressive treatment of children and women. Her mother, for example, consistently refused to allow Beatrix to visit friends, for fear that these visits would upset Beatrix and make her ill. Nor would her mother allow young people to visit Beatrix at home because they might bring germs into the house. There is no evidence that Beatrix was a sickly child, and these extreme attitudes were symptomatic of a social culture that considered such protectiveness of the "weak" female health not only proper but a sign of parental love.

Overall, the obedience demanded of Beatrix and the discipline and routines that were imposed should be viewed as part of the middle-class Victorian culture. Beatrix, like most girls, was not sent to school. Instead her parents hired a governess who lived in their home and taught subjects considered appropriate for girls—languages, literature, a little history, and some drawing. Her younger brother, on the other hand, was sent away to boarding school at age seven, which was considered proper for boys of his social class.

Even the difficulty that Beatrix had in eventually leaving home, as well as her parents' unwillingness to allow her to marry, should be understood within the historical context. The Victorians sometimes appeared to have mixed feelings about their daughters. They wanted them to marry, and yet they did not want them to marry. If parents argued that a husband was not "good enough," it indicated how highly they valued their daughter. Beatrix's wealthy, but not aristocratic, parents considered neither Norman Warne (who died shortly after asking Beatrix to marry) nor William Heelis (the country solicitor she did marry) "good enough." In addition, one daughter in each family was supposed to sacrifice her own happiness and remain at home to take care of her parents in their old age. Beatrix was the only daughter, so this task fell to her.

Literary Qualities

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Lane, a novelist, uses many of the techniques of fiction to write The Tale of Beatrix Potter. She creates well-defined characters, draws detailed scenes, and even constructs a sort of dialogue through extensive quotations from Potter's own letters and diaries. Lane draws on the memories of William Heelis, friends, cousins, and local people from the village of Sawrey to give this biography a very personal quality.

The narrator's affectionate and admiring voice is strong throughout. Lane recounts with respect and awe how the scholar Leslie Linder worked for years to decode the alphabet cipher that Potter used to write her journal. The reader gets both a sense of how difficult the decoding task was and a portrait of the adolescent Beatrix composing long, detailed journal entries in elaborate code, not because she is being secretive, but because she enjoys the difficulty of writing in code.

Social Sensitivity

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One of the most difficult tasks for some young readers of this book will involve coming to a fair understanding of Victorian attitudes toward children and women. These may appear very peculiar, if not cruel, to modern sensibilities. Readers may want to turn Beatrix's mother into a cruel, witch-like character. She was not. Lane is sensitive to this difficulty and offers some background on Victorian attitudes. She carefully paints the Potter parents as stiff and conventional rather than meanspirited, noting that their daughter does not hate them, although she sometimes finds them irritating.

Young people may also have trouble understanding why Potter does not simply run away or rebel. In fact, this biography illustrates very well that open rebellion is often not necessary; Potter does get what she wants in the end. She is spunky and manages her parents remarkably well without causing too many outright wars. If she fails to change their attitudes, neither does she submit to them. This is the story of the success and triumph of a shy person.

For Further Reference

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Under, Leslie. The Art of Beatrix Potter. 1955. Rev. ed. Middlesex, England: Frederick Warne, 1972. Contains reproductions of many of Potter's drawings, including her book illustrations, sketches from her notebooks, and the mushroom drawings she intended someday to make into a book.

Potter, Beatrix. Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters, edited by Jane Crowell Morse. Boston: Horn Book, 1982. The letters from Potter to her American fans, written during the latter part of her life, contain many reminiscences of her youth.

The Journal of Beatrix Potter, edited by Leslie Linder. Middlesex, England: Frederick Warne, 1966. This is the engaging journal that Beatrix Potter began at age fourteen and kept until she was nearly thirty years old.

Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman. Middlesex, England: Frederick Warne/ Penguin Books, 1986. Contains plenty of pictures and provides a good overview of Beatrix Potter research since Lane's biography.

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