The World of Beatrix Potter
“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.”
What makes a good children’s book? Children love a good story that is simple enough to understand and interesting enough to hold their attention. Most of all, children are naturally curious and love to learn new things! Beatrix Potter masterfully combined these elements with her beautiful drawings. Her stories are timeless. Children today love them nearly as much as those children whom the stories were written for almost a century ago.
Born in 1866, Beatrix Potter was the eldest and only girl of two independently wealthy parents. Every minute of the day was accounted for from breakfast to bedtime. The only family outing occurred at Easter when they would spend three weeks at the shore where the rigid schedule continued. Beatrix was introverted and isolated until the birth of her brother Bertram, five years later. But, as soon as Bertram was old enough, he was shipped off to school. Instead of feeling upset about being taught at home, Beatrix was relieved. She was very protective of herself and her privacy and did not welcome the possibility of losing her individuality at school. During their summer breaks in Scotland, Beatrix and Bertram became avid collectors of animals, plants, and insects, alive and dead. They made paintings and sketched what they found. Each year Beatrix grew more introverted as her solitude continued. Her only joy in life was her collection of pets; including mice, snails, bats, a rabbit, and a hedgehog. She spent hour upon hour sketching nature and pressing flowers. On family outings, Beatrix would sometimes secretly carry a bunny under her arm and use the rabbit's cage as a suitcase.
When Bertram finished school and decided to pursue a career in art, Mr. Potter would visit art exhibits, and after a while, he took Beatrix along where she studied and drew the paintings that interested her. She gravitated to realistic paintings that exhibited a good sense of perspective. The colors had to be rich. She preferred art in which the “closer” objects were crystal clear, and the “farther” objects became progressively hazier.
Beatrix’s interest in nature and details led her into geology and other scientific fields. Although her theory was dismissed at the time, Beatrix was eventually credited with discovering that lichens were not a new life form, but a combination of two pre-existing forms of life - fungus and algae. Although her uncle encouraged her scientific endeavors, Beatrix realized the futility of her attempts. Women, at that time simply weren’t considered smart enough to be scientists. She abandoned her scientific interests and went back to her drawing.
Then one summer, while on vacation with her parents, she met Canon Rawnsley, a young priest. He took an immediate interest in Beatrix’s artwork and encouraged her to start recording her impressions in a diary. Although skeptical at first, she tried it. Always a fierce protector of her privacy, she first invented a code that only she could decipher. She then wrote in a cramped tiny script that would discourage prying eyes. She ended up keeping a journal for 16 years; it was a great way to express herself!
As Beatrix grew older, she began to send letters to the children of her friends and former governesses. When she couldn't think of any news to write, she would write them a story instead. She wrote over a thousand such letters. These letters often accompanied sketches of small animals. One of these “picture letters” became her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902. Beatrix used her writing to live out her imaginings. All of her hopes for her own life came alive in her books for children. Beatrix wrote nineteen more books before she eventually married William Heelis in 1913 at the age of 47. At this point, Beatrix stepped fully into her new life. Marriage and Beatrix took to each other like two long-lost friends. About a year after she had been married, Beatrix wrote to a friend, “I feel as if I had been married many years.” She wrote only four more books after getting married. Her journal entries give us the impression that her old life had been so unsatisfying that her creation of books had been a sort of mock-fulfillment. In her new life she no longer needed to imagine good things, she was living them.
After a bout of bronchitis, Beatrix passed away on December 22, 1943. She will be remembered for her delicate and mesmerizing picture books. She captivated us by creating a beautiful and magical world born out of her loneliness. Beatrix Potter’s work will charm readers young and old for generations to come.
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