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Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit, and Her Children's Books
Storyteller, Conservationist, and the Tale of Peter Rabbit

Beatrix Potter, author of beloved children's books, created the character Peter Rabbit, who became famous in children’s literature. Peter, you remember, lost his blue jacket with brass buttons when he tried to steal carrots from Farmer McGregor’s garden. In total, Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 28 children’s books about the imaginary lives of animals. She gave us some of the best-loved and best-selling children’s stories of all time, which have been translated into at least 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies. She was also a botanist, farmer and sheepwoman. But her enduring legacy also includes her work to protect the Lakes District of England from overdevelopment.

Beatrix Potter, Her Childhood in Victorian London

Beatrix Potter
Young Beatrix Potter
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 during the Victorian Period. Both her parents inherited great wealth from her grandparents’ textile businesses. Her father spent his days at gentlemen’s clubs, and her mother spent her time visiting and receiving guests. Her overprotective parents discouraged friendships with other children. Potter's brother, Bertram, who was six years younger, was sent to boarding school but, as was the custom, Beatrix was taught music and art at home.

As company for herself, she collected a menagerie of pets and kept them in her rooms. They included a green frog, two lizards, some water newts, a ring-snake, a tortoise and even a pet bat and many more, all of which were carefully studied by the child. Beatrix covered pages with sketches of them.

When Beatrix was 15, she began keeping a diary, writing it in a secret code that she invented. Between the ages 15 and 30, Beatrix recorded the details of everyday life in her diary. Not until 15 years after her death was the code cracked and the secrets of Beatrix's diary revealed.

Beatrix Potter and Her Scientific Research

Beatrix Potter artist
Beatrix Potter Artist
Long before she created her children’s books, Beatrix Potter concentrated on scientific illustration. At this time the only way to record microscopic images was by painting them. She spent much of her free time observing specimens at the Natural History Museum. Beatrix Potter made numerous watercolor drawings of lichens and fungi, fossils and archaeological finds. She was one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. She also studied the life cycles of fungi. Although she was rejected as a student at the Royal Botanical Gardens because she was a woman, she became widely respected throughout England as an expert mycologist. In 1897, a time when women were not allowed at the meetings, her uncle presented her paper for her on the germination of spores at the Linnean Society. She made 270 detailed watercolours of fungi by the time she was 35, which are now in the Armitt Library.

Her Favorite Pets Became Characters in her Children's Books

Almost all of her famous storybook characters are based on the pets that she kept as a child. Her first rabbit was Benjamin Bouncer, whom she bought secretly in a London bird shop and smuggled into the nursery inside a paper bag. She described Benjamin as "an impudent, cheeky little thing" and said that he was the original for the storybook character. According to Beatrix, Benjamin was extremely fond of hot buttered toast, and he used to hurry into the drawing room when he heard the tea-bell!"

Peter Piper was a Belgian buck rabbit that she took everywhere with her on a little leather leash. Beatrix wrote in a letter, "Peter used to lie before the fire on the hearth rug like a cat. He was clever at learning tricks, he used to jump through a hoop, and ring a bell, and play the tambourine. I saw him once trying to play the tambourine on a straw hat!"

Beatrix wrote about her pet hedgehog, "Mrs. Tiggy-winkle is a great traveller. I don't know how many journeys she has done. She enjoys going by train, she is always very hungry when she is on a journey... I think you must ask Mrs. Tiggy-winkle to tea, she will drink milk like anything out of a doll's tea-cup!"

Spot the spaniel was the Potter's beloved family dog. Beatrix described him as “a philosophical traveler” because he loved to ride in carriages. He could hardly be stopped from jumping in when any member of the family wished to go out in one. Beatrix said that she found dogs difficult to draw and though she kept many sheepdogs in later life, she wrote, “I respect dogs to a certain extent but I do not think they are moral characters.”

As a child she also had a favorite dormouse Xarifa, who was "a sleepy little animal." When Beatrix recorded Xarifa's death, she wrote, “Poor little thing, I thought at one time she would last as long as myself. I believe she was a great age. I wonder if ever another dormouse had so many acquaintances. I think she was in many respects the sweetest little animal I ever knew.” When Beatrix wrote The Fairy Caravan, one of the characters she included was a sleepy little dormouse named Xarifa.

Pig-Wig was a little black pedigree Berkshire pig that Beatrix bought from a pig farmer. She wanted to put it with the other pigs at Hill Top Farm, but the farm manager refused to have it near the litter. So Beatrix put the little pig in a basket beside her bed, and bottle-fed it night and day, until it became her devoted pet and followed her everywhere, indoors and out. Pig-Wig, whose illustration resembled Beatrix herself, became the heroine of Pigling Bland.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Famous Children's Book

Peter Rabbit
Flopsy, Mopsy, and Peter Rabbit
For eleven years the family spent the three summer months in Scotland. But in 1882 when Beatrix was 16 they began vacationing in rented country houses in the English Lake District. She grew attached to the rugged mountains, the wide lakes and the rural lifestyle of the area.

Here she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, vicar of Wray Church, who founded The National Trust. The vicar spoke often about his concern that land developers would destroy the beauty of the Lake District by subdividing the farms. His love for the region influenced Beatrix. The vicar was fond of her drawings and encouraged her to publish them as greeting cards. He then encouraged her to publish her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. After the book was rejected by commercial publishers, she self-published it. Finally, Frederick Warne & Co published the children's book commercially in 1902, when she was 36.

Her publisher, Norman Warne, was her first romantic interest. They became secretly engaged, but her parents disapproved of Norman as a lower class tradesman. Before the couple could marry, Norman died from a particularly virulent form of leukemia.

With the success of Peter Rabbit in the children's book market, in 1905 Beatrix was able to purchase a little farm in Sawrey in the Lake District, called Hill Top. Although most of the time she was obliged to live with her parents as their housekeeper, she created Hill Top as her life's dream of a country home. In 1909 she bought Castle Farm, another farm near Hill Top, and eventually made it her home.

Beatrix Potter, author of Children's Books

The early years living in the Lake District were the peak of her creativity. Its many lake views, houses, furniture and lifestyle were depicted in her illustrations. Fans of Beatrix Potter delight in finding at Hill Top Farm the same furnishings and scenery she depicted in her books.

During the Lake District period of her life, she wrote other children's books. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is about a naughty red squirrel who teased the old brown owl with riddles until the owl lost his patience. Her character Tom Kitten , in The Tale of Tom Kitten, lived in a home that resembled Hill Top. Tom was all dressed up for company, but ruined his good clothes and lost them to the ducks.

In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Benjamin and his cousin Peter Rabbit return to Mr. McGregor's garden to find the clothes Peter lost in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. They find the clothes along with some onions. But then they must hide from the cat until Benjamin's father rescues them.

In The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, Samuel Whiskers is a mean rat who captures Tom Kitten and almost succeeds in turning him into a roly-poly pudding. Beatrix dedicated this book to her pet rat Sammy, which she described as "the intelligent pink-eyed representative of a persecuted (but irrepressible) race and affectionate little friend, and most accomplished thief".

Beatrix Potter eventually wrote 23 illustrated children’s books before her eyesight became weak. All the stories are written from the viewpoint of the animals and focus on the small details of everyday life. Her famous characters include Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Miss Moppet, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Ginger and Pickles, Mrs. Tittlemouse, Timmy Tiptoes, Mr. Tod, Pigling Bland, Johnny Town Mouse, and Little Pig Robinson. Seven of her storybooks are based in or around Hill Top Farm.

Life at Hill Top Farm and Castle Farm

A local solicitor, William Heelis, helped her with her land purchases and looked after the property while she was in London. In 1913 Beatrix Potter married him. She wrote in a letter that it was “the miserable feeling of loneliness that decided me at last.” Beatrix and William, both shy, quiet people, shared their love and enthusiasm for the Lake District. They returned from their marriage with a white bull calf in the back of the car.

Beatrix expanded her farmhouses and furnished them with early country oak pieces that are much admired today. Although the Heelis couple had no children, Beatrix raised many animal pets. She furnished a period doll house with items she used for her book illustrations. She created a charming English cottage garden, which also appeared in her children's books, and raised vegetables for the kitchen. Leisure time was spent in day-long walks and rowing on the lake.

Hill Top and her other properties were working farms, which Beatrix felt was part of the beauty and charm of the area. She managed the farms herself, selecting tenants, overseeing the improvements, repairs and the animals. Herdwick sheep were raised in the area. Sheep of this breed will always return to the same land where they were raised, and thus, when a farm is sold, the sheep are always included in the sale. She worked to improve the breed and showed her prize-winning sheep at the fairs along with the men. To promote the local wool, Beatrix always wore a skirt and jacket made of Herdwick wool. Eventually she was elected President of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders Association.

Beatrix Potter Works to Preserve Lake District

Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter Conservationist
The Lake District is a beautiful rural area in northwestern England. A popular holiday destination, it is famous for its scenic mountains, called fells. Once home to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southey and John Ruskin, the Lake District was threatened by business interests, land developers and airplane factories. Often when property came on the market, Beatrix used the substantial earnings from her books to buy it out from under the developers. Accumulating her holdings piece by piece over the years, she came to own over 4,000 acres of Lake District farmland. When the shoreline of Lake Windermere was in danger of development, she raised the money to save it by offering autographed drawings of Peter Rabbit to the tourists. Beatrix worked closely with The National Trust to protect the estates, sometimes writing to the Trust daily, and acted as its agent for many years until it could afford to hire an agent. Her land purchases are too numerous to mention. She also bought cottages for the villagers, and hired a nurse to serve the area.

Beatrix Potter lived as a Lakeland farmer for 30 years. A few days before her death, she signed the papers to buy yet another group of properties. She died in 1943 during World War II at the age of 73. After the cremation, her ashes were sprinkled over the land she cherished. In her will she bequeathed 4,049 acres of land, fourteen farms and twenty houses to The National Trust so that the land should remain undeveloped forever. It was her gift to the nation for all to enjoy. The Lake District is a world of beauty that survives to this day. Hill Top remains as it was during her lifetime, and is now the most visited literary shrine in the Lake District.

Today the Lake District and Hill Top Farm are famous tourist attractions. The village office of her husband William Heelis is now the Beatrix Potter Gallery, operated by The National Trust. There is also an attraction called The World of Beatrix Potter, with child-sized dioramas of scenes and characters from her children's books. In 1971, the movie The Tales of Beatrix Potter presented her stories set to music and choreographed for ballet. Miss Potter, released in 2006, is a charming movie dramatization of her life that stars Renée Zellweger.

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