The month of October is an important one for fans of Beatrix Potter. It was in this month in 1902 that the London-based company Frederick Warne published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and with that little book began Potter's astonishingly successful career. It almost didn't happen. Like many first-time writers, Potter had trouble finding a publisher, and in 1901 paid for a private printing for her family and friends (Arthur Conan Doyle bought one for his children). Potter's ambitions might have ended there, but the next year, after some wrangling over the story and whether or not to include color illustrations, Warne & Co. agreed to print a new edition, and the antics of the naughty rabbit became a sold-out success.
To coincide with the bunny birthday, Warne has published a new coloring book based on the story of Peter Rabbit. This substantial 96-page paperback could be a good holiday gift for 21st century admirers -- assuming they've already got the boxed collection of Potter's 20-odd "little books," and Linda Lear's definitive biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.
Lear, who has also written a biography of Rachel Carson, describes how Potter grew from the discontented daughter of ambitious parents into a successful artist and writer. With income from her books, and, eventually, an inheritance from her father, she went on to establish herself as a landowner, sheep farmer and conservationist. Lear says Potter was "a born entrepreneur." She certainly had a remarkable life, and her books have had a remarkable shelf life. Lear told us a little more about her.
Linda Lear: Most people have no idea what a fine natural scientist Potter was. She contributed to the field of mycology in her exquisite drawings of rare fungi species she found that are still studied by experts today. She the connection between fungi and penicillin. She was interested in geology, archeology and entomology and drew specimens for study. Her ability to observe the natural world in minute detail is evident in the backgrounds of her children’s books as well as her scientific drawings. Her love of the natural world is what drew her to the Lake District and to contribute to its ultimate conservation.
What made you want to write her biography?
I was drawn to Potter when I first saw her fungi paintings in a museum and learned to my surprise they were by Beatrix Potter. I had no idea she leaned scientific mycology, nor that in later life she was largely responsible for preserving the English Lake District and its culture of sheep farming.
Do you think Potter would have liked to have been a scientist?
Potter was not interested in science as a career. Rather it was a means of understanding the natural world. She was motivated as a brilliant but bored Victorian woman to find something useful to do, and something which would give her a measure of financial independence.
Which is your favorite of Potter's books?
My favorite of Potter’s “Little Books” is The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse. It is the most autobiographical of all of them in that while Johnny tries to like city life, he realizes his heart is in the countryside. His is a conflict of the heart.Potter was also the first author of children’s books to understand the importance of marketing. She “invented” spin-off merchandise: dolls, board games, wall papers, fabrics, puzzles, figurines of her characters, and made her publishing company a booming enterprise. She was a born entrepreneur and a credit to her family’s background in trade.
The countryside was tremendously important to Potter. For fans of her work, do you think it's worthwhile to visit the Lake District?
The National Trust in the Lake District is the heir to Potter’s bequests of over twenty large farms, thousands of Herdwick sheep, outbuildings, woods, tarns, and fields. It is a unique area nestled amongst the high fells and mountain lakes made famous by the Romantic poets. Potter’s homes, Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage are among the Trust properties and display the joy and variety of Potter’s country life. They are not to be missed.
Potter's literary legacy is extraordinary. Her "little books" are still beloved; new books based on her work, like the coloring book published this month, continue to be popular. What accomplishments do you think would have meant the most to her?
The conservation of the countryside and the culture of sheep farming testify to Beatrix Potter’s advanced thinking about the value of the nature world and her joy in living a country life. Whilst Beatrix Potter will always be loved for her little books for children, her legacy as a preservationist and country woman is the one that continues to grow in importance and the one that would please her the most.
Thank you, Linda.