July 28 is the birthday of Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943), author and illustrator of the famous and beloved “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Who doesn’t love this fanciful story about a disobedient bunny who miraculously survives his misadventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden?
I enjoyed reading “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” aloud countless times to my more-than-receptive boys in their early years. The actual book, from my own childhood collection (pictured above), now rests in its place on the book shelf in my younger son’s room waiting to see if it will find its way into the hands of a new generation.
When my older son was four, I snapped up an audio version of the book at a garage sale. As I played the old, scratchy LP he sat enthralled. But when the narrator came to the part where Peter is being chased by a rake-waving Mr. McGregor, my son was so terrified at the fate of the little rabbit, he ran and hid behind the living room curtains (just as Peter was scrambling to hide in the tool shed). Such was Potter’s ability to render a vividly dramatic scene with words!
The story of Beatrix Potter before and beyond her children’s tales is just as interesting. In fact, after researching and reading about Potter’s life, I’ve decided she qualifies as a wonder woman (and my new heroine!). Along with her unusual upbringing by her quirky parents, she was subject to confining Victorian social norms placed on women at the time. Although sickly as a child and young adult, she was strong-willed. Ultimately, her rebellious streak enabled her to transcend her oppressing circumstances to take command of her life and forge a unique path for herself. Her achievements realized over the course of her lifetime were remarkable — artist and scientific illustrator, natural historian, mycologist, entrepreneur, author, unmarried landowner (though she did eventually marry later in life), estate farmer, sheep breeder and conservationist.
If you’d like a deeper view into Potter’s life, the DBRL collection provides insight and understanding through a number of different lenses.
Two biographies, “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Beatrix Potter: a Life in Nature,” each offer a detailed glimpse of Potter’s personal life. From a well-to-do family, Potter enjoyed the ability to travel and spend time away from London city life in various country estate houses. The countryside of northern England, Scotland and Wales provided her with wonderlands of opportunity. As a result, she relished the wild outdoors and honing her observational skills in those settings.
“The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations” is a gem of a book. It is a travelogue of sorts, documenting, by geographic region, the places that inspired Potter’s art. After perusing her lovely images I had a strong urge to fly to London, rent a car and go explore these landscapes first hand.
The money from book royalties helped Potter purchase Hill Top Farm in the Lake District in northwestern England. It was there, at 39 years old, that she began gardening. “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales,” traces her trajectory and connection to plant life, from her childhood roots in London to her final days on her estate farms. Additionally, this book includes an index of the plants Potter grew in her real gardens and the ones in her fictional tales.
“The History of the Tale of Peter Rabbit” is fascinating. It tells the story behind Potter’s renowned tale, including what inspired her to write it. For instance, the idea for Peter Rabbit originated in a “picture letter” she sent to a young boy named Noel. This book outlines the tale’s various permutations and the negotiating the author had to do with Frederick Warne & Co. to see it through to publication.
For mystery lovers … in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series, author Susan W. Albert imagines Beatrix living her rural existence at her real-life Hill Top Farm, with the added twist of turning her into a detective who solves local crimes and other unexplained events.
Happy 151st birthday, Beatrix! Thank you for being head-strong and courageous, for breaking away from the forms attempting to contain you and achieving your dreams. Soooo many of us have benefited from your efforts and bountiful legacy.