LONDON, ONTARIO – An apparent paradox that I have grown to appreciate through extensive research in the intimate fields of friendship and marriage, is that a richly developed inner life can go hand in hand with a markedly shy nature. Of course, without some sort of discipline and vision in place, the chronically shy risk becoming un-relatable weirdos floating adrift in their own isolated orbits. But there are numerous examples in the world of arts and letters – such as William Blake, the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor – where an instinct to boycott situations where one might be scrutinized in their own right or, even worse, evaluated as one constituent of a group, can pay handsome dividends in the development of startling independence and originality. If there are more females than males who exemplify this phenomenon, we can probably chalk that up to the more innate male appetite for open competition; for measuring oneself against others and, whenever possible, utterly vanquishing them and taking their heads as trophies.
Though not so commonly regarded in this way, I consider the artist and children’s writer Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) as one of the more admirable exemplars of that genus which we could characterize as 'introverted trailblazers'. Potter was well into her 30s before she really got focused on the work for which she is most renowned today; the 23 children’s books she produced between 1902 (The Tale of Peter Rabbit) and 1930 (The Tale of Little Pig Robinson).
Born to snobby but well-meaning parents, as a teenager Potter developed her own cipher for recording her thoughts and doings in a journal. Not that she was up to anything wicked or scandalous; she just couldn’t abide having anyone looking over her shoulder and monitoring her thoughts and observations. Her journal code was cracked several decades after her death and her musings were culled together and published in book form for anyone to read; an act of betrayal on the part of her estate which she would have hated.
While her younger brother was sent off to be educated, Beatrix’s parents saw no reason to provide the same for her, so there was no formal schooling. Her parents only expected her to marry well; something that wouldn’t happen (and not ‘well’ by her parents’ lights but then they weren’t around to see it happen) until she was almost 50. In one sense it might appear that her parents were too-controlling, uber-conventional fusspots but in another sense, they were just about ideal. Her father was a man of pronounced curiosity who frequently took Beatrix along to visit art galleries and natural museums and even to the studio of his friend, John Everett Millais, whom Herbert Potter helped out by providing photographs of his sitters. These outings awakened and reinforced her fascination with art and the natural world, showed her how at least one artist went about plying his craft and gave her a good grounding in art history. All of her life she particularly revered the landscapes of William Turner which she had first encountered in gallery visits as a child.
So within certain middle class parameters, there was a surprising amount of leeway for Beatrix to forge her own way of doing things. Almost entirely self-taught as a watercolourist, Beatrix always worked at her own pace and would never allow herself to be rushed or coerced to meet any sort of expectation or deadline. And the lack of an imposed educational curriculum, left her free to develop her own interests. Perhaps most surprisingly, these same house-proud parents allowed her to transform her large bedroom on the top storey of their South Kensington townhouse into an artist’s studio and naturalist’s laboratory where she kept all kinds of animal and plant specimens – live and preserved. Up there she was left free to noodle away with her sketchbooks and watercolours for large portions of each day, gradually developing her style and her approach which would revolutionize children’s book publishing and make her a very wealthy woman.
In his delightful study of the lives of a handful of celebrated children’s writers, Secret Gardens, the late Humphrey Carpenter writes: “Her imagination was particularly attracted by animals. No doubt this had begun in early childhood as a compensation for a certain emotional deprivation, but by the time she reached her teens it was a marked peculiarity.
"Again, her parents’ attitude seems to have been one of tolerance, even encouragement; for she was allowed to keep all kinds of creatures, both alive and dead. She and her brother Bertram would bring corpses home from country rambles and dissect them to study their anatomy. Live specimens soon outnumbered dead ones; she kept as pets, at various times, a snake, a dormouse (who lived to be so old that its eyebrows turned white), a frog, a bat, and an entire family of snails, not to mention rats, hedgehogs and various rabbits, whom she would take around on leather leads as if they were dogs. It was partly a kind of playing-with-dolls, partly a way of developing her talents at drawing and painting (for she became expert at getting them to sit still long enough for her pencil and brush), and partly an irrepressible urge to see them in human terms.”
Naturally enough, most people first encounter Potter’s work as children. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis credits his first reading of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, with nothing less than awakening his capacity for religious awe. The four Goodden boys were hardly deprived of books growing up but somehow, I can recall no Potter volumes on our shelves. My wife’s childhood library suffered no such default and so my introduction to the universe Potter created was simultaneous with my children’s in our nighttime sessions of reading aloud and drinking in her illustrations.
Too old for any ecstatic transports à la Lewis, I was able to witness firsthand the uncanny ease with which her little books take hold of young imaginations. First reading her as an adult, I was perhaps able to more objectively appraise why her books continue to be so popular. Let’s start with the littleness of the books themselves. That was entirely her idea which she impressed upon her lifelong publisher of Frederick Warne and Co., intuitively understanding that a child would enter into the reading experience more completely if the book they held was designed to comfortably nestle into tinier hands.
Then there’s her brilliance as an artist. All kinds of kids’ books are packed with pictures of animals but even when Potter decks out her bunnies in jackets and her hedgehogs in pinafores, they somehow retain their full animal natures. Her critters rarely become cartoony. Underneath the outfits and regardless of what extravagant shenanigans they get up to, her illustrations somehow remain faithful animal portraits.
Not too long after I’d read The Tale of Two Bad Mice, we caught a mouse underneath our sink in one of those ‘compassionate’ traps that don’t kill the poor rodents but just terrify them until you release them from this clammy plastic tube that is littered with little turds of anxiety. Emptying this contraption out on a patch of grass by the river, I was startled by how familiar my liberated prisoner looked – the lovely pink on the underside of her ears, the sweat-drenched whorl of fur on her face, her shiny black moccasin bead eyes – she was the spitting image of Hunca Munca having a very bad day.
For the time in which they were written, Potter’s animal stories are comparatively unsparing regarding the harsh fates that befall some of her characters. In her very first book, Peter Rabbit’s father has suffered the dreadful ignominy of being baked into a pie by the unseen Mrs. McGregor whose garden patch Peter forages in for his family’s sustenance. Squirrel Nutkin loses his tail to a predator and in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, there is a blackly humorous portrait of the brain-softening impact of the maternal impulse as poor ditzy Jemima keeps losing her eggs to a bushy, long-tailed cad with foxy whiskers who promises he’ll guard them for her.
The writing itself is sturdy (Carpenter detects cadences inspired by the King James Bible), sometimes quite sophisticated, and always without any pandering to her young audience. She refused to bow to her publisher’s demand to excise the word ‘soporific’ from The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. In the context of the story, it was obvious what the word meant and if a kid was really stumped, then he could bloody well look it up in the dictionary, she said.
Also to her immense credit, as her eyes and fine muscle coordination started to go, Beatrix Potter knew when it was time to pack it in and never looked back. She bought a working farm in Sawrey in the Lake District (where she had often summered with her parents as a child), bred sheep and eventually married a dull country solicitor named William Heelis with whom she snapped up more than 4,000 acres of pristine Lakeland countryside and fifteen working farms; all of which they left to the National Trust as the single greatest such bequest ever donated by private citizens.
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