A Tale of Beatrix Potter

Better than half of the human beings in our world are women. Women work hard and long. And yet, far too often our stories are not told, our contributions to the life and well being of our communities, countries, and planet go unrecognized.  So, I say, let’s celebrate women and our accomplishments, for better or worse, and more often than not for better. Today I would like to celebrate Beatrix Potter.

Many of you will know Beatrix Potter for her Peter Rabbit books. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter were early joys and first friends for many of us. And for that contribution alone we owe Beatrix much. Her drawings still adorn pottery, clothing and an array of home goods. Her animals are both realistic and unthreatening, they are downright cute. And Beatrix Potter was so much more than that.

Beatrix Potter was born Saturday, 28 July 1866. She grew up in Manchester England with all the comforts of a home with its own staff of servants.  One of her earliest fascinations was with sketching the pets and small animals that populated her home and surrounding lands.  By the time she was seven her drawings had an individual personality to them.  By the time she was 31 she had submitted a scientific paper to the Linnean Society in London. By the time she was 35 she had produced almost 300 water colors of mushrooms and fungi which are now in the Armitt  Museum in Cumbria, United Kingdom.

But it was her ‘picture letters’ that she looked to as a way of earning a living. She produced the Tale of Peter Rabbit herself as a Christmas gift for family and friends in 1901. Shortly after that Frederick Warne & Company in London began discussions with her about printing it.  By 1902 the Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and she had The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tailor of Gloucester ready for publication as well.

One thing led to another and in July 1905 Beatrix and Norman Warne were engaged.  But on August 25, 1905 Norman died of pernicious anemia.  Beatrix was grief stricken. She left London and moved to the Cumbria where she had already been planning to buy a small farm, Hill Top. There she continued to create characters and to write, and she began to develop merchandise that would make her a woman of considerable means.  She steeped herself in the land and the community. She became a champion of farming causes. And she began to buy tranches of the beloved lands around her, gathering together as much as four thousand acres, all of which she left to the National Trust.

In 1913, eight years after Norman died, she married William Heelis, the country solicitor who worked with her to acquire the lands around her Hill Top Farm.  Frank Delaney tell the story of Beatrix Potter walking along the road near Hill Top Farm when she came upon a tramp walking along road. The tramp assumed that she too was a homeless traveler, and he greeted her, “Brave hard weather for the likes of thee’n me, missus.”  Delaney says that she had in that moment done the thing she most desired, she had merged with her countryside.

Indeed, Beatrix Potter merged with her countryside, she lived its life, told its quiet hidden stories, and left it better than when she found it.  What a marvelous legacy.  What a delightful contribution to the dignity of all living beings.