PETER RABBIT arrived in 1902, near the close of a golden era for illustrated children's books brought about by advances in color printing and a new allowance for playfulness on the part of both children and adults. What set "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and Beatrix Potter's other stories apart even in this innovative time was her ability to relate her emotional memory of the small shocks and pleasures of childhood. "I can remember quite plainly from one to two years old," Potter wrote in a letter to an American friend, "not only facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments -- the way things impressed a very young child."
She may not have teased and scolded her characters, as the apple-cheeked Renee Zellweger does in the new film "Miss Potter," or imagined them prying themselves off the page to frolic in three dimensions, but she did closely study and empathize with the animals she drew. She was faithful to both nature and what children liked -- an irresistible combination. If Potter drew a bonnet on a duck, it fit the duck. And if the duck was silly and neglected her eggs, they'd be eaten by dogs. It's only grown-ups who want children's books to be bloodless.
Potter was a dutiful Victorian daughter who grew into a plain-spoken and determined artist and entrepreneur. She was good, but she was not always nice. Between the lines of Linda Lear's sympathetic biography, "Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature," can be glimpsed a feisty perfectionist, a beardless Mr. McGregor laying traps for rabbits.
Born in London in 1866, Potter spent much of her affluent childhood alone or in the company of governesses. She loved to draw and was largely self-taught, copying from books and sketching wild animals that she and her younger brother, Bertram, had caught and tamed. Rabbits, lizards, snails, bats, rats, newts, snakes and hedgehogs joined the household -- many unsentimentally skinned and boiled after their deaths, their skeletons preserved for study.
London was dreary in comparison to her summer holidays in the country, especially at Dalguise, in Scotland, where Beatrix cultivated a half-belief in the local superstitions and began her deep identification with country life. "Everything was romantic in my imagination," she recalled. "The woods were peopled by the mysterious good folk. The Lords and Ladies of the last century walked with me along the overgrown paths, and picked the old fashioned flowers among the box and rose hedges of the garden."
As dissenters from the Church of England, her Unitarian parents were somewhat isolated socially in London, but their ambitions had carried them down from the north and they tried to put their industrial roots behind them. Beatrix's father, Rupert, a solicitor who spent most of his days at the Athenaeum club, grew more conservative over the years, and Beatrix shared many of his views. She regarded marriage as the "crown of a woman's life," although she confided in her diary that she would not trade her loneliness for an unhappy marriage.
Lear (who also wrote a biography of "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson) presents Potter's nature studies and increasingly zestful specimen collecting as part of the Victorian enthusiasm for natural history. (During this period, England's beaches and tide pools were nearly picked clean of sea life.) To improve her sketches of mushrooms, Potter began to study fungi and eventually to theorize about how different species reproduced. Her research led her to suspect that lichens were a hybrid life form: organisms composed of both fungi and algae. Another century would pass before the precise nature of the symbiosis would be determined -- a posthumous vindication of her work. Her paper on the subject (now lost) was summarily dismissed at a meeting of the Linnean Society in March 1897. Potter, as a woman, was barred from the meeting.
Peter Rabbit's genesis was in an 1893 illustrated letter about a naughty rabbit that Potter had written for the sick son of her former governess. Eventually, she decided to put together a children's book based on this story, and self-published a small run. "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was picked up by a publishing house and sold out its first printing of 8,000 copies before its October 1902 publication date. It became -- and remains -- the publishing firm's bestseller. To date, more than 40 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide.
Potter enjoyed wrangling with her editor, Norman Warne, over every detail of the printing, text and marketing of Peter Rabbit and her subsequent books, although she never saw him without an escort. (As an unmarried woman, she could not even sign her own contracts, and had to persuade her father to do so.) In July 1905, Warne asked her to marry him. Her parents protested, considering anyone in "trade" beneath them, but at 39, Potter felt almost able to defy them. She was still deciding the wedding date when Warne died of undiagnosed leukemia.
This was not one of the convenient deaths of literature, like that of Virginia Woolf's querulous, demanding father. Still, the loss steeled Potter to break away from her controlling family. She bought a rundown sheep farm in northwestern England's Cumbria and became a skilled countrywoman. In 1913, again against her parent's objections, she married her lawyer, William Heelis.
Happily, Lear lavishes attention on the sources and back stories for Potter's drawings -- who owned the shed that appears in Mr. McGregor's garden, for example, and how Potter's hedgehog, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, resented being propped upright to model. Lear's chapter on Potter's mycological studies is also unexpectedly gripping. But the second half of the book, after the purchase of Hill Top Farm, is mired in detail. The biographer leaves no sheep undipped. We get employment histories of Potter's hired men, marital histories of acquaintances, even speculations on what kind of tumor a tenant farmer's wife had removed.
Lear very much wants us to like Beatrix Potter. She tut-tuts at the artist's sharp tongue and mentions only in passing Potter's opposition to women's suffrage -- a vestige of conservatism at odds with her early scientific ambitions, her artistic control of her books, her vise grip on the merchandising that resulted and her direction of large, successful farms in the north country. Lear also offers a soft-focus view of the artist's domineering mother, at odds with many of Potter's own remarks. Reluctant to conjecture or criticize, she can seem floppier than the Flopsy Bunnies.
By the early 1920s, with the purchase of another piece of property, Troutbeck Park Farm, Potter had become a pioneer in the preservation of English countryside and traditional farming. At her death in 1943, she left more than 4,000 acres of farm and woodland to the National Trust. The last few pages of Lear's book, in which she sums up Potter's far-sighted preservation of so much of the Lake District, are the most stirring. This legacy of natural beauty is as important as Potter's books and her biographer has every right to cheer it. *