- Paperback: 608 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (March 4, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312377967
- ISBN-13: 978-0312377960
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.7 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 87 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #378,373 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature Paperback – March 4, 2008
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“Read Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear and you sense a woman poised between late-Victorian constraint and the promises, intellectual and amorous, of liberation.” ―Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
“Potter was a famously close observer of the world around her, and Lear is an equally close observer of her subject. The result is a meticulously researched and brilliantly re-created life that, despite its length and accretion of detail, is endlessly fascinating and often illuminating. It is altogether a remarkable achievement.” ―Booklist, *Starred Review*
“Lear is not only an impeccable historian but a grand storyteller...a magisterial and definitive biography, a delight in every way.” ―The Horn Book
“In this remarkable biography...the author's meticulous attention to detail is obvious throughout, not to mention her elegant writing and exceptional scholarship. Highly recommended.” ―Library Journal
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During the Victorian period women had made important contributions to the study of natural history as amateurs, but as the field had gradually professionalized, it became more and more an exclusively male domain. After devoting several years to studying, drawing and breeding fungi of various sorts, Beatrix reluctantly realized that her research and ideas would never be taken seriously. The field of literature, especially children's literature, was somewhat more hospitable to women authors, but still she had to face a good deal of rejection from publishers, and engage in some self-publishing, before any of her books were accepted. She already had a stock of illustrated animal stories on hand, since during her scientific period she had amused herself by writing picture letters to children she liked. Once the first printing of Peter Rabbit reached the stores, her career as a children's author was established. For the first time she had a regular income of her own, and was on her way to becoming an independent woman. She yearned for a way of life that was simple, honest, and in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. The life she wanted seemed to be within her reach when she became engaged, despite parental objections, to Norman Warne, youngest of the brothers whose firm published her books, but within a month of their engagement he became seriously ill and died.
Trying to come to terms with her grief and hold on to her hard won independence, she purchased a small farm near Sawrey in the Lake District, a place she had visited several times with her parents. In her forties she was still living at home but was able to get away for brief periods to spend a few days and nights enjoying country life. When the income from her books enabled her to afford it, she bought more land in the neighborhood, and eventually married William Heelis, the local solicitor who advised her on her purchases. They moved into one of her farmhouses together, and enjoyed thirty years of marriage and collaborative efforts to buy and preserve large swathes of unspoiled Lake District farm land, ultimately to be saved for the public as a gift to the National Trust.
Her entire life had been a lonely struggle against parents, scientists, and publishers. How she must have relished finally having an ally in her fight against developers, commercial interests, and greedy landowners! Her husband had an encyclopedic knowledge of the land, people, and customs of the Lake District, without which she, a Londoner by birth, would hardly have been able to act on such a large scale. The lively extended Heelis family helped her to feel at home in her adopted neighborhood. She became an important community leader, improving the lives of the local population in many ways. She continued to write and illustrate her little books as long as her eyes were strong enough, and satisfied her scientific side as a top breeder of native Lake District Herdwick sheep. In later life she enjoyed friendships with librarians and other American visitors who appreciated her important contributions to children's literature. Everything she ever learned she remembered and applied to every project she undertook. She was an uncompromising artist, a careful businesswoman, and an enthusiastic farmer. What a creative, productive, well-lived life!
All of this is put together so beautifully that the story flows, the pages turn, and readers enter the worlds of this remarkable, many-faceted woman. Lear offers a prologue, with the middle-aged woman on her knees frantically searching a just-harvested field, continues with 21 chapters as a chronicle of Beatrix's life, and closes with an epilogue on stewardship, which seems a bit dicey. The stewardship of the over 5,000 acres she purchased, then gifted to the National Trust to preserve a countryside she loved, not the chapter.
The succinct chapter titles fit and herald the personality Lear chronicles. This woman could dissect small animals while still in the nursery she shared with her brother, Bertram, and in later years, ask a shepherd to bring her a lamb's head with the shoulder fleece on it so she could sketch it properly (see p. 397 for a well-sketched sheep head). She was a canny, perhaps overly thrifty, business-woman, determined to gather acres and estates to be preserved as she knew them, peppery in speaking and she could write a peppery letter to a publisher,
"You do not realize that I have become more---rather than less obstinate as I grow older; and that you have no lever to make use of with me; beyond sympathy with you and the old firm....And when you infer that my originality is more precious than old Aesop's you DO put your foot in it." (p. 300)
Plain-speaking Beatrix had other facets. She could care tenderly for Hunca Munca, her cherished pocket mouse, delight in rescuing old oak furniture to be re-settled in the farms from which it came, quietly help a farm manager's talented daughter attend college, and write magical story-letters to child-friends.
Thus we have descriptive, Potterian chapter titles: Roots, Exposures, Transitions, Experiments, Discoveries, Fantasties, Ideas, Realities, Losses, Stories, Diversions, Satisfactions, Partnerships, Salvages, Opportunities, Legacies, Americans, Ventures, Passages, Challenges, and Reflections.
What a story Lear has to tell about the self-emancipation of this talent that has illuminated a century of childhood! Under the heavy thumbs of her ultra-wealthy father and her demanding (that's the kindest word) mother, Beatrix was brought up with intellectual freedom as to her menagerie, passion for art, and scientific study coupled with behavioral demands so rigorous that at 35 years of age, she could not travel alone across five miles of London to meet with a respected, long-time publisher. That excursion was permitted only after a bitter fight and then, accompanied by a chaperone. (To be fair, the Potters suspected a possible romance with someone in (shudder) trade, which they regarded with most absolute horror.)
There's an old rhyme about a monk of Siberia whose "existance grew drearier & drearier, till he broke from his cell with a terrible yell, and el*ped with the M*ther S*perior." Well, as Lear tell us, Miss Potter remained dutiful throughout her life as to elder-care. However, she broke from that cell to become the antithesis of almost everything else the parents valued. At about 40 years old, she took the proceeds of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," purchased a farm on the wild, wondrous hills of the legendary Lake Country, and became---among many other things---the happy wife of her attorney, Mr. William Heelis, and an award-winning expert on sheep.
Beatrix's life was more-than-exciting and Lear tells it splendidly with the sympathies of a biographer & the expertise of a professor (which she is) in environmental history. In addition to the almost 500 pages of text including many beautifully reproduced pictures from Potter's books and photographs of the family, friends, and houses she'd known, readers get an excellent map of Beatrix's Lakeland with place-names, 69 illustrations helpfully labeled as to page, about 100 pages of informative, scholarly notes, a "select" bibliography that runs 15 pages, and a 30-page index. The book is strongly bound, printed on good quality paper.
Any Reader Alerts? Some readers may have a Kate Greenaway image of this artist-writer imagining her inner being like the sweet mice of "The Tailor of Gloucester" with the kind practicality of "Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle." Such readers may be saddened to learn Miss Potter/Mrs Heelis was more complex than that, with a double-measure of Mr. McGregor and not a little of Mr. Tod. However, many readers may expect a first-rate biography to illuminate much and adulate little. Lear illuminates.
Also, some readers may find 600 detail-packed pages too much of a good thing. This is not padded, but the details come thick and fast, such as what Mrs. Heelis and Mrs. Banner were wearing when they met at a sheep judging event. This is not a fashion report, but relevant to Mrs. Heelis' responsiveness. Such readers may prefer one of the shorter or more specialized biographies such as the delightful books on walks "with" Beatrix in the countrysides she loved or her gardens.
Me, I found this well-regarded biography to be everything I hoped for, and more. I loved it, all five bright stars, and recommend it for those who like their biographies well-illuminated, as-long-as-needed, and with as much Tale of Beatrix Potter as possible.
As a child I received the books one by one as gifts from grandparents. Of all the books I've had, these tiny books went with me to college, grad school, to my home and now reside on my shelves in a Carmelite Monastery.
The book is so wonderful to include so many snippets of her letters, journal entries and reminisces of her friends. The author is so very evenhanded in writing of the times of Beatrix' life, her passion and dream, the prophetic dimension of her life's works. Thank you!