Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Once Upon a Time…

 

Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.

Thus begins one of the best known works of literature in the entire Western Canon.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in Kensington, London. A solitary child, she enjoyed drawing and painting the natural world, starting with her first pet rabbits, Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper, and she also loved the Scottish countryside where she and her brother, together with their parents, spent her childhood summers.

But when Beatrix was sixteen, the family made a detour in their summer travels, and ended up at Lake Windermere, in England’s beautiful Lake District. Beatrix fell in love with the place, and knew that one day, it would be her home.

Back in London for the fall, Beatrix turned her talents towards her interest in mycology (the study of fungus/mushrooms), one that she had developed under the encouragement of renowned Scottish naturalist Charles McIntosh. Her contributions to mycological research, and her detailed drawings of dozens of fungi, are still recognized for their perfection today, although she never presented or published any of her papers or drawings during her lifetime. Because of the unfortunate circumstance of her birth (the second “X” chromosome), she could neither become a member of the Royal Botanical Society, nor have her papers presented or published by the Linnaean Society. (One hundred years after rebuffing her, the Linnaean Society did issue her a posthumous appreciation and apology).

Even while devoting most of her time to her scientific interests, Beatrix was also indulging her creativity and love of whimsy by illustrating her favorite childhood stories, and writing ‘picture letters’ (stories with illustrations) to the children of family friends. After modest success with the publication of some of her greeting-card illustrations, Beatrix decided to try to publish her little tales.

Her early efforts bore no fruit, but eventually, Frederick Warne & Co. noticed the success of her self-published run (250 copies) of a little book called The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and reconsidered their earlier rejection of the story. It was first formally published in October 1902, and it sold like hotcakes. At the same time, a romance blossomed between Beatrix and her publisher, Norman Warne. The match was opposed by Beatrix’s socially-rigid and controlling parents (she was in her thirties at the time), but the two became engaged. Shortly thereafter, Norman died of leukemia, and Beatrix was devastated.

Rather than retiring to the fainting couch with a fit of the vapors, as many women would have done, Beatrix did something very unusual for a lady of the time; she used some of the income from her books and an inheritance from a family member to buy a small farm in her beloved Lake District, and she moved herself, lock stock and barrel, to the north of England. Away from her parents, and towards her own life.

Once there, she threw herself wholeheartedly into two things—her literary endeavors, and farming. The stories, and her agricultural undertaking, prospered, and with the help of William Heelis, a local solicitor, and several Lake District farmers who, I’m sure, were amused by the London city lady’s interest in their endeavors, she became a champion farmer of pigs, cows, chickens, and eventually, prize-winning Herdwick sheep.

Many years later, she and William Heelis married, and she lived out her life on her beloved farm, buying up neighboring properties as her time and finances allowed. When she died in 1943, she was one of England’s most respected landowners and sheep breeders, and she left the National Trust 4,000 acres of pristine countryside with the stipulation that it never be developed, and that it be farmed in perpetuity. God Bless her. I’m not lost in admiration of all that many people, but I really admire this one.

It’s probably impossible to quantify what these little books have meant to the children in my family over the generations, but here goes:

My early life, as some of you know, was quite topsy-turvy. There were, however, a couple of eyes in the storm. One of them was my maternal grandparents, with whom we visited often when Dad was on leave from Nigeria. The other was my dad’s old family home: the enormous house occupied in my childhood by his sisters, my three maiden aunties.

It really was a fabulous house, and we’ve lived to regret the family’s not buying the freehold for a few thousand pounds in the 1970s when we had the chance to. The last time it sold, in 2015, it went for £1.65 million. Here’s the sales brochure (it’s been extensively redone since I knew it, when it was still, substantially, its Victorian original.) It was a paradise for small children–rooms full of toys, plenty of places to hide from the grown-ups and from each other, and beautiful grounds to play in.

Half-way up, the main staircase turned back on itself and there was a small landing (painted yellow). And on that landing was a little bookshelf with early editions of almost every Beatrix Potter tale. In the late 1950s, just as my aunts and uncles had done thirty and forty years before, I spent countless hours sitting in the little alcove, absorbing the tales of Peter, Benjamin, Jeremy, Jemima, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and Ginger and Pickles. They meant home to me, a safe, normal home where strange men with guns, and poisonous snakes, weren’t trying to kill me, and where I didn’t have to move and form new friendships every five minutes. Peter and Benjamin were constant and true. They didn’t budge. I loved them. And I still do.

Fast forward to about 1970. Technology has caught up with Peter, and as well as reading the books, my brother is listening to The Tale of Peter Rabbit on a 45RPM vinyl recording from a few years previous. The story is voiced by Vivien Leigh, and has been adulterated augmented by several jolly songs. Nevertheless, the narration reflects the original text, and, of course, we are enchanted again.

By the time my granddaughter is born in 2008, there’s been another leap forward, and while she is still a tiny baby, my sister sends, from England, the complete Tales and Nursery Rhymes of Beatrix Potter, on 23 CDs, in a nice little zippered bag.

Whereas my aunts and uncles, my brother and myself, merely loved the tales, my granddaughter absolutely immerses herself in them. We read the books to her, over and over again (they’re great vocabulary builders for young children; Beatrix never wrote down to her audience), and then she starts to read them herself. She will not get in the car without her bag full of “stories,” and she insists on listening to them play while her mother drives (yes, even to the rather awful renditions of Beatrix’s “Nursery Rhymes,” which her mother dubs the “Andrew Lloyd-Weber version” of the songs). Pretty soon she has almost everything memorized.

And she starts to develop, and tell, her own tales, and to populate her own world, one in which her best friend, the imaginary Mopsy, figures large. One day, perhaps she’ll write and publish her stories; you’ll be captivated if she does, I promise you.

Just as I was, one day when we were sitting around the kitchen table on the farm. My granddaughter was about four. She was telling her own made-up story about Mopsy (a miraculous shape-shifting, size-shifting, temperature-adapting rabbit) and her family and friends, and about an expedition undertaken to pick blackberries.

All the narration was in my granddaughter’s own natural voice. All the dialog among the animals which were part of the story was spoken in a seamless, impeccable, absolutely spot-on, English accent.

Because, having listened to the CDs, over and over again all her young life, she knew that’s how they spoke.

I am usually pretty lost when people start discussing the books of their youth, because I’m unfamiliar with most of them, having lived my early life in a bit of a culture warp. As far as authors go, my “big three” are Beatrix Potter, Gerald Durrell, and James Herriot. They (punctuated in my adolescence by the occasional tasteful bodice-ripper) got me through a lot. And still can.

But the first, and perhaps the greatest of these, is Beatrix. And so, just like the Linnaean Society, I’d like to offer a posthumous, and very belated, “thank you,” to this particular Lady of the Lake (District), on her one-hundred-forty-first birthday one-hundred-fifty-first birthday (edit: math never was my strong suit), for entertaining me, educating me and informing the course of my life, as well as for providing comfort and enjoyment to so many I love.

Thank you, Beatrix Potter.

There are 30 comments.

  1. Dr. Bastiat Member

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I had no idea. What a lady…

    • #1
    • July 28, 2017, at 7:53 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Grandma had a number of these books in the farmhouse. Her reading them aloud to me constitutes some of my earliest memories.

    Thank you, She.

    • #2
    • July 28, 2017, at 8:03 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I had no idea. What a lady…

    She was indeed. And she had the salesmanship thing down pat, registering both a Peter Rabbit stuffed doll, and a Peter Rabbit game during her lifetime.

    Somewhere along the way, the marketers lost most of the plot, and there wasn’t all that much capitalization on the books until the late 60s and early 70s.

    Oddly enough, around that time, some dear friends of the family (from the Nigeria days) who were the caretakers at Hilltop Farm (BPs original Lake District property) visited us in the States.

    They bemoaned the lack of exposure, and the need for more National Trust money to promote the Potter legacy.

    My mother pulled out the Sears Roebuck catalog (remember when there was one in every home?) and they went back to the UK clutching dozens of pages showing ” absolutely everything Winnie The Pooh–hundreds of items of games, toys, clothing, furniture, bedding, you name it, all featuring funny old bear.

    I don’t suggest that it’s what led to the explosion in BP merchandise shortly thereafter, but it’s a good story . . . .

    • #3
    • July 28, 2017, at 8:17 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    There was a nice little movie, Miss Potter, made in 2006, staring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. It’s a beautifully filmed, somewhat fictionalized, account of her efforts to publish her books, and of her move to the Lake District.

    I enjoyed it, although I never quite got past the notion that the lead actress was Bridget Jones, playing Beatrix Potter.

    The best biography (IMHO) is Linda Lear’s A Life In Nature.

    • #4
    • July 28, 2017, at 9:16 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Nanda Panjandrum Coolidge

    Fanks, @She! Here’s a link to a lovely live-action-with-animation DVD set that’s gorgeous – faithful to illustrations and the text. It’s a favorite hereabouts. As is “Miss Potter”.

    • #5
    • July 28, 2017, at 9:52 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Fanks, @She! Here’s a link to a lovely live-action-with-animation DVD set that’s gorgeous – faithful to illustrations and the text. It’s a favorite hereabouts. As is “Miss Potter”.

    Thanks, Nanda. Yes, I think these are far-and-away the best of the animated versions, and the only ones that really capture the spirit of the original water-color illustrations. Glad you enjoy them!

    • #6
    • July 28, 2017, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. MarciN Member

    I loved reading this, @She. Thank you. You are a Ricochet treasure. :)

    • #7
    • July 28, 2017, at 10:36 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  8. Quake Voter Inactive

    She (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Fanks, @She! Here’s a link to a lovely live-action-with-animation DVD set that’s gorgeous – faithful to illustrations and the text. It’s a favorite hereabouts. As is “Miss Potter”.

    Thanks, Nanda. Yes, I think these are far-and-away the best of the animated versions, and the only ones that really capture the spirit of the original water-color illustrations. Glad you enjoy them!

    The early death of Dianne Jackson was such a loss. What a unique and humane talent.

    • #8
    • July 28, 2017, at 11:29 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Quake Voter (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    Fanks, @She! Here’s a link to a lovely live-action-with-animation DVD set that’s gorgeous – faithful to illustrations and the text. It’s a favorite hereabouts. As is “Miss Potter”.

    Thanks, Nanda. Yes, I think these are far-and-away the best of the animated versions, and the only ones that really capture the spirit of the original water-color illustrations. Glad you enjoy them!

    The early death of Dianne Jackson was such a loss. What a unique and humane talent.

    Yes. She really had a gift.

    • #9
    • July 28, 2017, at 12:37 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. PHCheese Member

    She (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I had no idea. What a lady…

    She was indeed. And she had the salesmanship thing down pat, registering both a Peter Rabbit stuffed doll, and a Peter Rabbit game during her lifetime.

    Somewhere along the way, the marketers lost most of the plot, and there wasn’t all that much capitalization on the books until the late 60s and early 70s.

    Oddly enough, around that time, some dear friends of the family (from the Nigeria days) who were the caretakers at Hilltop Farm (BPs original Lake District property) visited us in the States.

    They bemoaned the lack of exposure, and the need for more National Trust money to promote the Potter legacy.

    My mother pulled out the Sears Roebuck catalog (remember when there was one in every home?) and they went back to the UK clutching dozens of pages showing ” absolutely everything Winnie The Pooh–hundreds of items of games, toys, clothing, furniture, bedding, you name it, all featuring funny old bear.

    I don’t suggest that it’s what led to the explosion in BP merchandise shortly thereafter, but it’s a good story . . . .

    Heck,I am so old I remember when there was a Sears and Roebuck catalog in every outhouse.

    • #10
    • July 28, 2017, at 1:09 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lovely!

    • #11
    • July 28, 2017, at 3:00 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Trink Coolidge
    Trink Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Wonderful She! It made me smile to learn that I share her passion for mycology. Her lovely painting of that fungus is one of the chantrelles. Delicious. I’ve collected, photographed and eaten 12 wild species and lived to look forward to more:)

    • #12
    • July 28, 2017, at 3:21 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. DocJay Inactive

    My mom was a grand fan of Beatrix Potter and my baby girl still has all the various stufties and books. Fun memories.

    • #13
    • July 28, 2017, at 4:06 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I didn’t read Beatrix Potter. I wish I were nine years old again, just to read them from that point of view. It’s the only reason I’d want to be nine again. Thanks, She.

    • #14
    • July 30, 2017, at 1:26 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Lois Lane Coolidge

    I love that your granddaughter’s rabbits speak with English accents. That is the most precious thing I’ve ever heard.

    And I love the great attachment you formed with Potter’s books. (I knew them, of course, though you and I would bond more over Tricky Woo and Yorkshire, staples of my own youth.)

    I’m surprised you never found a wardrobe to another world in the house you describe, though perhaps you did find magic. It’s just it took you to the Lake District instead of Narnia.

    Thank you for the reminder of those contributions that are often more lasting than politics and a grand sight more pleasurable.

    • #15
    • July 30, 2017, at 6:38 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. JcTPatriot Inactive

    I never read them as a child, and I have no idea why, other than I don’t remember seeing them in my house. I did, however, buy them and read them to my children, and I believe my daughter still has them, presumably for my eventual grandchildren.

    Thank you so much for this marvelous Post, She.

    • #16
    • July 30, 2017, at 7:22 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    I love that your granddaughter’s rabbits speak with English accents. That is the most precious thing I’ve ever heard.

    And I love the great attachment you formed with Potter’s books. (I knew them, of course, though you and I would bond more over Tricky Woo and Yorkshire, staples of my own youth.)

    I’m surprised you never found a wardrobe to another world in the house you describe, though perhaps you did find magic. It’s just it took you to the Lake District instead of Narnia.

    Thank you for the reminder of those contributions that are often more lasting than politics and a grand sight more pleasurable.

    Oh, Lois, I’ve been through the wardrobe, too.

    And, Mrs. Pumphrey!

    • #17
    • July 30, 2017, at 7:28 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. Lois Lane Coolidge

    She (View Comment):
    And, Mrs. Pumphrey!

    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    If you ever get a chance to go to Thirsk, Alf Wight’s real surgery has been preserved. I had a wonderful time visiting.

    Next time I’m in England, I will have to go to Potter’s home in the Lake District if the National Trust maintains it and allows visitors. :)

    • #18
    • July 30, 2017, at 7:43 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lois Lane (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    And, Mrs. Pumphrey!

    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    If you ever get a chance to go to Thirsk, Alf Wight’s real surgery has been preserved. I had a wonderful time visiting.

    Next time I’m in England, I will have to go to Potter’s home in the Lake District if the National Trust maintains it and allows visitors. ?

    Yes, it’s a National Trust property and is open to visitors following their usual schedule (whatever that is). I’ve never been, but a friend of mine was there last year, and said it was lovely. She said you could understand exactly why and how the landscape inspired the illustrations in the books, and that the flower garden was just beautiful. I picked this book up at a remainder sale for a couple of bucks a few years ago. If you can find it in a library, it gives you a good idea of her life and homes. Lots of photographs and BP paintings.

    • #19
    • July 30, 2017, at 8:07 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Thanks, everyone for the kind comments and the upvotes. I appreciate them very much.

    • #20
    • July 30, 2017, at 8:07 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  21. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Visited the Beatrix Potter Museum when I visited the Lake District over 13 years ago (huh…time flies). My son has several of the DVDs that were made of the stories (they’re actually pretty well done). For some reason, years ago when he was younger, the Tailor of Gloucester episode always made him cry. And he used to watch it over and over again with the same result. Go figure. Here are some photos I took of the museum:

    And here’s Peter at the Last Supper (it’s what Da Vinci originally painted and then changed…no really.)

    • #21
    • July 30, 2017, at 8:18 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  22. JcTPatriot Inactive

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    Your dog story actually brought a tear to my eye as I imagined your little pup looking up expectantly for a little nibble of bacon.

    :)

    • #22
    • July 30, 2017, at 9:08 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  23. Lois Lane Coolidge

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    Your dog story actually brought a tear to my eye as I imagined your little pup looking up expectantly for a little nibble of bacon.

    ?

    Yeah. I’m not quite as pretty as my boxer whose face I use as my Ricochet Picture, but his grumpy expression is a pretty permanent one in the mornings when I deny him a bite of “people breakfast.”

    Well… I mean… I mostly deny him.

    Maybe I give in for little nibbles when no one is looking.

    Does it count if we’re only talking bacon bits?

    After all, you couldn’t put it past Mrs. Pumphrey to give Tricky Woo a full English!!! :D

    • #23
    • July 30, 2017, at 9:29 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  24. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    Visited the Beatrix Potter Museum when I visited the Lake District over 13 years ago (huh…time flies). My son has several of the DVDs that were made of the stories (they’re actually pretty well done). For some reason, years ago when he was younger, the Tailor of Gloucester episode always made him cry. And he used to watch it over and over again with the same result. Go figure. Here are some photos I took of the museum: [snip]

    Lovely, Brian. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • #24
    • July 31, 2017, at 2:14 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lois Lane (View Comment):

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    Your dog story actually brought a tear to my eye as I imagined your little pup looking up expectantly for a little nibble of bacon.

    ?

    Yeah. I’m not quite as pretty as my boxer whose face I use as my Ricochet Picture, but his grumpy expression is a pretty permanent one in the mornings when I deny him a bite of “people breakfast.”

    Well… I mean… I mostly deny him.

    Maybe I give in for little nibbles when no one is looking.

    Does it count if we’re only talking bacon bits?

    After all, you couldn’t put it past Mrs. Pumphrey to give Tricky Woo a full English!!! ?

    Loved the BBC series from so many (!) years ago, with Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy, and I hope no modern genius ever thinks to remake it. Think it captured the books perfectly. I was gobsmacked to read that Robert Hardy is 92 years old now . . . tempus fugit, for us all, I guess.

    • #25
    • July 31, 2017, at 2:23 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Hang On Member
    Hang On Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I visited the museum and farm in the Lake District long ago as well. Absolutely gorgeous countryside any time of year. What most impressed me was her farming acumen. I remember a photo of her on what must have been a blustery day in her wellies and raincoat tending her sheep. Intrepid.

    • #26
    • July 31, 2017, at 4:58 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. Lois Lane Coolidge

    She (View Comment):
    Loved the BBC series from so many (!) years ago, with Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy,

    No one could replace those guys in my mind. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone would think to remake the series either. Much too wholesome. They’d need to create scenes of Tristan with prostitutes and snorting coke or something rather than having one too many rounds at the pub, and that would be so ridiculous in Yorkshire, they wouldn’t want to bother. I hope.

    • #27
    • July 31, 2017, at 5:04 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  28. I. M. Fine Coolidge

    A lovely post. It brought back memories of my favorite character – stubborn Jemina Puddle-Duck, with whom I shared a strong affinity. Miss Potter was not only a superb story-teller and elegant artist, but she was also a deft observer of the human condition. You inspired me to unpack a box of books in my basement, She! Thank you.

    • #28
    • July 31, 2017, at 7:15 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  29. GiveMeLiberty Inactive

    I am ‘Nana’ to six adorable moppets who know that during the summer growing season they can enjoy bread and milk and blackberries (that they can help pick from Nana’s blackberry bushes) for supper when they visit. Stories at bedtime are a must. Very special.

    Lovely post! Thank you @she!

    • #29
    • July 31, 2017, at 10:00 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  30. Nanda Panjandrum Coolidge

    She (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):

    Lois Lane (View Comment):
    God bless, Mrs. Pumphrey. I think about her every time I go to the vet and am told my poor dog who has ceaseless problems with digestion really can’t have bacon: “No, Mrs. Lane. Not even the turkey kind.”

    Your dog story actually brought a tear to my eye as I imagined your little pup looking up expectantly for a little nibble of bacon.

    ?

    Yeah. I’m not quite as pretty as my boxer whose face I use as my Ricochet Picture, but his grumpy expression is a pretty permanent one in the mornings when I deny him a bite of “people breakfast.”

    Well… I mean… I mostly deny him.

    Maybe I give in for little nibbles when no one is looking.

    Does it count if we’re only talking bacon bits?

    After all, you couldn’t put it past Mrs. Pumphrey to give Tricky Woo a full English!!! ?

    Loved the BBC series from so many (!) years ago, with Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy, and I hope no modern genius ever thinks to remake it. Think it captured the books perfectly. I was gobsmacked to read that Robert Hardy is 92 years old now . . . tempus fugit, for us all, I guess.

    …And, let Peter Davison’s Tristan Farnon not be neglected…

    • #30
    • July 31, 2017, at 9:02 PM PDT
    • 2 likes