The Grownups' Guide to Beatrix Potter
“Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters,” which was recently on view at the Morgan Library, centered on the many letters that Potter wrote to children of her acquaintance in the years before she became a celebrated author (the famous Tale of Peter Rabbit was first published in 1902, when she was 36). The letters are fascinating—hastily scribbled notes, crammed with tiny sketches and narratives, many of which later formed the basis for her best-loved stories. Just as important, though, to an understanding of Potter is the small selection of drawings from her early years with which the exhibition began. These finely observed, detailed images of animals and plants help explain how Potter escaped the fate of so many other Victorian women who loved to draw: that of the “accomplished” lady, the permanent amateur whose artwork merely suited her to be a well-rounded mother or governess, never a respected artist.
Potter began drawing at an early age, and by her teens had become extremely serious, studying everything she found at hand through drawing: the rabbits, mice, bats, newts and other small animals that she and her brother kept in their home; a male jumping spider she examined through her brother’s microscope; the many varieties of plants she sought out each summer, when the family left London for northern England or Scotland. She wisely kept this work separate, in her own thinking, from the conventional conception of a young woman’s art. As she wrote disparagingly in her diary at age 17, the private art teacher her parents thought she should study with was “…disappointing. She speaks of nothing but smoothness, softness [and …] lightness … till there is nothing left.” This is an apt description of the genteel approach to accomplished drawing and painting, in which everything tended to look delicate, and a flat, generic prettiness was prized over accuracy or form. It is a treat to see Potter rejecting these ideas at such a young age. She added, defiantly, “Of course, I shall paint just as I like when I am not with her.” In spite of this independent spirit, however, Potter had few outlets for her gifts. On her own, she became so adept at nature studies that her hundreds of watercolors of mushrooms led her to write a scientific paper; it was presented to the Linnean Society in 1897, but this was done by a man on her behalf, as women were not allowed to attend the Society’s meetings.
Though she may not have known it, Potter’s efforts placed her in the company of a small but significant group of self-taught Victorian women who worked as professional naturalists and botanists from about the 1850s into the 1920s. These included artists and writers such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the author James, who wrote Rural Hours, a nature diary of her native Cooperstown, New York; Margaret Dickinson, who left hundreds of rare plant specimens and important botanical watercolors to the Natural History Society of Northumbria; and Annie Lady Brassey, who traveled throughout the Middle East with her husband, and eventually published several books containing her observations on plant and animal life there, as well as the customs and religions of the people she met. These and many other women (probably numbering in the few hundreds) managed to find some independence through their work, though they often labored in anonymity, and sometimes gained recognition only as aides to husbands or fathers. Like them, Beatrix Potter had both the scientific and artistic abilities to create valuable studies of the flora and fauna that interested her. Ironically, what elevated her to a far greater level of financial security and fame was the fact that she found a way to share these interests with children. The picture-letters, which reveal the way Potter treated everyday life with the same scientific curiosity that she showed in the field, form a bridge between her nature studies and the stories that made her fortune.
At the Morgan, the letters read as mini-travelogues through animal country. They rarely mention big events, food, other people or well-known scenery, as one might reasonably expect. Instead, they’re mainly filled with careful observations about the creatures Potter encountered on short trips to various parts of England. She wrote in 1896 to nine-year-old Noel Moore, a son of her former governess, “I sometimes sit quite still in the boat and watch the water hens. They are black with red bills and make a noise just like hissing, when they are hiding in the reeds. They walk on the lily leaves, nodding their heads and peeping underneath for water snails.” This same interest in animal doings—the sense that one is glimpsing the minute details of a foreign little world—is retained in the final versions of Potter’s books. Readers are continually reminded of the differences between themselves and the animal characters in the stories, who do interesting but unappealing animal-y things. Mr. Jeremy Fisher may dress for his fishing excursion like a Victorian gentleman, but he ends his story by eating roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce, “which,” says the narrator, “frogs consider a beautiful treat; but I think it must have been nasty!” Potter’s book illustrations are sweet, but they don’t shy away from what she called the “ruthless” facts of nature. Think of naïve Jemima Puddle Duck, spied on by a menacing fox as she foolishly accepts his invitation to nestle in his collection of feathers; or the pie served by an unsmiling Mrs. McGregor, which, we learn, contains Peter Rabbit’s father.
Potter herself believed that her success with children’s books was due to the fact that they were, as she said, “written to a [real] child—not made to order.” But one could argue as well that her books were, and are, so compelling because they were written by a real grownup. They are funny, playful and full of excitement, as they should be to engage children, but they don’t talk down to their readers with too much earnestness or a grand emphasis on the moral of the story, and they’re never twee. When Dorothy Parker, under the byline “Constant Reader,” reviewed a new book by A. A. Milne in The New Yorker, she wrote, “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” One suspects she would have given Beatrix Potter a pass. If you haven’t paged through one of the Potter books recently, it’s not too late to try them again.
To see more of the picture letters, visit the online exhibition at the Morgan: http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/potter/letterEnlarge/1