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The best books on Beatrix Potter

recommended by Libby Joy

The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter

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The Complete Tales
by Beatrix Potter

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In spite of the huge popularity of her work, Beatrix Potter has often been underappreciated as an artist and a writer, argues Libby Joy of the Beatrix Potter Society. Here she chooses five books to help you appreciate Potter's life as an author, artist and pioneering conservationist.

Interview by Benedict King

The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter

The Original and Authorised Edition

The Complete Tales
by Beatrix Potter

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Before we get into your Beatrix Potter book choices, to what do you attribute her perennial appeal? Why do you think she’s been so popular for so long?

Her first book was published in 1902, when she was already 36, and the books have continued to sell ever since. Obviously the stories appeal to children. They are aimed at children and they have text and illustrations that appeal to them, but they also appeal to adults, who are happy to read the books with children because they have an underlying interest that a lot of children’s books don’t necessarily have for adults.

Although her stories are not moralizing, they have a purpose and a point, and they have a bit of humour. For a child they can be quite exciting. There’s a page-turning element. Also, her illustrations are exquisite. They are realistic, compared with many other children’s book illustrations.

It has to be said, that for something to be so successful for so long, you also have to have good publicity and good marketing. In the early days, Potter and her publisher were very astute. They cottoned on quite quickly to the importance of publicity and that has continued right up to the present day. You certainly couldn’t fault Frederick Warne, now under the Penguin Random House umbrella, which is as good at publicity for Beatrix Potter as anyone ever was when she was alive.

You’ve touched on the other question I wanted to ask, which is whether there are any underlying themes in her work, or whether it can be read on two levels, one of which might not be immediately obvious to children, but could be enjoyed by adults?

Some of the Tales are definitely written on two levels. They can be very straightforward: ‘here’s a cat, here’s a mouse, and this is what happens when you put the two together’. It’s a funny story and it’s slapstick; I’m thinking of something like The Tale of Miss Moppet. But several of her later books are definitely written on two levels, with a warning that the world is not quite as straightforward or benevolent as you might think. Examples here are The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, or The Tale of Mr Tod.

“She was indeed obsessed with drawing”

For children, the double layer is often completely beyond them, but it doesn’t matter because the story still works with a beginning, a middle and an end, and an adventure at its heart. But for adults it’s very satisfying because there is a moral element, or an element of danger or of ‘I-told-you-so’ that adds a bit of interest. There is no one universal theme in the books, but there is definitely a second layer in many of the stories. And, to be honest, I would imagine that that’s partly what kept Beatrix Potter herself interested, the idea that she could write something that, on the face of it, was very straightforward, but which was more interesting and funny if you delve deeper. Some of the books are very funny.

I particularly remember being obsessed by Peter Rabbit when I was younger. That was certainly about the world not being quite as safe as you might expect it to be, and also full of brutal and nasty human beings.

There are nasty human beings in the books, but some animals are also nasty to other animals. There is a ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ side to the books. And, of course, as with Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter is obviously not always on the side of the Goody-Goody-Two-Shoes. She has a certain sympathy for the rebel or the mischief maker. And that also endears her to both children and adults.

Let’s move on to the Beatrix Potter books you’ve chosen for us. The first is Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. Tell us why this is such a good introduction to her life. Also, can you tell us a bit about her life, to get a sense of how she became the person she ended up being? She came from quite an interesting family, I think both her parents were amateur artists and she was an obsessive drawer from a very young age.

She was indeed obsessed with drawing—”I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result…” I think that was partly the background that she came from. Drawing and art were acceptable talents for girls to have and I would imagine that most girls her age, with money, would have governesses and would have been learning to draw. That it became an overriding passion for her is probably partly genetic—her parents were both amateur artists and her father was a very keen amateur photographer. There was also a certain amount of art in her background. One of her grandfathers was a philanthropic patron of the arts, for example, and her father collected the work of Randolph Caldecott.

Wasn’t she related to John Everett Millais?

No, she wasn’t related to him, but he was a friend of her father’s. Rupert Potter would take reference photographs for Millais to use when he was painting in his studio or away from his subject. Some of these photographs are now in the National Portrait Gallery. As a result of that, Beatrix Potter met him several times. Her father also used to take her to the Royal Academy and other galleries and exhibitions in London. So, from quite a young age, she was exposed to great master paintings, Rembrandt, Titian and so on, but also to more contemporary artists, like the Pre-Raphaelites. She wasn’t just learning painting and drawing at home, she was able to see what other artists were doing.

This was all made possible by her background. Her parents were extremely wealthy. Both came from the Manchester area and their families had made their money in the cotton trade. The Potters quite liked to play this down, in that they moved to London partly to establish themselves in society. Her father was a barrister by training, though he practised very little. But it was quite difficult for the Potters to be accepted into London society—they came from the north and probably had northern accents, their money had been made in trade and they were nonconformists, which closed off certain avenues.

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They had the money to behave like upper-middle class people, but their background didn’t gain them entry into all the circles that Mrs Potter would have liked to have been let into. They could afford the lovely long summer holidays that the upper classes enjoyed, and they could afford servants, they had a nice house in Kensington, they had a carriage, Beatrix had governesses and they sent their son away to school, but they mixed mostly with other nonconformists and other professionals rather than the real upper classes.

Tell us specifically about Linda Lear’s biography. What is the tale of Beatrix Potter she tells in this book?

Linda Lear’s primary interest is looking at people in relation to the natural world and science. Lear’s first and very successful biography was of Rachel Carson, who fits that bill. In America, she is the ‘go-to’ expert on Rachel Carson. She first came across Beatrix Potter when she discovered that she also had interests in those areas. She was looking for a new subject to write about and, quite by chance, she saw some of Potter’s fungi paintings, which are meticulously detailed and scientifically accurate and very, very beautiful. This completely amazed her and so she began researching Beatrix Potter’s life and discovered that there was a great deal more to her than just The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other little books.

So, her biography started from that point of view, which is why it’s called ‘a life in nature’. She writes about the whole of Beatrix Potter’s life with great insight, but she concentrates very much on the influence of place, the influence of education, and the opportunities that enabled Beatrix Potter to learn through nature, through science and also through her drawing and painting.

She follows this path right through to the last third of Beatrix Potter’s life, which is probably the third that people are least familiar with, when she was living and working as a farmer in the Lake District and had put the little books behind her. Many of her neighbours in the Lake District had no idea until she died, it was the obituaries that revealed the fact that the Mrs Heelis living in their midst and visiting sheep fairs and so on, was actually Beatrix Potter.

“The book is also very good on how such a constrained background produced a woman of such independence and confidence”

Linda Lear has the benefit of being one of the most recent biographers, of course. There are earlier biographies, the first one was by Margaret Lane in 1946, and Judy Taylor’s later one (1986) is very good. But we know so much more now, and a contemporary biographer always has the benefit of everybody else’s research. Linda’s book, published in 2007, is quite long. It’s quite a dense read and the illustrations are in sections, rather than scattered throughout the book, so it is definitely a ‘read’ rather than lots of lovely pictures with a bit of text. But it tells you everything you could possibly need to know about Beatrix Potter in every part of her life and the notes and references are very rewarding.

It’s particularly interesting on her background and the nonconformist side of her family, but it’s also fascinating as a picture of a young girl growing up in Victorian England and making the transition to the twentieth century, living in a strict household, but yearning to be something completely different and, of course, with an unexpected interest in science.  The book is also very good on how such a constrained background produced a woman of such independence and confidence, so totally different from how you would have expected her to have turned out.

You mentioned that she yearned for independence. You also mentioned that she had stopped producing her books by the time she started farming up in the Lake District, where she had quite a large estate. When and why did she stop writing her books and devote herself to farming?

If you divide her life approximately into thirds, in the first third she was a dutiful Victorian daughter, learning a certain amount, but totally educated by governesses or self-educated at home, leading a fairly restricted and isolated life but drawing all the while. She went on holiday with her parents, lovely long holidays to Scotland and later to the Lake District, and she wrote a lot of letters, including to children of her acquaintance.

But by the time she was in her thirties, she realized that the sort of marriage that her parents might have wanted for her was not what she wanted and that she was not the sort of wife that young men were looking for. She was shy, her social life beyond her family and cousins and so on was virtually non-existent, and she didn’t miss it. But she did want independence—to be able to do things for herself which, in those days, was very difficult outside marriage, because daughters were supposed to stay at home with their parents. So, she needed to make some money and that’s where the little books came in.

“She did want independence—to be able to do things for herself which, in those days, was very difficult outside marriage ”

Her last governess, who became her friend, suggested that she might look at the letters that she’d been writing to children with little stories and pictures in them, to see whether they might be something she could turn into books. The writing of the little books really spans from about 1900 until 1913, though there were some later titles. It was a very short time, during which she wrote prolifically and was full of ideas. That’s the second third of her life.

During those years, she started buying land in the Lake District, so her stories became very Lake District-based. The shift from writing to landowning wasn’t really a conscious decision, but she was making money from the books, which she spent on farms and land and then more farms and more land, building up responsibility for it all and being very hands-on.  Then there were interesting things happening in the fields and on the fells—with the sheep, for example. Also her eyesight deteriorated with age, which made doing all the fiddly small illustrations difficult and, gradually, the writing lost out to her farming interests. She wrote very tellingly to her publisher in 1918, saying, “Somehow when one is up to the eyes in work with real live animals it makes one despise paper-book animals…!”

Suddenly she was a full-time farmer. She ended up owning more than 4,000 acres, with something like 15 different farms. She was drawn into the world of an established, respected landowner, with all the responsibilities that go with that, and that was the last third of her life. There was no conscious decision from one day to the next. It was just how her life developed. And, it has to be said, she was still dependent on the royalties from the little books for this life. She understood that she needed the income that they were generating.

But her estate was funded entirely by her own efforts, it wasn’t a result of inheriting her parents’ money?

No, not only her own efforts. She inherited money as well, from both of her parents. The Potters were very wealthy. I saw somewhere an equation that tells you what they would be worth in today’s money. It’s a lot.

Let’s move on to Beatrix Potter’s Art by Anne Stevenson Hobbs. Is this book largely just illustrations, or does it actually talk about her development as an artist and how she worked?

There’s a good long introduction in this book which talks about the development of Potter’s art, with quite technical explanations of her drawing and painting technique, as well as discussion on her influences and her subject matter. And it is beautifully produced and illustrated. But the reason I chose a book about her art as one of the five books is that in order to understand Beatrix Potter, it’s very important to realize that she is so much more than just the little books.

Anne’s book has examples of her very early art, what she saw on her holidays in Scotland as a child, through her teenage years when her work is a bit more stylized and we know that she belonged to a drawing society and took diploma exams. Everything is a bit more formal. Several still lifes, for example, are a bit stiff. But Potter was also experimenting with fantasy drawings, illustrating fairy tales, rhymes and fables from a young age, and some of those are lovely. Then, in the 1890s, she made a bit of money from selling designs to companies that made greetings cards.

“It’s possible to follow the trajectory of her life in rather the same way as you would with a biography, but looking at it visually through her own work.”

But all the time she was sketching, and this book also shows that very well—the pages and pages of sketches of rabbits, mice, birds and frogs (most of them her own pets) and of flowers and landscapes. She’s always sketching and so later, when she came to produce the little books (which, of course, are also illustrated in this book), you can see that the illustrations are based on years of observation and drawing. That’s what makes them so accurate.

Later on in her life she painted some wonderful, impressionistic watercolour landscapes of the Lake District in and around the village where she lived.  These are amongst my favourites.

Another very important thing to mention about this book—already touched on in relation to Linda Lear’s biography—is that it shows Beatrix Potter as a natural historian and scientist. In addition to all the sketches of animals and the later landscapes, there are very detailed botanical paintings of flowers, mosses and lichens. And there are the absolutely fantastic fungi paintings. There are several hundred of those and most of them are in the Armitt Library and Museum in the Lake District, while others are in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. They are a surprise to the majority of people, who know only about Beatrix Potter’s little books, or her connection with the National Trust and her role in the Lake District. Fewer people know about the time in her life when she was making these meticulous, accurate drawings and paintings.

And so all these different aspects of Beatrix Potter are contained in this one book about her art, and with the introduction and the captions it’s possible to follow the trajectory of her life in rather the same way as you would with a biography, but looking at it visually through her own work. Some of that work is absolutely beautiful.

Her drawing on fungi actually led to her publishing academic papers on the subject, didn’t it?

Yes, it did. She was not only very interested and very good at studying fungi, but also became a bit obsessed by it. She believed she had discovered something about the symbiotic relationship between lichens and fungi. I can’t explain it to you perfectly because I am not a scientist, but Linda Lear’s book is very good on this. Potter did some research at Kew Gardens and at the Natural History Museum and she set up her own little laboratory in the basement of the Potters’ house.  Supported by her uncle, the chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, she presented her paper, “On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae”, to the Linnean Society in London.

“At one stage, she had thought she might be able to make money as a scientist”

There are various views about what happened next. The paper was read on her behalf by one of the scientists from Kew Gardens, because women were not admitted to Society meetings. Some sources say that the paper was rejected. But it wasn’t actually rejected out of hand—it was sent back requiring ‘more work’, which was not an uncommon response. People have been quick to say that it was rejected because she was a woman and an amateur and the Linnean Society has been rather vilified as a result. I actually don’t believe that that is quite what happened. I think the members simply asked her to do more work on it, though her sex and lack of training might have had something to do with the way the request was presented. Anyway, for whatever reason, she lost interest, maybe her confidence was dented, or she felt she had been rejected. We don’t know. The paper itself is lost and so are any comments about it, or she didn’t write them down. And it’s clear that her interest in fungi faded away after that and she became more interested in making money from her little books.

I think that, at one stage, she had thought she might be able to make money as a scientist. It became clear to her that she wasn’t going to be able to and she did need to make money. So, she had to look for another way. I think that is probably the simplest way of describing what happened.

She obviously carried on painting after she gave up doing little books, when she was living in the Lake District. Is her entire work pencil sketches or watercolours, or did she paint or create in other mediums?

There are a few oil paintings, but they are mostly early. She preferred watercolour. Her brother Bertram was quite an accomplished artist and he did paint in oils, but that wasn’t a medium she enjoyed. Her work is nearly all pencil, watercolour or pen and ink.

Let’s go on to the Beatrix Potter’s Letters, edited by Judy Taylor. You’ve already alluded to some of these. Do they largely consist of fan mail, or family and farming, or is it a mixture?

The letters cover every part of her life, really. Judy Taylor has annotated the collection so, where it’s not obvious what a letter is about or to whom it’s written, there is an explanatory note. Judy wrote a number of other books about Beatrix Potter, including her biography, and she became the ‘go-to’ expert for every aspect of Beatrix Potter’s life. This particular edition of her letters goes all the way from one or two surviving letters written when she was a child—you know, ‘Dear Papa, how is the dog?’ (or whatever)—through to some written a few days before she died in 1943. There are letters to fans, to family, to friends and to publishers. Later on, there are letters to farming acquaintances and to the National Trust. There are also letters to American visitors and to children, some of whom she knew and who were the lucky recipients of picture letters, and to children who had written fan mail to her, some of whom she corresponded with for a number of years.

Many of the most interesting letters are where she’s just an ordinary person writing to a friend, when she’s not an author or a farmer or a celebrity. She’s just Beatrix Potter or, as she became, Beatrix Heelis. They remind us that Beatrix Potter was really just like you and me. She was an ordinary person who happened to do some extraordinary things in her life, and the letters run parallel to the biography and to the art, filling out the character and personality of this extraordinary woman.

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I think, to a modern generation, the idea that one person should have written thousands of letters in a life that spanned 77 years is just unthinkable. We’ve probably all written thousands of emails, but that’s not the same and they’re not preserved in the same way. It is astonishing that it is possible to read somebody’s life through the letters that they wrote, and there are hundreds of letters that aren’t published at all, despite another book edited by Taylor, Letters to Children, and a volume of letters to Beatrix Potter’s Americans, selected and edited by Jane Crowell Morse.

She had a huge fan base in the States, did she?

The American side of Potter’s fan base is a very interesting story, resulting partly from America having a very strong tradition of libraries. They had an importance there that they didn’t quite have here. They were the prime introduction to reading and literature for many children and families, and librarians held a rather more respected position there than they tended to enjoy in Britain. It was actually librarians who were the first Americans to visit her in England, and that started in the 1920s. Having guarded her privacy very closely, she was persuaded by her publisher to accept a visit from an American librarian and was surprised to discover a woman of great intelligence and culture, who really appreciated her work for its literary and artistic merits. This was the respected New York librarian, Anne Carroll Moore, who introduced others.

In Britain, Potter felt her books were treated rather like toys by the booksellers, whereas the Americans, she gradually discovered, regarded her with much more respect and really appreciated the literary qualities of her books.

She was flattered, of course. But there is a very interesting parallel to be drawn between Potter—a nonconformist, independent and, as it turned out, freethinking woman in a still quite a repressed English society—with these educated American women from the East Coast, whose ancestors had gone over on the Mayflower and were founding fathers. They were feisty, intelligent and opinionated and she found she could interact on equal terms with them, whereas here in England, class got in the way.  You were an employer or an employee. You were well-bred, or not. None of that intruded with the Americans, so her letters to her American visitors are in many ways very open, and very interesting about England and the war and politics. Fascinating.

It’s interesting what you say about the American libraries. I hadn’t really appreciated that, but I’ve occasionally visited public libraries in some American cities—for instance Chicago—and they’re amazing buildings. The one in Chicago is like a palace, with all these mosaics and huge improving quotes from Milton and Shakespeare scattered around the walls. It’s an absolutely extraordinary place and you really get the sense that it’s been built as a temple of learning.

In New York and in Philadelphia—it’s probably the same in Chicago—you have the central library, but the libraries elsewhere in the city are part of the same organization. In the UK, our libraries tend to be more independent from each other. But a library in a suburb of New York is still linked to the New York Public Library and it’s the same with the Free Library of Philadelphia. I think it’s still the case now that libraries are more important in America than they are here. An extraordinary percentage of the Beatrix Potter Society members in America—it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year—are actually librarians or in some way connected with librarianship, perhaps where it overlaps with primary education.

“In Britain Potter felt her books were treated rather like toys by the booksellers, whereas the Americans…regarded her with much more respect and really appreciated the literary qualities of her books”

This digression illustrates a point about the letters, actually, which is that if you’re reading what somebody has written about their life in this way, it sends you off in lots of different directions beyond their life and work. They act as a social-history springboard into all sorts of other areas that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought about, but which can be very interesting.

Absolutely. The death of letter writing is a huge tragedy for future historians.

Our emails will vanish and disappear. What we’re left with is what is said on websites and so on, and that won’t necessarily be from a primary source. It’s a pity.

On that melancholy note, let’s move on to Beatrix Potter’s Hedgehogs. This is a publication by The Beatrix Potter Society. What was it about Beatrix Potter and hedgehogs?

This book is Judy Taylor again. The original idea for it was to celebrate Judy’s 80th birthday. Over the years and all over the world she gave talks about Beatrix Potter on many different subjects and we chose one of her unpublished talks to make into a little booklet. The Society has produced all sorts of publications over its 40 years, but for a choice of five books like this most of them are a bit too specialised, because they tend to be collections of the Society’s international conference papers, for example. Hedgehogs is a subject that’s of interest to everybody and the talk is reasonably lighthearted as well as informative. It’s suitable for a birthday and it celebrates Judy Taylor, without whom we would know much less about Beatrix Potter than we do.

What’s interesting about it to the general reader is that it illustrates everything we’ve been talking about up to now in one short little 24-page illustrated booklet. It starts with Beatrix Potter’s interest in hedgehogs from the natural history point of view and her observations about them in nature and in real life. She had a pet hedgehog called Mrs Tiggy, whom she wrote about in letters to children and sketched and whose behaviour she examined. When she started writing her little books, one of them included a hedgehog based partly on Mrs Tiggy and this became The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. So, straight away you’ve got the transfer from real life to little-book life, which is the pattern that nearly all the little books followed.

“She had a pet hedgehog called Mrs Tiggy, whom she wrote about in letters to children and sketched and whose behaviour she examined”

The booklet illustrates every aspect of Beatrix Potter’s own interests, but it also goes on to show how incredibly astute she was as a businesswoman, and there are examples here of her marketing ideas. And, although Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early book [1905] and was written before Potter really became a farmer or a landowner in the Lake District, it is set in the Lake District with all the background in the pictures based on sketches made during a Lake District holiday.

So, tied up in one subject you’ve got all the themes running through Beatrix Potter’s life. I thought that it was a good example to use and the illustrations are lovely.

Finally, Beatrix Potter at Home in the Lake District by Susan Denyer. I’m interested to understand how she ended up getting so attached to the Lake District. But, anyway, what story does this book tell?

I realized that we needed a book that concentrated a bit more on the on the later part of her life. There’s quite a lot of detailed work available about her farming interests and the sheep and everything, which I didn’t think was suitable for our purposes, and Linda Lear’s book covers this very well. But a positive about Susan Denyer’s book is that Denyer herself worked for the National Trust for a long time and is very knowledgeable about the topography and culture of the Lake District as well as its agriculture.

There’s an element of all those in this book. But, basically, it’s also an introduction to the Lake District on a more superficial level, and to Beatrix Potter’s involvement there, and it is beautifully illustrated, with some stunning photography.

For many years the Potters went to Scotland for their summer holidays. But in 1882 the house they took in Perthshire, Dalguise, was no longer available. Beatrix was 16 and they rented Wray Castle, a house in the Lake District. That was the family’s first Lake District holiday, which they all enjoyed, and thereafter they tended to spend their holidays there, either around Derwentwater or Windermere.

“She felt herself to be a northerner—something she probably embroidered a little bit”

I think there are two reasons for Beatrix Potter’s interest in the area. One is the fact that she spent happy holidays there and thought the landscape was very beautiful. But also, although she was born in London, she hated it and it made her ill. Her family had originally come from the north and, as she grew older, she put more emphasis on her northern roots. They became more and more important to her. Perhaps they also helped her to explain why she never really settled in London or in London society. She felt herself to be a northerner—something she probably embroidered a little bit.

After she had been living in the Lake District for 20 years and had already bought quite a lot of land and farms, a particular estate, called Monk Coniston, came up for sale, and included a small farm that had once belonged to her great-grandfather on her father’s mother’s side, Abraham Crompton. He had been a wealthy merchant in Lancashire and had bought Holme Ground as a holiday house several generations previously. It was no longer in the family and Potter liked the idea of buying it back.

Denyer’s book describes Potter’s holidays, her growing love for the area, her first purchases, including Hill Top Farm, and her other farms in the Windermere area.  Also her interest in farming practices—in sheep, in learning to understand the cycle of the farming year and the different ways of dealing with the land. All that became a great passion for her and she sought advice from local people and built up a reputation as a respected breeder of sheep. It’s a fascinating end to a life that started so differently. She almost reinvented herself, really, as a respected farmer and sheep breeder and there’s a strong element of conservation and stewardship there, as well, which Linda Lear’s biography discusses clearly.

I wanted to ask you about that because I think it’s a fascinating aspect of the whole story. She left all her land to the National Trust. She was clearly very worried about that part of the world being developed and losing its character which, given that she died in 1943, seems to be quite prescient. Can you tell us a bit about her life as a conservationist?

Potter was introduced to the National Trust right at its very inception because her father was one of its first members. As a family, they knew Hardwicke Rawnsley, who was one of the three founders of the National Trust. They met him in the Lake District in 1882 and he was a great influence on Potter, teaching her a lot about Lake District traditions and history, and how to read the landscape and to appreciate its local character. So that was ingrained in her from a very young age.

As she got older and became a landowner herself, she became aware of the threat to the Lake District from development, from holiday chalets and houses in particular, and from the expansion of the railway and roads. She also saw a threat from the Forestry Commission, who would plant up great swathes of hillside with conifers. So, there was a double threat; the development threat tended to be in the valleys and on the low-lying land around the railways and the roads, and the forestry threat was more widespread on the hills.

“She ended up owning more than 4,000 acres, with something like 15 different farms.”

So a strong motivation for buying land in the beginning was to protect it from development. There’s one particular estate she bought, Troutbeck Park, which is in a beautiful valley with the fells going up around it and behind it. There was prime development land in the bottom of the valley because it was easily accessible from both Windermere and Ambleside and from the railway, which already came to Windermere. She was desperate to stop the valley being built over and developed, so she bought it, which she was lucky enough to be able to do.

There’s an interesting contradiction here, and I’m not sure that it’s been fully researched yet, which is that Potter understood that the Lake District needed visitors and tourists and so on, and she understood that the National Trust had a role to play in that as well, but she also understood that you couldn’t just have development willy-nilly. I suspect she was a bit ‘not-in-my-backyard’ to a certain extent, but she didn’t actually stop people going onto her land. She complained about coach tours and people who didn’t understand about shutting gates and so on, but she wasn’t against them completely. I suppose it’s the same contradiction that continues today between landowners and farmers and members of the public.

It’s the classic upper-class tourist complaint. When she was young and very rich, hardly anyone was going on holiday to the Lake District. It seemed fine that a few people like her did, but when lots of people started doing it, it ruined the fun.

The Lake District is very accessible, particularly from Liverpool and Manchester, and there was a great move, which was partly tied up with the National Trust, to make green spaces available for the factory workers, who needed somewhere they could go for a day trip or for a holiday, and to encourage them go there.

But, although Potter started out wanting to preserve the Lake District, she actually found the whole business of farming and landowning and so on interesting. And, as with everything else she had done in her life in its various stages, she wanted to know about it—to learn about it, and to be productive and useful and good at it. So, she taught herself as much as she could about breeding sheep (Herdwicks in particular) or cattle and grazing, and she was fairly modern in some ways, getting rid of diseases and so on and following new agricultural practices. (She allowed electricity in farm buildings, though not in her own house!) She was also very astute at picking the best people to come and work for her and she had no qualms about poaching the good shepherd from a neighbouring farm if he was the person to improve her sheep flock. And, if she could pay him a slightly better wage and offer him a slightly nicer house and perhaps offer his wife some work, then all was fair in love and war, as it were.

Is her estate in the Lake District still run pretty much as she left it, or have economic pressures forced changes on it?

Her Lake District bequest to the National Trust is mostly preserved as she wanted, in that her farms are still farmed, with a stock of Herdwick sheep where appropriate, and Hill Top house is still a place to visit exactly as it was when she left it. However, there have been some changes and one or two of the farms have had to be merged lately.  Every time this happens there is a row between those who think that her will should be observed exactly and those who think that the National Trust must be free to make changes, given the current economic and farming climates.

I would say that her legacy is doing pretty well and that, were she to come back now, she would recognize most of it. But there have had to be changes because the National Trust has to make money and be solvent, like the rest of us.

So I’m not in the camp that thinks it’s wrong for them to make any changes at all, and I think the public has to trust them to make changes as near as possible to those that Potter would have understood herself. If I have any quibble with the National Trust and what it does with her legacy, I would say it’s more to do with—commercialisation is the wrong word—a bit of dumbing down and a tendency to market her as a bit twee, which she wasn’t at all. That was one thing she wasn’t. But, on the whole, I would say they’ve done a pretty good job in very difficult circumstances.

Finally, what’s the Beatrix Potter Society’s role in running her estate?

None—that role falls either to her publishers, Frederick Warne, or to the National Trust. The Beatrix Potter Society is a registered charity and an appreciation society, a literary society. It was founded by people who were already involved in her legacy, working with the Potter collections left to the V&A. Increasingly, people would ask whether there was a Beatrix Potter Society and so, eventually, one was founded in 1980. The Society holds conferences and meetings, but it is also a forum for sharing information about Beatrix Potter, researching into her life and work and publishing its findings.  It also produces a Journal and Newsletter three times a year and has an e-newsletter, a website and active social media platforms.

Times are tricky now because people can find information about Beatrix Potter on the internet without having to join the Society. So it has fewer members, which means less income and it is short of volunteers. Those who used to have time to volunteer are few and far between now and it is difficult to find people prepared to do this in quite the same way as before.

And, of course, a number of the older, long-standing members are not particularly keen on the internet and some of them don’t even have access to it. The move for a lot of similar societies—and in life in general—is online. But if you’re in your 80s or 90s online is not necessarily an option that is open to you. So there’s a permanent tension between going online to save money and reduce costs and to reach a new audience, and worrying about depriving some members of access to material by doing that. So far the balancing act is working and, thanks to its hardworking Committee, the Society has done well to reach its fortieth year, despite pandemic restrictions.  It has members all over the world, from the UK and America to Japan and Australia, and it’s a great source of joy and interest to a lot of people, as well as a valuable resource for anyone interested in Beatrix Potter.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Libby Joy

Libby Joy is a former chairman and trustee of the Beatrix Potter Society. A freelance editor, she has worked on Beatrix Potter-related books and projects with various publishers and authors for more than thirty years. She continues to work on the Society's publications, as well as editing its Journal and Newsletter.

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Libby Joy

Libby Joy is a former chairman and trustee of the Beatrix Potter Society. A freelance editor, she has worked on Beatrix Potter-related books and projects with various publishers and authors for more than thirty years. She continues to work on the Society's publications, as well as editing its Journal and Newsletter.