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Beatrix Potter: Her Inner World
Beatrix Potter: Her Inner World
Andrew Norman, in this concise and insightful biography, uncovers the source of the inspiration that gave birth to a series of remarkable children's books, including the most famous of all The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Even before she emerged from the cot in her nursery Beatrix Potter was up against it. With her prodigious memory she recalled being placed 'under the tyranny of a cross old nurse' who introduced her to 'witches, fairies and the creed of the terrible John Calvin'. More sadness followed. She had no siblings of her own age and was brought up virtually in isolation. She was afflicted by two most unpleasant illnesses - one of which has not previously been recognized - and she found herself often at odds with her mother. She also had a love affair that ended tragically. Yet, she grew up to become one of the most original of children's authors whose books are as popular today as they were when they were first published almost a century ago.
Pen & Sword Books Ltd
Hardback; 234 x 156mm
16 b&w plates
Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Beatrix Potter: Her Inner World by Andrew Norman. Pen and Sword. £20.00
"My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter." The 23 year old Beatrix Potter was writing to Noel Moore. He was four and the son of her old governess, Annie Moore.
So began one of the favourite children's stories of all time. It was almost ten years before The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902. It sold phenomenally. Almost 30,000 copies were bought within a year.
When Beatrix Potter came to prepare the colour version, this careful observer of animals was faced with a problem: "Peter died at 9 years old, just before I began the drawings, & now when they are finished I have got another young rabbit, & the drawings look wrong."
It was such concern with noting, both verbally and visually, the natural world closely and accurately which was at the heart of her art. As a child, she felt the "irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye . . . I must draw however poor the result and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever."
The artist, John Millais, seeing her drawing as a child, commented, " Plenty of people can draw but you and my son Johnny have observation."
She also had a remarkably retentive memory: "I can remember quite plainly from the age of one and two years old; not only the facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments - the way things impressed a very young child."
And, Andrew Norman argues, she was very introverted as a child. her wealthy parents discouraged friends and, even though she had a brother, six years her junior, her childhood was lonely. She turned to the world around her. She made for herself "a fairy land amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside - that pleasant unchanging world of realism and romance, which in our northern clime is stiffened by hard weather, a tough ancestry and the strength that comes from the hills."
These were her reflections as an old woman, in 1940, when she had long been a resident in the Lakes. But even in the journal she kept as a girl and young woman, the world of her animal friends, seems to have been peculiarly real to her. In1892, she took her rabbit Benjamin from London to Perth in a covered basket in the washplace of the train. She described him as "an abject coward", who "believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail".
Photographs show a shy girl. She looks quizzically, suspiciously at the camera and she never smiles as though she resents being photographed. She seems to have been a very serious thoughtful girl. The Rev, William Gaskell, an old man who had befriended her, died, when she was eighteen. She wrote: " I have begun the dark journey of life."
Life often seemed a burden. The family always holidayed in the Lakes, but she found: "Our summer holiday is always a weary business and Keswick pulls me down in August, though quite delightful in Autumn when there is a bit of frost."
Andrew Norman has sought to show how Beatrix Potter's early years shaped the future author. He portrays the life of an introverted child under the "tyranny of a cross old nurse", at odds with her mother, lonely, suffering from debilitating illnesses and living in a self-created imaginative world.
That imaginative world which has brought pleasure to children and adults alike for the past hundred years and more.
Beatrix Potter: her Inner World is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.
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