The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
In the summer of 1892, Beatrix Potter put a dog’s leash on her pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, and took him on a walk to look for gooseberries in the garden of her family’s rented summer cottage in Birnam, Scotland. She was 26 years old at the time. The grown woman who took her pet rabbit for a walk also dedicated many hours to drawing his portrait in varying poses, as she had done over the years with the rest of her menagerie. Her sundry pets included not only a Scottish terrier and a springer spaniel but frogs, salamanders, mice, snakes, bats, birds, ducks, snails, guinea pigs and hedgehogs, as well as another rabbit, named Peter Piper.
Potter’s sketches of Benjamin, Peter and other pets formed the basis for the illustrations of the 23 children’s tales that have delighted generations of readers. Her amusing commentary on animal antics had begun in illustrated letters to the children of her former governess. Her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published in 1902; its sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, appeared in 1904.
Kinship with animals was an aspect of Potter’s lifelong fascination with nature and with farms and gardens. Although she was born and raised in London, she often made the short walk from her home to visit the Royal Horticultural Society gardens adjacent to Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. She also had ample opportunity to indulge her growing passions for nature and farming, as her wealthy family spent summers in the Scottish countryside and in the English Lake District.
As a young woman, Potter was shy, sensible and quietly resistant to Victorian- era propriety. She felt awkward in the drawing rooms of fashionable young ladies and was bored by their polite conversation. Instead, she followed another path available to women of her era: amateur botany. Potter devoted her time to collecting, studying and drawing plants.
In particular, she dedicated a fourteen-year period to mycology, the study of fungi. She diligently learned plant taxonomy and techniques of botanical illustration. She consulted experts and even wrote a paper on spore germination. Many of her drawings and paintings of mushrooms and lichens were later published. Had she been born in a later era, she might have gone to university and become a professional scientist.
Fame, independent fortune and farming did not come early to Potter. She was nearing 40 when her children’s books began to appear. The success of her books allowed her to return to the Lake District to purchase Hill Top Farm. She later acquired adjacent properties. Although she continued to write children’s books at Hill Top, she began to immerse herself in farming and gardening. At age 47, she married a local solicitor, William Heelis, and as Mrs. Heelis she became known in agricultural circles for her prize-winning flock of Herdwick sheep. An ardent land conservationist who sought to preserve Cumbrian farming and craft traditions, Potter left 14 farms and 4,000 acres to the UK National Trust. Her legacy became the foundation of the Lake District National Park.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College. For further reading, see Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature and Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.