The Tale of Beatrix Potter

Helen Beatrix Potter was born into a wealthy family on July 28, 1866, and she and her younger brother were taught by governesses. Though her brother, Walter, was sent to a boarding school at age ten, Beatrix never received a formal education outside of the classroom in her home, and she met few children beyond those in her extended family.

At the time, the role of a lady from well-to-do families was to be pretty and charming, become popular in British society, and marry well. Her education focused on European languages, music and art. Shy, lonely Beatrix was not attracted to society life, which was fine with Mr. and Mrs. Potter, who wanted their only daughter to stay home and center her life around her parents.

Young Beatrix’s interests were drawing, caring for her pets, and studying natural science.

During the 1890s Beatrix began earning a little money by selling drawings used to illustrate books.

She enjoyed writing letters, and wrote many to the children of Annie Carter Moore, one of her former governesses. Mrs. Moore’s eldest son was often sick, and in September of 1893 Beatrix wrote him a letter about Peter Rabbit, who snuck into Mr. McGregor’s garden. The edges of the letter were filled with sketches of the young rabbit’s adventures.

In 1900 Beatrix revised her story, put together a small “dummy book” with full-page illustrations, and attempted to find a publisher. When her efforts failed, she spent her own money to print the book, and gave out copies as gifts.

A family friend took the book to Frederick Warne & Co., who had rejected it earlier. Small format children’s books had become popular, so Warne decided to publish the story.

When The Tale of Peter Rabbit came out in 1902 it was an immediate success, and editor Norman Warne was assigned to work with Beatrix on preparing additional illustrated books.

Beatrix made many trips to Mr. Warne’s office, always with a servant as a chaperone. The author and the editor exchanged letters about the progress of her books – and about their growing affection for each other. In 1905, when Beatrix was 39-years-old, and Norman Warne was 37, he wrote and asked her to marry him. Beatrix wrote back and said that she would. Then she told her parents.

They were furious. Warne was a tradesman, far beneath the family’s high social class. Plus Beatrix’s parents were growing elderly, and they expected their daughter to remain unmarried and care for them.

She agreed to kept the engagement secret, but refused to give up her plans to become Mrs. Norman Warne. The Potter family left for a holiday in Wales, but within weeks the Warne family contacted Beatrix to say that Norman was gravely ill. He died of leukemia before she could return to England.

Beatrix was devastated, no doubt thinking she’d lost her one chance at romantic love. She and Norman had wanted a home in the country, and so she used her earnings, plus a small inheritance from an aunt, to purchase Hill Top, a 34-acre farm in the north-country Lake District. A tenant farmer and his family managed the property while Beatrix learned about fell farming – raising sheep and other livestock on uncultivated high ground.

In 1908 she employed W. H. Heelis & Son, solicitors near her farm, to help her purchase additional property. William Heelis helped her to obtain additional pastureland, as well as other small farms, including Castle Farm.

Beatrix continued to live with her demanding parents, and kept writing children’s book for Frederick Warne & Co. She only made rare over-night stays at any of her land holdings.

That is until 1912, when 40-year old William Heelis asked 46-year old Beatrix to be his wife. And she accepted her second marriage proposal.

Once more her parents did not approve. A country solicitor was not an acceptable addition to the family. And they stressed her duty to put her parents first in her life. To make matters worse, Frederick Warne & Co. stressed the need for her to keep producing best selling children’s books.

She wavered and worried, but became Mrs. William Heelis in 1913. The couple moved to the renovated farm house at Castle Farm. William continued his work as a solicitor, and Beatrix raised prize winning Hereford sheep, which were indigenous to the region. She wore sturdy tweed suits, and enjoyed talking with neighboring families, who grew to appreciate her growing farm knowledge.

Often readers would travel to the Lake District in search of their favorite author. Once Mrs. Heelis answered the knock on her door, and encountered someone who asked to see Beatrix Potter. The visitor was told she wasn’t at home. In a way, Mrs. Heelis hadn’t lied – the former lonely Beatrix Potter had begun a new, and happy, life.

After moving to Castle Farm Beatrix wrote only a few more books, claiming that her eyes were becoming too weak to continue the meticulous work of drawing and painting the illustrations.

During the 30 years of her marriage Beatrix bought more property, some for her own use, but much of it for the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty to purchase from her when the organization could afford to do so.

Both Beatrix and William were interested in land conservation, and in preserving centuries-old farms and buildings.

When Helen Beatrix Potter Heelis died in 1943 most of her land was left to the National Trust. When William Heelis died 18 months later the Trust received the remaining property.

The Beatrix Potter legacy lives on, both in the 23 small-format children’s books published in her lifetime, and in thousands of acres of restored and preserved farm land donated to the National Trust.

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2 thoughts on “The Tale of Beatrix Potter

  1. Finally an author and stories I have read! I have “Peter Rabbit Giant Treasury” with Beatrix Potter’s original illustrations here. I love the stories but I adore her illustrations more than anything. I had known some of Potter’s history before but hadn’t heard just how selfish and unloving her parents had been. It makes me sad when I think about how society at the time treated women.

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    • I knew she hadn’t married until her 40s, and had a lonely childhood, but I too was surprised at what I learned from my research. Beatrix drew her animals from life, and though they wore clothes, they looked just like the real animals Beatrix was looking at while she made her sketches.

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