The writer re-dipped her pen and sketched three roly-poly rabbits snuggled together. She added the fourth rabbit, sitting impishly off by himself.
“…Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.”
The Early Years
Born July 28, 1866 into a wealthy London family, Helen Beatrix Potter enjoyed all the niceties of Victorian England’s upper-class. The family’s long summer holidays in Scotland, Wales, and northern England fed the young girl’s colorful imagination. Her early love affair with the Lake District, in particular, had a profound influence on her art style and story settings, which would someday center around her own beloved Hill Top Farm.
But Beatrix’ childhood was not a definitively happy one. Her mother was difficult; her father, distracted. She was prone to illness, and lived a sheltered girlhood in which her playmates were the many pet animals she kept, using them as art models and characters for storylines. It is no wonder that young Beatrix found solace in nature and in the creativity it inspired. She lived in her imagination.
From childhood, Beatrix was far more interested in books than boys. As she came of age, the shy and awkward Beatrix was oftentimes miserable in a society that expected young women to be groomed and cultured towards making a good match. She would have rather kept company with mice than men. Neither her mother nor Victorian England showed much sympathy.
What became The Tale of Peter Rabbit first appeared as an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the young son of Beatrix’ former governess. As all worthy governesses, even former ones, she had the good sense to suggest that Beatrix develop the story into a children’s book. After turn-downs from several publishers, Beatrix took matters into her own hands and self-published a small run of 250 copies for family and friends.
Thanks to the efforts of one of these friends, the publisher Frederick Warne & Co. (who at first had turned it down) took the “bunny book”. It was a wise move for Warne. Published on October 2, 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was an immediate success. It has since been translated into 36 different languages, and having sold 45 million copies, it is one of the best-selling books in history.
The Warne publication wasn’t a bad arrangement for Beatrix, either. Now in her mid-late thirties, Beatrix had found a kindred spirit in her editor, Norman Warne. Business did mix with pleasure, and in 1905 the two became engaged, much to her parents’ disapproval. But the marriage was not meant to be. Following the sudden onset of leukemia, Norman died just a month after their engagement.
Hill Top Farm
In her sorrow, Beatrix turned to her beloved Lake District. Peter Rabbit and the books that followed were by now wildly popular, and from the proceeds, Beatrix bought herself a small working farm. Hill Top would become the setting of many of her stories and illustrations. Beatrix threw herself into farm work; it eased her sorrow. Just as when she had been a young girl on summer holiday, she once again found solace in nature and the breathtaking countryside. Beatrix had come home.
These were productive years at Hill Top. Besides her writing and illustrating, horticultural experiments, and by now, sheep farming, Beatrix continued to buy up more and more property around Hill Top. Through her many real estate investments, she became well acquainted with the local solicitor – so much so, that in 1913 Beatrix became Mrs. William Heelis. They were happily married for thirty years, until her death in 1943.
Hill Top Farm is now a writer’s home museum, maintained exactly as it was when Beatrix lived there.
Who would have thought that an illustrated letter to a 5-year-old boy would become one of the most popular books in history? No doubt Beatrix would be astounded to know that more than two million of her books are sold throughout the world each year. The creativity sparked by one lonely little girl’s imagination has brought joy to countless children the world over. Maybe her early years weren’t so bad after all.
Copyright © 2016 Sarah E. Dautel
(Images of Hill Top courtesy Chris Brown and Marion Dutcher, respectively)