Saturday, September 8, 2012
Women That I Admire: Beatrix Potter
Do you know of Beatrix Potter? She is a woman that I greatly admire! She is most well known for her illustrated stories about the adventures of Peter Rabbit, his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, and their cousing Benjamin Bunny, along with all number of adorable animals that were mostly her pets. There were Miss Tiggywinkle, the hedgehog, Jemima Puddleduck, Squirrel Nutkin, Tom Kitten and other delightful personalities!
During my early 30's in a difficult period of my life, I remembered these little delightful stories and began to reread them. This led me to become curious about the woman who write these stories and I began to set out to learn everything I could about her.
Miss Potter grew up in Victorian England, a time when there were very few opportunities for young ladies growing up. Additionally, she grew up in a time when it was thought that parents should be rather emotionally distant from their children and she was mostly raised by the nannies and governesses that were employed by families of a certain social class during that time. She was educated at home, being deprived of the company of children her own age by teachers that her parents hired. I can only imagine that she was very lonely and felt much unloved, which makes me very sad for her.
Growing up she had a keen interest in nature and studied Biology and especially Botany. She had all manner of kinds of pets and loved them all very much. My guess is that this was a way for her to find the love that she was missing as she was growing up and that she nurtured these creatures as a substitute for the nurturing that she and all little ones deserve. She was, as you can see, an extremely gifted artist, and became well known as a young lady for her intricate and precise illustrations of species of plants native to Great Britian. Her work was of such high quality that she was considered for membership of the British Royal Botanical Society, whose membership was comprised of Britain's most emminent botanists. But, because she was a woman, she was not allowed to become a member of this mens' only society. How sad. What a loss for the advancement of the field of Botany in that era. Surely this must have been a crushing disappointment for her in young adulthood!
Miss Potter, like all young women of the day, was expected to be married to a successful young man, have children, become the matron of the home, supervising the household staff who were engaged to cook, clean and perform the functions of running an upperclass Victorian Household (A fun movie to watch is "Life with Father" starring William Powell, Irene Dunne and a very youthful and pretty Elizabeth Taylor. It gives an insight into the family dynamics of a family in the Victorian era. Its one of my favorites!)
She became engaged to a young man, but tragically, he died at quite a young age of leukemia most unexpectedly. Miss Potter went into seclusion and remained unmarried for most of her life. With all the love she had to offer, sadly she remained childless. She did have a number of neices and nephews and began to write them little illustrated stories about her pets. These became the stories that she remains so famous for after all these years.
Eventually, a publisher became aware of these stories she had written for her young nieces and nephews and offered to publish them for sale to the public. As her father was an attorney, a contract was negotiated and her stories became best sellers in an era where spending money on children was considered frivelous.
Resigned to living her life alone, her writing career eventually came to an end, but she became quite independently wealthy to a degree unimaginable for a woman of her time. What did she do with her wealth? She moved from London to the Lake District and purchased a farm and began to raise sheep. As her sheep farming became more successful, she bought more and more land in the Lake District, expanding her operation. She became quite famous for her work in breeding Herdwick sheep, as well as studying diseases and disorders that afflicted them and their treatment. During this period of her life, she married a local attorney, William Heeli and they were happy together for 30 years before she succumbed to heart disease and pneumonia. She and her husband left their vast land holdings in the Lake District to the National Trust to preserve the beauty of this wonderful area of England, noted for being the location where many of the Romantic era poets commemorated in their beautiful poetry.
Because of her many remarkable accomplishments in the face of such adversity, she is truly a woman I admire. I have known of her for many years, but as a result of a conversation I had with my friend Allison Sweeny, I remembered her last evening and I wanted to share her life you, my readers. Thanks, Allie!