Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies

(Today’s the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth. I’m reposting this to celebrate!)

Long ago on a trip to London, a friend and I stayed near Hyde Park in Kensington. We dragged our bags up six flights of stairs to the top floor (the cheapest room) and laughed at our luck.

Our tiny garret overlooked rows of Victorian rooftops, like a scene from Peter Pan. It’s easy to believe you can fly up there.

A century and or so earlier it would have been part of the nursery. The hotel once housed a wealthy Victorian family—a barrister named George Hunt, his wife, three sons, five daughters, their governess, and ten servants.

And the children would have shared that magical view with Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), who grew up a few streets away.

Many know Beatrix through her charming books or the 2006 movie Miss Potter. But the real Beatrix was complicated, fascinating, far ahead of her time, and a bona fide late bloomer.

She overcame an unhappy childhood to launch her famed career at age 36, married at 47, and embraced farming and conservation full-time in her 60s. She considered the latter activities her life’s calling and helped establish Great Britain’s National Trust.

Friends and Muses

But in an odd way, Beatrix resembled the Greek goddess Persephone. From November through June, those dark winters smothered in London fog (actually Industrial Revolution smog), she lived in her top floor nursery alone.

She was raised by servants and governesses and only saw her parents at dinner. Unlike the Hunt children, she had no human companions until a brother came along six years later.

But she wasn’t lonely. Her attic tribe included dogs and cats, rabbits and mice, and a bright green lizard named Judy. They were her friends and muses. She never tired of capturing their antics through stories and sketches. Her artistic talent developed early.

Beatrix’s parents both came from Manchester cotton-manufacturing money and dabbled in the arts—Victorian “trustafarians.”

Beatrix’s mother, Helen, could embroider and paint, but she preferred the art of social-climbing via offspring. The shy, imaginative Beatrix would forever disappoint her. Beatrix’s father, Rupert, sat for the bar but never practiced. He took up photography and in 1869, he was elected to the Photographic Society of London.

Beatrix wanted for nothing but her parents’ love and attention. And like Persephone, she came alive each summer.

From July through October, the family fled London’s sweltering streets for the countryside. For Beatrix’s first fifteen years, they lived at Dalguise House on the River Tay in Scotland.

There, while her father took pictures and her mother made connections, Beatrix ran wild with her pets, collected butterflies, identified birds, and listened to “the music sweetest mortal ears can hear, the murmuring of the wind through the fir trees.”

Her Scottish governess, Ann MacKenzie, filled her young head with stories of witches and fairy folk, magic and talking animals. Beatrix recalled,

I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense.

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies at

When Beatrix was sixteen, her father announced that Dalguise House was no longer available. At first, she was devastated. “The memory of that home is the only bit of childhood I have left.” But within a few weeks, Rupert leased Wray Castle, a romantic pile on the western shore of Windermere in the Lake District.

Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, the local vicar, welcomed them to the community. He would become one of the three founders of the National Trust and a major influence on Beatrix. The beauty of her new summer home soon enveloped her soul.

Her self-absorbed parents at least recognized her talent, and at age 15, Beatrix received an Art Student’s certification, her only formal schooling. A succession of governesses taught her to read, write, and speak French and German. She once wrote to a friend,

‘Thank goodness, my education was neglected. I was never sent to school…it would have rubbed off some of the originality.

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies at
Beatrix Potter (age 9) with her pet mouse Xarifa

Fungi and Sexism

With her love of nature and gift for art, Beatrix soon became enamored with natural history. It was an acceptable hobby for Victorian women, especially if they concerned themselves with flowers, birds, and butterflies.

Beatrix, however, developed a passion for mushrooms.

She lived near the Natural History Museum and spent hours there studying prints and specimens. She taught herself to draw live sections under a microscope.

Charles MacIntosh, a childhood friend from Dalguise (and model for Peter Rabbit’s nemesis Mr. McGregor), also encouraged her. As the district’s postman/naturalist, he roamed miles every day through the country. He knew fungi by sight and by Latin name and mailed labeled specimens to Beatrix in London.

“His judgement,” Beatrix observed, “…gave me infinitely more pleasure than that of critics who assume more, and know less than poor Charlie. He is the perfect dragon of erudition, and no gardener’s Latin either.”

By age 28, Beatrix had documented seventy-three types of fungi in full color, including sectional views.

Three years later, she wrote a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae.” Her uncle, famed chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, helped her get it before the Linnean Society, the world’s oldest biology peer-review group. (As a woman, Beatrix was not allowed to present the paper, or even attend.)

The Society returned the paper with feedback, though we don’t know what kind. Beatrix withdrew it and never resubmitted it.

Today, Beatrix Potter’s work as a mycologist is widely recognized. In 1967, William Findlay, president of the British Mycology Society, used her paintings to illustrate his field guide to Britain’s fungi and lichens. She was the first person in Britain to document the rare parasitic fungus Tremella simplex, recently rediscovered in Aberdeen.

And in 1997, the Linnean Society issued her a posthumous apology. Why did she walk away from that world?

There’s no doubt that the sexism (what she sarcastically called the “grown-up world”) of science frustrated her. But biographer Linda Lear believes that Beatrix desperately needed a way to both use her gifts and gain independence from her parents. “She had explored scientific illustration and research and found that, however intriguing, it could not satisfy that end.”

But she’d conceived another idea that might.

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies at
One of Beatrix Potter’s fungi illustrations

Fame and Heartbreak

It started as a series of illustrated letters written to the oft-sickly son of a former governess, Annie Moore. Seven years later, Beatrix asked to borrow the letters back and turned them into The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Six publishers rejected the book, so Beatrix published her own edition. After two successful printings, her Lake District mentor Canon Rawnsley determined to see her traditionally published.

He sent Peter Rabbit to Frederick Warne & Co. They took a chance on “the bunny book” (as one partner scornfully called it) and signed a contract with Beatrix in June 1902. The printing sold out immediately.

At age 36, Beatrix Potter, an eccentric Victorian spinster whose closest friends still included rats, mice, rabbits, and hedgehogs, was set to become one of the world’s most celebrated children’s authors.

Beatrix’s editor was Norman Warne, youngest of the three brothers who ran the company. Their professional relationship soon bloomed into love. On July 25, 1905, a few days before her 39th birthday, Norman asked Beatrix to marry him, and she accepted.

Helen and Rupert kicked up a fuss and refused their blessing. Helen, in particular, loathed the idea of her daughter marrying into “trade.” Beatrix saw the irony of that. “Publishing books,” she wrote to a cousin, “is as clean a trade as spinning cotton,”—the profession of her mother’s parents.

Her parents insisted she join them on the annual Lake District holiday (hoping it would cool her ardor) and she complied.

A month to the day after her engagement, Beatrice received a devastating letter from Norman’s sister. Norman had died suddenly from pernicious anemia (a form of treatable leukemia today).

Beatrix retreated to Near Sawrey, a tiny Lake District village she’d come to love nine summers earlier. She and Norman wanted to start married life there, far from her meddling parents. Beatrix purchased a farm called Hill Top to honor their dream. It would be many years before she could truly settle there.

In her grief, she pushed herself creatively, writing and illustrating thirteen stories over the next eight years. She also lived a double life.

Most of the year, Beatrix played the dutiful London spinster who cared for her aging parents. But during the summer, Beatrix returned to Hill Top Farm and became a Lake District countrywoman—albeit a wealthy and successful one.

Beatrix’s entrepreneurial vision saw all the ways she could bring her characters to life. She created one of the first merchandising lines around Peter Rabbit and his friends—dolls, slippers, handkerchiefs, wooden puzzles, nursery wallpaper, a board game, and more.

Decades later, Walt Disney would contact Beatrix to acquire The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She didn’t feel Disney would stay true to her franchise. He went away disappointed.

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies at
Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

Fells and Love

When Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm, her father’s firm acted on her behalf. Later she found that she’d been thoroughly fleeced (no pun intended). So in 1908, she hired W. H. Heelis & Son, local Lake District solicitors, to represent future dealings.

Over the next five years, with the help of William Heelis, Beatrix bought fourteen more farms. As with Norman Warne, respect and friendship blossomed into love. In late 1912, William asked her to marry him.

Her parents again threw a fit. They expected her to care for them in their old age, and Beatrix still managed their large London household. Beatrix stood her ground.

The following August, at age 47, she became Mrs. Heelis, the only name she went by in the Lake District. Her loving partnership with William would last 33 years.

Beatrix’s father Rupert passed a few years later, and Beatrix convinced Helen to buy an extravagant Lake District property. At age 50, Beatrix finally became a full-time resident of the place she loved best on earth.

As her eyesight dimmed, Beatrix wrote less and spent more time farming and sheep breeding. She and William bought several more properties, including a farm that once belonged to her cotton-spinning great-grandfather.

They didn’t acquire for profit, but to conserve the Lake District’s farming methods and landscape (especially the “fells” or high ground used for common grazing). They’d always planned to leave their holdings to Canon Rawnsley’s charitable venture, the National Trust.

At age 77, Beatrix passed away from pneumonia. William followed her eighteen months later. At his death, fifteen farms, several houses and cottages, and 4300 acres came under the Trust’s protection.

The majority of the Lake District remains undeveloped to this day because of Beatrix and William’s bequest.

Beatrix Potter: Her Life Beyond Mushrooms and Talking Bunnies at
The frontispiece to The Pie and the Patty Pan (1905) depicts Beatrix’s beloved Hill Top Farm

The Nature of “Late” Blooming

A few weeks ago I ran across an article by Laura Simms titled “What Your Random Jobs Have in Common.” She discusses the idea of a through-line, the uniting theme(s) that connect multiple careers throughout your life. Beatrix’s passion for art, animals, and nature defined everything she undertook.

When we view blooming as through-line between passions, it’s never too late. Weaving the threads is all that matters.

I have always found my own pleasure in nature and books. ~Beatrix Potter

Can you identify your through-line?

More About Beatrix

34 Responses

  1. Corinne Rodrigues
    | Reply

    I watched Ms Potter a few years back and was fascinated by this remarkable woman. Thank you for filling the gaps in the story with your brilliant post, Debra.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks, Corinne. I remember liking Miss Potter, too. Need to rewatch it now that I know so much about her. Having visited the Lake District, it’s hard to say which of her legacies is more amazing. What a woman!

  2. Lindsay Edmunds
    | Reply

    Another wonderful post that brings its subject to vivid life. It makes me happy that Beatrix Potter finally found home and love.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Thanks so much, Lindsay. She’s one of my favorites, exactly for that reason.

  3. Beverly Mitchell
    | Reply

    Interesting post, would like to know more about laterbloomer concepts.

  4. Henna
    | Reply

    Debra, thank you so much for writing the profile for Miss Potter.

    You’ll never know how much this means to me and how much I needed to read this today.

    Brightest blessings,

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      So glad, Henna. Thank you. I get so involved with my subjects when I write about them. This one was hard for me because her story has some parallels to my own. I’m so glad she had a happy ending. And so will we, Henna.

  5. Dave
    | Reply

    Great post Debra.

    Well done!


    X X X

  6. Wallace King
    | Reply

    I’m that friend who also lugged a suitcase up six flights of stairs with you in Kensington and even I didn’t know the history of that house. You are a remarkable writer and here’s another perfect example. I always learn something new from each and every one of your wonderful posts.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      I was surprised to find a history of that one little street online. Apparently a gorgeous old manse was torn down to build fifteen row houses for the nouveau riche — akin to what’s happening all over LA right now with expensive condos replacing historic properties. Can you believe that whole hotel housed just one family? (Or maybe two — I think they might have combined with the house next door.)

      Thanks for your comment…your feedback means much!

  7. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    What a wonderful story! As a rodent person myself, love the pic of her with the mouse. 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Why am I not surprised you’re a rodent person, Jennette? Beatrix loved her mice and rats and apparently was quite good at training them…they rode in her pockets and sat on her shoulder. Thank goodness she had them for company. And thanks for your comment!

  8. Krithika Rangarajan
    | Reply

    Your GIFT to bring words to LIFE with vivid imagery and vibrant prose is awe-inspiring. Thank you, Debra, for another fabulous story that stole my heart <3


  9. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing Beatrix Potter’s inspiring story. I knew bits of it, but you put everything in context and show a great through-line!

  10. Florence Fois
    | Reply

    Debra, each time I see your name in my email, I smile, knowing that something wonderful will be waiting for me. This loving story is beyond wonderful. The path we follow often comes to Dorothy’s crossroads and the choices we make will bring us to where we were destined to be. It matters not, how often that path veers off or how we instinctively know which fork in the road to follow. And all the things we learn along the way are lessons that will serve us well.

    Frost, in later life, said of The Road Less Traveled, that when he was older, he circled back and took the other road to see where that one might have led him. I’d like to think that as I travel my path, that all lessons I learned along the way, have given me the knowledge to live my later life to its fullest. Thanks again 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      How insightful and I completely agree, Florence! I didn’t know that about Frost, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  11. Anne Flournoy
    | Reply

    LOVED THIS, Debra! So incredibly informative! As a mother reading to little kids, The Beatrix Potter books were the only ones I ever really wanted to read.. so many that I’m still quoting in life. (“Rather big mouthfuls” (The Pie and The Patty-Pan) “Let’s pack up our things … and other peoples’…” (The Roly-Poly Pudding) “All OVER my nice clean house!”) Mrs. Tittlemouse … I could go on and on. And then in life, that whole situation with Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell having helped those prisoners to escape from the high-security prison at Dannemora, NY, she was reenacting the Jemima Puddleduck story. Beatrix Potter. Genius. Thank you for this!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      What a great story, Anne! I reread “The Tailor of Gloucestor” for this piece, and was captivated again. Didn’t make the Jemima Puddleduck connection. But yes, Beatrix was a genius. Thank you!

  12. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Again, another beautiful job Debra! You have quite the gift girl. You know, I have always loved Beatrice Potter. I grew up with her bunny stories and paraphernalia. There was always something so heartfelt in her writing. It was as if she had cast a spell. I own the movie and thought that Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor did a fantastic job. Thank you for writing about one of my favorite subjects. ((Hugs)) 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      You’re welcome, Karen. Peter Rabbit was the first book I remember “owning.” I took it with me everywhere. I really need to go back and rewatch the movie. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  13. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    So wonderful to learn more about this remarkable woman. Thanks!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      So glad you enjoyed it, Darlene! Beatrix seems to have hit a chord…she was so much a part of our childhoods.

  14. Carol J. Garvin
    | Reply

    Thanks for this fascinating look at Beatrix Potter. We bought many of her books for our children when they were young, and enjoyed reading them aloud together. I was pleased to discover several of them still in our library when I unpacked after our last move. Her fictional world is such a delight. However it makes me frown that people still think not succeeding in any pursuit until into their mid-30s is somehow blooming ‘later in life’. Many aren’t mature enough until then to succeed in anything! 😉

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Carol, you’re so lucky to still have those books! And I agree with you 100%. I use mid-30s as an arbitrary cutoff on the blog, simply because I joined the workforce at 16 and didn’t know anything of life until I entered college in my early-30s. Plus, “late-blooming” is a gardening term…meaning right on time in a lovely part of the year. Thanks for your comment!

  15. Judy Taylor Hough
    | Reply

    I’m delighted that you are so fond of Beatrix Potter. You have obviously read Linda Lear’s book – not mine! You should join The Beatrix Potter Society (see their website).

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Judy, I have your book on my To Be Read list. I’d love to have the time to read every major book published on my subject matter, but alas, I still have a “day job” beyond writing. I plan to expand this post for the book version and promise to read Beatrix Potter Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman for new material. Thank you for stopping by!

  16. Cathy Gilleylen Schultz
    | Reply

    Dear Debra, For years I’ve wanted to learn to draw so I could illustrate and self-publish my own children’s stories (which I did not start writing until I was in my late 40s). Beatrix Potter is one of my role models, so this year I’ve been rereading her biographies as well as finding newer ones (several by Judy Taylor Hough, by the way). I have to say you’ve done an excellent job of giving us a synopsis of Beatrix’s life. Each month this year (2016) I’m choosing one of her stories to highlight on my web journal as I immerse myself in her illustrations using them for my practice material to learn to draw and watercolor. I will link to this article in next month’s post.

    Last year I followed Edith Holden’s “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” each month as I studied her drawings, choosing one to draw/paint. Edith was not a late bloomer herself, but her work was! She died at the young age of 49 in 1920 fairly unknown, but her two diaries of watercolors were not published until 1977 and 1989, making her famous worldwide.

    I really appreciate your website and have included a link to it on the sidebar of another of my web journals that is devoted to “taking joy” in life. We should never stop exploring our possibilities. To me that is what creativity is. I love your imagery of “weaving the threads” of our lives. I agree wholeheartedly that everything we put our hand to is part of the warp as we weave the threads of our life. To answer your question, “Can you identify your through-line?”…..I’d say mine is my desire to be a mother. I only discovered books like Beatrix Potter’s after having my own children. When the first one was getting ready to leave for college is when I wrote my first children’s story. I’d planned for children since I was a child myself and devoted all my energy and resources to the prospect of having and then caring for them, so that when my three sons began leaving home I needed to find a new outlet for this creative energy. I have journaled all my life, so writing comes naturally. But I could not draw! I FELT it was there, but locked up inside me. Releasing it has been a labor of love–very much like birthing children. 🙂 Take Joy! Cathy

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Cathy, thank you for your heartfelt post. I love your Beatrix Potter story. I too have “The Country Diary” and have marveled over its beauty. It reminds me to live seasonally (even here in California) and to remember everything is cyclical Edith’s story is a bit sad, but she has brought so much joy to many. And so, I’m sure, have you!

  17. Bob Gartside
    | Reply

    I’m lost in admiration for anyone who could turn down Disney, but do the dates fit?

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      They do, Bob. (And actually, I just watched an excellent two-part PBS documentary about Disney.) According to several sources, this happened in 1936. Beatrix would have been 70. Walt would have been 35. He developed Mickey Mouse in 1928. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves debuted in 1937. Thanks for stopping by!

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