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Beatrix Potter, Conservationist

The author of Peter Rabbit was a complex woman whose quest for autonomy helped save a crucial part of the English countryside

Keith Thomson

Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) secured a place among the immortals of English literature with her books for children, starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). Less well known is the fact that she was also a major conservationist who devoted the latter part of her life, and all of her fortune, to preserving the landscapes and farming practices of the Lake District in northwest England. By the time of her death, she had written and illustrated 33 books and amassed over 4,000 acres of crucial hill-farm property. She bequeathed the land to the nation via the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, an institution her father helped found.

In northwest England and southern Scotland, the Old Norse term "fell" is used both in the names of peaks (for example, Scafell Pike is England's highest mountain), and as a synonym for the high, boggy moorland country. The Lake District, with its bleak open fells, protected valleys and multitude of lakes and tarns (steep-walled mountain pools), includes some of the most glorious and popular scenery in Britain. Names like Windemere, Esthwaite Water, Conniston, Rydal Water and Grasmere have been deeply embedded in the English consciousness since Wordsworth, Coleridge, de Quincy and Ruskin made the Lake District a focus of the Romantic Movement in 19th-century literature. Its remote, harsh beauty readily conjures up thoughts of the sublime, but when Beatrix Potter first visited, late-Victorian-era prosperity threatened to bring ever more tourism and development to the region. At the same time, the indigenous economy, which was based on herding sheep on the fells, was declining rapidly. Without her efforts, much would have been lost.

Lake District landscapeClick to Enlarge ImageAs a young woman, Beatrix Potter would have seemed an unlikely savior of any rural economy. She grew up in smoky London, in a dysfunctional family of considerable affluence. Her father was loving but distant, a barrister with artistic aspirations. Her mother was snobbish and repressive; she tried to raise her daughter—in what seems almost a caricature of Victorian sexist submission—to be nothing more than a highly educated helpmeet who would manage the household and never have a life of her own. Beatrix Potter was saved from total subjugation by her intelligence, her love of natural history, an active fantasy life and a deep love of the country.

Rupert and Helen Potter sowed the seeds of their daughter's liberation through the simple fact of spending every summer in the country, where they stayed at a series of rented houses, first in Perthshire, Scotland, and later in the Lake District. Various relatives also had country estates that Beatrix Potter visited. In the countryside she thrived; strangely, her mother allowed her freedoms there that were denied in London. Young Beatrix was able to roam on her pony, and all of nature was open for her to explore.

Artist and Scientist

Encouraged by her father (who was especially interested in photography), various tutors and governesses, and the painter Sir John Everett Millais (a family friend), Beatrix Potter quickly developed a talent as a watercolorist. She remained lonely, shy and lacking in self-confidence, however, and her personal development was slowed further by a two-year bout with rheumatic fever that started when she was 19. Even in her twenties, she was quite childlike, often sunk into fantasies, but she steadily developed as an illustrator and eventually sold some of her drawings to be published as cards. During visits to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, she exercised her skills in dry-brush watercolor on a wide range of subjects, from costumes (a waistcoat famously reappeared in The Tailor of Gloucester) to archaeological remains, plants and animals. In London also, she and her younger brother kept a considerable menagerie that included bats, frogs, newts, snakes, tamed mice and rabbits.

All these experiences led her to become an astute student of algae and fungi. From painting fungi, she had become interested in their biology, encouraged in the summers by a Scottish naturalist named Charlie McIntosh (the model, later, for Peter Rabbit's nemesis, Mr. McGregor). Beatrix Potter developed a skill for culturing fungal spores and became convinced that macroscopic fungi like mushrooms and toadstools must grow from subsurface mycelia as do other molds. Further, she became attracted to the concept that lichens are a symbiotic combination of an alga and a fungus. These were ideas that had been mooted elsewhere, particularly in Germany, but when she took her studies to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, she ran into a brick wall of what appears, at first glance, to be rampant male chauvinism.

A closer look at this episode, however, shows that her approach to the director of Kew and a key staff member was a mixture of awkwardness, timidity and arrogant disdain. How many senior scientists would have embraced the arrival of a young unknown, armed with letters from influential family members but no scholarly credentials, telling them that their ideas were all wrong? As she described later, "I informed him [the director] that it would be in all the books, whether or no, and departed giggling." She was then 31. Sadly, the venture quickly fizzled out. Although the staff member at Kew whom Beatrix Potter had originally scorned submitted a paper on her behalf to the Linnean Society of London, she later gave up the effort and withdrew it.

Science's loss, however, was very much to the advantage of children's literature and conservation. Five years after the Kew Gardens episode, Beatrix Potter, now 36 years old, began writing books at the rapid clip of two a year, beginning with Peter Rabbit. In 1905, she became engaged to her editor/publisher, Norman Warne, although her mother bitterly opposed the match. Tragically, Warne died of leukemia within a month. Beatrix Potter then seems finally to have started to mature as a person. She had hit upon a winning formula for her books: a simple story, a whiff of danger, much naughtiness and a cast of carefully anthropomorphized animal characters—never overly cute—whom she drew brilliantly in authentic settings.

The High Country

The success of her books gave her confidence; the income from their sale gave her some independence. That same year that Warne died, she made her first purchase of land: Hill Top Farm, in the village of Near Sawrey overlooking Esthwaite Water. It was a place she had seen many times during the summers. Despite her landowner status, she didn't live on the property; still she was not free from her parents. For nearly a decade, the best access she could manage was to persuade her father and mother to rent nearby houses during the summers so that she could make the daily hike to her beloved farm. Nonetheless, she bought up adjacent properties, putting together a series of parcels that protected the watersheds, ancient woodlands and the open fells where the sheep grazed. It was not until her father died in 1914 that she moved her mother to the Lake District and was finally free to make her home at Castle Farm, near Hill Top. There is a certain justice here: She had been brought up to manage a household, and finally she did. And, the year before, aged 47, she had married. Her husband, William Heelis, was a Lake Country lawyer who helped with her purchases and shared her deep love of the land. For 30 years, they lived happily in the hill country, and the children's books progressively assumed less importance in her life.

Country living was not at all easy. The winters were snowy with deep cold; the summers often brought drought or a flood. All the difficulties that beset hill farming, which made so many farmers willing to sell out to "Mrs. Heelis," were visited on her. One problem concerned the sheep. The authentic Lakes breed was, and is, the Herdwick Sheep, a cold-hardy animal adapted to graze the harsh uplands. Typically, each farmer has a small piece of his own lowland pasture for overwintering. The rest of the year, his flock grazes on a portion (a "heaf") of the communal, open-range fells, which are inaccessible except on foot. Each year, new Herdwick lambs learn from their mothers the territories to which they will return the following year. "Heafed" lambs then stay on their territories without supervision—a useful trait unique to the breed. However, Herdwicks produce a coarse wool useful only for carpets. Crossing them with other breeds would have produced finer wool, but the less-hardy offspring would neither fend for themselves nor graze the fells evenly. Bracken fern would take over the grassland, for example. Preserving the tradition of hill farming, based on the Herdwick sheep, required constant attention to breeding and land management. But without this effort, a way of life and an entire landscape would have been lost.

Through all this, the timid girl from London (simply portrayed by Renee Zellweger in the recent movie Miss Potter) became transformed: first into the writer and artist familiar to all, and then into a doughty 50-year-old who tramped the hills and won prizes for her livestock at agricultural fairs. It is as if she had become a character in one of her own books. She took an important role in local affairs, fiercely resisting the attempts of industrialists to develop the region. She also campaigned successfully to bring in a representative of the Queen's District Nurses Association, a charitable organization that brought medical care to rural areas. But her compassion had limits. Having grown up with every privilege that money could buy, she refused to improve her properties with gas lighting or even indoor bathrooms. And, somewhat surprisingly, she always opposed the notion of women's suffrage.

She had become an astute businesswoman, and the incompetence of her publisher Frederick Warne (run by the brothers of her dead fiancé) was a constant trial. She found it difficult to get earnings statements or royalty payments promptly. Her ideas for dolls and ceramics based on her characters—marketing notions that were ahead of her time—were never properly followed up. Then, in 1917, Harold Warne, the managing partner, was arrested for fraud. With survival of the company in jeopardy, Potter stepped in to sort things out and, importantly, to preserve her income.

Beatrix Potter was a very basic sort of conservationist. Even though the Lake District includes many regions of ancient woodland transformed by sheep grazing, she was not concerned with restoring the landscape to its primeval state. She wanted to preserve a particular quality of the environment and its associated way of life as she had first encountered them—a unique, rather inefficient rural economy rather than a set of natural habitats. At her death, the total estate of farms was valued at 211,000 pounds (between $14 million and $35 million today). Beatrix Potter's land is now a central part of the National Trust's contribution to the Lake District National Park, which, at 885 square miles, is England's largest and most popular scenic reserve. Ironically, her fame now swells the tourism that threatens to overwhelm the land she worked to save.

 

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