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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. <!--pagebreak-->

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