Paddy Lynn brought Beatrix Potter to life during a fascinating webinar on July 7, part of the virtual Levy Lectures produced by the Levy Senior Center Foundation. The author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” is admired throughout the world by generations of children and their parents, librarians and booksellers.
Less well known is Miss Potter’s passion for and dedication to land conservation, and how she acquired thousands of acres of land specifically for the purpose of donating them to the National Trust in England.
Beatrix grew up in an upper class household in London. She was sickly as a child, taken ill by mononucleosis and later rheumatic fever, which caused her hair to fall out. Her mother was fearful Beatrix would become sick again and did not allow her to play with other children.
Allowed to have pets, she acquired and adored water newts, lizards, toads, frogs, snakes and many other critters. She also had the more traditional canine pet, a Scotch terrier.
These animals were her friends and companions. She studied them, drew them, and created stories about them. Her studies of their behaviors and movements were later woven in to the 30 children’s books she wrote and illustrated, including the 23 “Tales” books.
In Paddy’s retelling, Beatrix was always drawing, painting and illustrating. Through private tutors hired by her mother, she studied languages and literature, and was especially interested in botany, anatomy, entomology (insects), and mycology (fungi).
Both her parents had studied art, and they encouraged her talent for drawing and illustration. Her extended family was fortunate to spend three months every year on a summer holiday in Scotland, far away from London. This gave her time and opportunity to explore the countryside and study the region’s animals, insects and plants. Years later, the family began spending their vacation time in England’s Lake District, and Beatrix fell in love: She had never seen such beautiful countryside. She was determined to relocate there one day.
Perhaps most striking about Paddy Lynn’s portrayal of Beatrix was how confident and independent Beatrix was throughout her life. She was raised by governesses from infancy and lived with an extremely strict and controlling mother, yet she found joy in many things and pursued her interests regardless of what other people or society dictated.
She was not interested in getting married, so she thought, and did not want to have children, yet she relished creating stories that would entertain other people’s children.
“Tales of Peter Rabbit” was initially rejected by several commercial publishers whom Beatrix approached. Undeterred and believing in her book, Beatrix self-published it.
It was an immediate hit. That response prompted the publishing houses in London to reconsider, and Beatrix signed a contract with the most prestigious one, Warne Publishing. She was 36 years old.
All this time Beatrix was still living at home with her parents. She continued to write and illustrate children’s books and was earning a substantial income. A brief engagement to Norman Warne, her editor at the publishing company, was derailed by his untimely death from leukemia.
Grief stricken, she mourned Norman deeply and alone, as her parents were not in favor of her wedding a ‘tradesman.’ After a few months of being miserable, and determined to get out of London and away from her overbearing parents, Beatrix gathered her earnings and purchased a 34-acre working farm, Hilltop Farm, in Near Sawrey, part of the Lake District of England.
With hardly any experience, Beatrix became a farmer at age 40. She was a farmer with resources, and she used those resources to hire good people, invest in the best equipment, and seek advice from experts.
Beatrix’s first project at the farm was to breed Herdwick sheep. Within a few years, her sheep were winning prizes. She was earning royalties from her books and related merchandise like dolls, tea sets, and other items, and she used her earnings to buy additional property adjacent to Hilltop Farm.
A few years later she fell in love with and married a country lawyer in her village, William Heelis, and she spent 30 happy years living with him in the countryside. Eventually she stopped writing new books and focused on farming and conservation.
Beatrix Potter died in 1943 of pneumonia. She was 77 years old; her husband died less than two years later. At the time of her death, she left more than 4,000 acres across 14 farms to the National Trust. Land left to her husband was also donated to the National Trust after his death, and together these donations make up the majority of the Lake District National Park.
Those who wish to see an encore presentation of Paddy Lynn’s portrayal of Beatrix Potter may do so on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.