History was brought to life at Hillsboro Library Friday as a beloved 19th century children’s book author talked about her life and inspiration for her first and most famous book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
The year is 1901 and Beatrix Potter, portrayed by Maria McKelvy, has recently celebrated her 35th birthday. She looks back on her life in London and the many places her family lived in the summertime.
“I was born in London – in Bolton Gardens, a lovely home,” she said. “My parents were quite wealthy, I will not be shy about that. My grandparents acquired much of their wealth through designing fabrics in Manchester. We had a lovely home in London. I spent most of my time on the third floor where the nursery was.”
In the summer, the family would pack up everything in their home and rent summer homes in Wales, Scotland and the Lake District in Northwest England. It was on these trips Potter found her muse and artistry. Her brother, Bertram, accompanied her on many of her adventures and specimen collecting trips.
“I was influenced early on by a gentleman by the name of [Randolph] Caldecott,” she said. “I decided that I needed to find my own style of how I wanted to portray what I observed. It’s such a lovely memory of Bertram and I to be free in the countryside, not inhibited by the constraints of what my parents thought we should be doing, or our governesses, or Bertram’s tutor. We would run the countryside collecting animal specimens.
“I must say, sometimes they were alive and sometimes they were dead, and sometimes we made them dead,” she continued. “I hate to admit that, but we did. But, how else could we study how their skeletons were put together? We would bring them home and we would study them either as they lived or as they were – still. Then we would sketch them and we would paint them.”
The Potter siblings became self-taught naturalists, roaming the country sides of England and Scotland, collecting and recording their findings. As she developed her talent, Potter befriended a Scotsman who became a mentor of sorts.
“His name was Charlie McIntosh,” she said. “It was Charlie who became a mentor for me – who would look at my sketches of mushrooms and fungi that I became extremely interested in. He would look at my drawings and he would critique them for me for accuracy and also my descriptions for accuracy.”
At one point, Potter penned a paper on her fungi discoveries and had an uncle present the paper for the Linnean Society in London, as women were not allowed into that society. Potter was disappointed when the paper was deemed to “need more work.”
Despite the rejection, Potter did not give up on writing. She continued her naturalist practices and began dreaming up tales while she observed her pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer.
“I’d watch him play,” she said, “and think about all the little adventures he might have when he’s not near me or, if he could speak, what would he say?”
Instead of writing the story in book form and publishing it right away, Potter wrote the story in a letter to the sick child of one of her governesses, in an effort to cheer him up. That letter was the birth of Peter Rabbit and his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Potter included sketches of the rabbits in the letter.
“As time went on, the family said I should do something with this letter,” Potter said. “I should publish it. I abhorred the idea of publishing one of my writings. Who would want to read what I wrote or look at these pictures?”
At last, she decided to give it a try, and after several publishing houses turned her down, Potter chose to publish the book with her own money, on her own terms.
Potter read the first edition of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” to the audience Friday night and asked if she should write more books.
“Shall I write more than ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit?’” she asked. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about the story of a frog. When we were at Eastwood House, I saw a number of frogs dropping into the River Tay and I thought, well perhaps I could write a story about a frog. I don’t know what I’ll call him though. Although, I think the name Jeremy, like a Jeremy Fisher perhaps. I don’t know. That’s down the road. We’ll have to see if I decide to publish that.”
Potter added that she aspired to have her own income, separate from her parents, and a farm where she could raise Herdwick sheep.
Of course, the real Potter did both of those things. She wrote 23 children’s books about the adventures of a variety of animals, and purchased Hill Top Farm where she had a flock of Herdwick sheep.
Beatrix Potter enthusiast and member of the Beatrix Potter Society, Anne Troxell added to the history of the author and gave insight into her life.
“Beatrix’s father found a place in the Lake District called Wray Castle and they rented that in the summer of 1882,” Troxell said. “It’s a very important move as things evolved for Beatrix because that summer she meets Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and [he] became very important in the formation in 1895 of the National Trust. It’s the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.”
Potter bought her beloved farm, Hill Top House, in 1905. She married William Heelis in 1908 and continued to add to her wealth of property until her death in 1943 at the age of 77.
Potter’s connection to the National Trust was set in stone a year after her death when it received an overwhelming gift from her estate.
“In February of 1944, the National Trust announced that they had received the greatest Lake land gift ever,” Troxell said. “Beatrix Potter, in her will, left them forty-three hundred acres of land plus a few more acres, that included forty separate conveyances, sixty individual properties, fifteen farms, scores of cottages, several houses and five hundred acres of wood. Her stipulation was the properties had to be kept as they were. That has pretty much happened.”
The National Trust is much like the West Virginia Farmland Protection program. Pocahontas County sheep farmer and Farmland Protection Board member Stella Callison provided information on the program which protects farms in Pocahontas County.
“There’s a four-fold purpose to it, but the very main one is to preserve and protect farmland,” Callison said. “There are different criteria that we’ve set. One of the main one’s is what kind of soils we are protecting. We ask for a survey if there has not been one done and an appraisal. These are yellow book appraisals. There’s only six in the whole state who can do them and therefore that is the slowest process we go through.”
Callison has a couple interests in common with Potter – farm preservation and sheep farming. Callison has been a sheep farmer all her life and is passionate about the lifestyle she leads.
“I love to talk about sheep but not on the same level as Beatrix Potter,” she said, laughing. “I, myself, have Suffolk Hampshire mixes. My son has purebred Polled Dorsets. When he got into his Polled Dorsets, it was at a very young age, and it was probably because mother was the one who wanted Polled Dorsets.”
Sheep farming is a difficult and sometimes despairing practice, but Callison wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We got one of the most wonderful things in sheep farming, my guard dog Johnny, who I miss extremely,” she said. “He was one hundred twenty-five pound purebred Maremma and, you know, when you get a dog that large living in the elements with the sheep, they don’t always live as long as you would like them to. Before I got him, we’d lose lambs all the time – didn’t matter whether it was in the spring or when it was. After I got him, I lost maybe a total of four lambs in a period of five years.
“Even with the guard dogs, guard donkeys – [the predators] get closer and closer to your house and to your backdoor more or less,” she continued. “That is one of the regretful things about raising sheep. I’m passionate about sheep. I love sheep. I guess that came through my father and I guess my son, Mikey, got it from me.”
Troxell presented the library with two books – “The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit,” by Beatrix Potter and “The Shepherd’s Life – A Tale of the Lake District,” by James Rebanks.
The annual literary event was hosted by Hillsboro Library Friends and included a potluck dinner and a display of artwork by county artists as well as photos and information on the life of Potter.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org