Beatrix Potter - Classical Children's Book Author

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Sunshine, fresh air, and the chance to burn off some of that boundless energy are not the only good reasons for children to spend time outdoors. One of the best and most surprising examples of what I mean is Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other beloved classical children’s books.

Beatrix’s childhood was thoroughly Victorian. She was born at a time when women of the upper-middle-class were expected to do little more than get married and have children. However, the life of the children’s books writer was anything but ordinary, and that was partly because she and her brother played outside.

The Original Earth-Child

Rupert and Helen Potter welcomed bouncing little Helen Beatrix Potter into the world on the 28th of July 1866. Her brother Walter Bertram came along on the 14th of March 1872.

Beatrix’ father made his fortune on the stock market, and his wealth enabled him and his wife to explore their artistic sides. It also made it possible to employ the three governesses that tutored his daughter. The last governess hired was Annie Carter, known after marriage as Annie Moore. She was only three years older than her pupil, so it isn’t surprising that the two of them became lifelong friends. The young governess also played an important role in the creation of the classical children’s books that made Ms Potter an internationally known author and artist.

Their parent’s interests meant that the Potter children were exposed to art, culture, and nature, and they spent most weekends and holidays in the countryside. In their schoolroom at home in West Brompton, London, they kept all sorts of pets. If you were to visit them, you would have seen a hedgehog, rabbits, mice, and bats. They also had collections of preserved butterflies and insects. Not only did Beatrix Potter put time and effort into looking after her pets, she also spent hours watching and drawing them too.

Life In The Lake District

1882 was the first year in which the Potters spent their summer holiday near Lake Windermere in the Lake District, northwest England. They enjoyed their time so much that they returned annually thereafter; something that also helped make the classical children’s books a reality.

If you have ever seen how beautiful that part of the world is, you can understand why it became their new favourite destination. While on one of her visits to the village of Wray near Windermere, Beatrix Potter met the vicar, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. She could relate to his passion for the countryside, and was even more inspired by him when he became the National Trust’s founding secretary. 

Passionate About Reading

Long before she became a children’s books author, the young woman was a passionate reader. She read just about every story she could find.

Just some of what she read included extracts from the Bible’s Old Testament, the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare’s plays, and Aesop’s Fables. Beatrix Potter was just as passionate about art, and she developed a talent for illustrating stories. As a teenager, she visited London’s art galleries regularly.

In the 1890s she and her brother designed and printed Christmas cards to make some money. Her cards usually featured rabbits and mice. Those creatures were also to appear in the letters that changed her life.

The Birth of a Literary Icon

The children’s former governess, Annie Moore, had eight children and Beatrix Potter maintained a warm friendship with all of them. When on holiday in the countryside, she would write and illustrate letters to them and to a few other children.

When writing to Annie’s eldest son in September 1893, she did not know what else to include in her letter, so she wrote a story about the rabbits Cottontail, Flopsy, Mopsy and Peter. Her former governess thought the tale and the accompanying pictures would be perfect for children’s books.

Beatrix Potter reworked the story and created a dummy copy of the book in 1900. Initially, none of the publishers she approached were interested, so in December 1901, she self-published it. Canon Hardwicke also believed in her talent. He made a few edits to the style of the verse, and then helped his friend approach publishers a second time. It was just what was needed. Frederick Warne & Co. accepted the book, and in 1902, the Tale of Peter Rabbit was published. Its success inspired her to turn more of her letters into what are now the classical children’s books, the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, and The Tailor of Gloucester.

Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated 23 books. However, later in life, she focused less on her literary career and more on breeding sheep, farming, and helping conserve the Lake District’s natural heritage. She died in 1943, but her fantastic children’s books live on, and to date have sold more than 100 million copies combined.

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