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From the NS archive: Fur and freedom

1 July 1966: Being asleep in her own life, Beatrix Potter had her eyes wide open to the world outside herself.

By V S Pritchett

Beatrix Potter’s classic children’s stories may be beloved and read worldwide, yet in this article the author, VS Pritchett, is more interested in Potter’s personal journals. Potter, who died in 1943 aged 77, wrote them from the age of 14 until 30 in a code of her own devising, which took the editor, Leslie Linder, 13 years to decipher. The diaries, published in 1966, reveal both an artist in the making and a remarkable picture of upper middle-class life in late Victorian Britain. Potter’s family home may have been in London, yet they lived, she said, a life of “monotonous, conventional bourgeois isolation”. Her family encouraged her artistic expression with — chaperoned — visits to museums to draw the plants and animals. It is clear to readers of these diaries that even in her early age Potter was a sharp observer. Yet it was long family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District which inspired Potter’s adoration for the natural world. The family would share their home with hedgehogs, mice and rabbits, who would soon enter Potter’s imagined world as characters. “Humanised but not sentimentalised”, Pritchett notes, “like nicely brought-up people, they mind their manners.”

There is Beatrix Potter of the Boltons: first of all a sad, puffy-eyed girl, then a pale, drooping young woman, swathed — it is the only word for it — in the funereal satin draperies of the Eighties. The look of low spirits and obedience may be due to the melancholic effects of Victorian photography, but we do know that she was one more Victorian captive. Childishly, her mind teems with furry, scaly creatures — snails, beetles, newts, mice, rabbits and frogs; she draws and writes about them for a handful of family friends. She has learned to make botanical and animal drawings by going — with a chaperone — to the Kensington museums; in her thirties she ventures nervously and reluctantly into publication. She becomes famous but gets little freedom or excitement from fame, indeed only tragedy; engaged to marry her publisher, against strong family opposition, she is told that he has died. For ten years she goes on writing her little books and buys a cottage in the Lake District. In her late forties she escapes from her parents and, after a long battle with them in which she nearly dies, marries the local solicitor in Westmorland. Beatrix Potter vanishes.

In her place appears a new character — Mrs Heelis. The artist has turned farmer; fur gives place to fulfilment, pets to marketable sheep, draperies to an odd bundle of tweeds; there are metalled clogs on her feet; strange hats crown her head. One may still see a glimpse of wistful charm in her face, but it is now wind-riven. She is a crusty, hard-headed, blunt-spoken country body, energetic in the lambing season, in the mud of the pens. She alarms people by her patient, expressionless stare. The last thing she wants to hear about is Peter Rabbit. The only admirers she can tolerate are Americans — the English she can’t abide. Possibly she identifies them with her preposterous parents, or with Kensington, even with old bugbears like the traitor, Mr Gladstone. When, in old age, English critics praised her drawing and said she was “in the same company as Palmer, Calvert, Bewick”, she was very angry. First of all at being addressed as “Miss”: had she not fought something like a Waterloo to become a married woman? Secondly, she thought she was accused of copying. This shows that the original artist was not quite dead; but she believed that her art belonged to her past and the past was best forgotten. Egged on by her bland American admirers, who could not swallow this typically drastic Victorian sentiment, she did produce one more book. Critics have been kind but cool about it.

Is personal happiness the enemy of the artist? The question is unsubtle. Beatrix Potter’s emotions had found another direction. Her early life contains everything that has been said about the frustration and martyrdom of the Victorian child and woman; but this martyrdom fed an important strain in the Victorian genius. One of its paradoxical effects, especially in the middle classes (and still mildly observable today), was to prolong childhood: so that it is in the century of violent, self-willed money power, with its outward cult of middle age, that we have our startling and deeply English literature of childish fantasy. The little Nells, Dorrits, Pauls, Alices, the Peter Pans and the furry little animals, are the underground expression of what people wish to be. They want to be grownup without growing. There is a very good life of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane which adds something to the subject, and now we have Beatrix Potter’s secret Journal (The Journal of Beatrix Potter 1881-1897 transcribed by Leslie Linder) which she kept for many years from the time she was 14 years old.

The young Beatrix Potter with her cousin, Alice. Photo by Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Potters were rich North Country people who had made money out of cotton and in the third generation had come to London to live in monotonous, conventional bourgeois isolation. They were Unitarians and not illiberal; they are wooden characters out of Shaw. They avoided the more vigorous habits of the parvenu: they were respectable, replete, and colourless to the last button. They were rather proud of being without a circle. Mr Potter liked the faceless life of clubs, where — one would guess — he listened rather than partook, Mrs Potter had her calls, carriage, and string of reliable servants. Lamb cutlets and rice pudding were served every day as if by clockwork; a plate was sent up to the schoolroom on the top floor where a solitary child stared month after month from the window. Eventually she was joined by a brother who also was to become an artist. The family had nothing against art. Father liked taking photographs of the models of Millais — saved money and was quite safe — and thought that so long as his son stuck to landscape there could be no harm; he encouraged his daughter — under proper chaperonage — to draw plants and animals in the museums. As Margaret Lane says, the Potters belonged to a class within a class and were as isolated as the rich Ruskins in Denmark Hill. They lived in a comfortable vacuum. If they had had aristocratic connections, the daughter would at least have been offered the chances of the organised marriage market; if they had been less well off, there would have been more friends and freedom. As it was, the girl was very shy and disliked meeting people.

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The home was her world. It was a kind of chloroform. She sat under the table as a child listening to the family’s one great pleasure: interminable talk about the eccentricities and prestige of their forebears and relations. Father, unencumbered by talent and despising any form of earning a living, would bring home suitable gossip. He had violent Tory opinions which his daughter obediently lapped up. (Her Journal contains many of them and one cannot regard her as an original political observer.) In the Trafalgar Square riots of 1886, when she was 19, she wrote that Hyndman and Burns ought to be “hanged like dogs”. On another occasion she was appalled to see her father come home yellow in the face, and faint: he had heard at the Reform something even more revolting about Mr Gladstone than usual, something which could not be mentioned before ladies. She agreed that Gladstone was playing with treason.

The Journal echoes these violences. It is the confidant of the solitary, closely watched child. Fearing espionage, she kept it in code. This baffled Mr Linder, the present editor, for a long time. Then he noticed the figure 1793. “Thence to ‘execution’ (p. 9),” says Mr Linder, meaning the execution of Louis XVI, “was but a step”: the word contains all the useful vowels except one. It also contained what the girl wanted to do with the Trafalgar Square rioters. Such outbursts became fewer. One pictures the listening child:

Mamma was once walking in the garden when she was a little girl, when one of the gardeners called after her that she had lost something, and presented her with an elegant embroidered drawer leg.


Grandpapa is rather fond of fine phrases. Once when he went to London for the day, he told all his friends he was a “bird of prey” meaning to say “passage”.

Presently the public world intrudes. “Lord Derby”, always drunk at dinner, is “afflicted with kleptomania to an extraordinary extent”; Harcourt won’t get the Woolsack – “serve him right”.  

At the Academy she sees Gladstone the traitor in rusty black and looking as if he had been put in a clothes bag and sat on, but foxy too. These Shows are carefully studied, especially for the clothes worn at them, and one notices the first tart hints of the kind of thing she will dislike in painting — inaccuracy (Du Maurier has been “beschwärmt” by a Princess’s robe which was a “sad garment”) — and of what she would go for — detail, texture, minuteness. Already one sees her hours, indeed her years, of studying in the museums, forming her eye for the taste and elegance in which she will dress her animal. She turns into an acute critic of Landseer, disliking the hotness of colour and “a certain horrible metallic green”.

The family holidays in Scotland have taught her what deer are like:

To anyone who has handled a dead deer, especially a few hours after it has been shot… the prevailing impression is of the wooden impracticality of the wiry legs. It is more like an arrangement of walking sticks than steaks.

English painters overdo the sleek, and the legs in their pictures offend the young anatomist.

I consider that Mrs Blackburn’s birds do not on the average stand on their legs so well as Bewick’s but… her young Herring Gull and the Hoody Crow are worthy of the Japanese.

As the Journal goes on, the sharp humour about people and the descriptions of country life become more pointed. The Scottish scenes are excellent: the Victorians excelled in exact observation of nature and in Beatrix Potter’s there is little intrusion of personal emotion. She is not using nature for her emotional needs: loneliness has taught her to watch and her upbringing has scotched self-pity. The determined artist and the country woman are at one in this. Even when she fights her family about her first engagement, nothing is revealed. The worst we hear is that all too familiar Victorian complaint of “feeling low”.

The animals appear from the beginning. There is an early family of snails, “with surprising difference of character” among them and known by such names as Lord and Lady Salisbury, Sextus Grimes and Mars and Venus — all found dried up and dead. They ought to have been watered but it seemed a shame to do that when they were asleep. There are beetles; there are newts, the male glorious in the mating season — the watercolour is reproduced; there is Jack Hare who eats oil paint. The dormouse called Xarifa, which dies of asthma in old age, has been stroked by John Bright and Millais. There are mice and rabbits. Benjamin Bouncer is led around on a strap. On rabbits in general she writes:

Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent. It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful in Mr Benjamin Bunny, though I frankly admit his vulgarity. At one moment amicably sentimental to the verge of silliness, at the next, the upsetting of a jug or a teacup which he immediately takes upon himself, will convert him into a demon, throwing himself on his back, scratching and spluttering… He is an abject coward, but believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail. Benjamin once fell into an Aquarium head first, and sat in the water which he could not get out of, pretending to eat a piece of string. Nothing like putting a face upon circumstances.

She had to do so herself. In Falmouth she once went to a Quaker meeting with her father who, as she expected, “did not know what to make of it” — a characteristic of the tyrannical fence-sitter, though perhaps he was disturbed because the Quakers would be “in trade”; but of herself she makes one of her few revealing remarks: “I who have lived so much asleep and out of life”. Keeping out of trade was Mr Potter’s form of chastity and he succeeded for a long time in imposing that chastity upon his daughter. The escape was into the world of house-proud hedgehogs, mice and rabbits, bourgeois in dress but animal in body — even Jeremy Fisher, in his raffish pose, as he paddles across the pond on a leaf. The animals are humanised but not sentimentalised. Agitation and killing are not far off. Like nicely brought-up people, they mind their manners. Yet there is always the underlying belligerence of the Kensington code.

Perhaps her animals, so minutely drawn, are not animals at all, but people, whom she also observed minutely but of whom, until her marriage, she was afraid. It is not really remarkable that this secret book should be so continuously readable: being asleep in her own life, Beatrix Potter had her eyes wide open to the world outside herself; being solitary, she saw every natural detail concretely and patiently, hair by hair, leaf by leaf. Out of the martyrdom came a private gaiety. It is a quality the Victorian martyrs often have.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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