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Beatrix Potter

July 28 is the birthday of Beatrix Potter, one of the most remarkable female authors of all time.  Best known as the creator of charming characters such as Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, and Jemima PuddleDuck, her life stretched far beyond the backyard garden of Farmer McGregor. 

Born in 1866 in London to a wealthy Victorian family, Potter was one of two children (along with brother, Bertram).  Her socialite parents relegated her to the third floor of their mansion, where she was raised by a governess and a nanny.  Since Bertram had been sent off to private school, the young girl often found herself alone.  But she was rarely lonely, for she liked to smuggle mice, rabbits, and hedgehogs into the house to keep her company.

During the summer, the family enjoyed taking three-month holidays in the country, either at England's Lake District or in Scotland.  One favorite spot when Potter was in her teens was Wray Castle, which was set on the Lake District's west shore of Windermere.  It was there that she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, a writer who was also the Vicar of Wray.  He influenced Potter throughout much of her life.  He, too, loved the Lake District and hated any encroachments of civilization into it.  He also took an interest in Potter's animals, which often accompanied her travels in hutches and boxes.  Rawnsley encouraged her early painting, even though polite society considered such things inappropriate for young ladies.

One thing that was considered appropriate was keeping a journal, and the young girl did just that, writing in a tiny hand and using coded language so that no one else--should the journal ever be discovered--would be able to decipher it. 

As a dutiful young woman, Potter spent most of her time helping her parents run their household in London.  In her mid-twenties, she illustrated a book of verses for children and wrote about her animals in letters to the children of her former governess.  Her first signed illustrations were published in A Happy Pair, a book of verse written by Frederick E. Weatherly, when she was twenty-seven.  In her mid-thirties, she decided to publish a book called The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she had originally written in the form of a letter to the five-year-old invalid son of her favorite former governess.  The book was loosely based upon the activities of a real rabbit that she had observed in her garden.

When she decided to publish it, she turned to her friend, Rawnsley, as she often did, for advice.  He advised her to submit it to the publishing company of Frederick Warne & Co. in London.  They rejected it, so Potter published the work privately in an edition of 450 copies.  Warne later recanted, purchasing the first color edition of the book and encouraging her to write more.  As a result, Squirrel Nutkin, The Tailor of Gloucester, and Benjamin Bunny were born.  From the royalties of her first books, along with a slim inheritance, Potter was able to purchase Hill Top Farm in Far Sawrey, in the Lake District, 250 miles northwest of London. 

After the death of her publisher, Potter felt an urge to produce more books.  Over the course of the next eight years, she wrote thirteen successful volumes, many of which were about Hill Top and the village of Sawrey.  Within a decade, her books had sold in the millions.

Although she loved the country, Potter still spent up to three-quarters of her time in London, partly for literary purposes and partly to care for her aging mother and father.  She eventually moved them into a house nearer her farm, where Potter learned to be a farmer.  She continued her sketching—mostly her house, her garden, the countryside, and small animals.  Jemima PuddleDuck and Ginger and Pickles (about a country store) are set in her neighborhood.

In time, Potter began buying up other parcels around Sawrey in order to increase her holdings and to save old buildings and small farms from demolition.  Once again, she was influenced by Canon Rawnsley (Canon of Carlisle since 1909), who had been named the Honorable Secretary of the National Trust, the holding company for land and historic houses.  Her involvement in the Trust's acquisitions in the Lake District, to preserve the integrity of the English countryside, became a life-long commitment.

In 1909, Potter bought a large neighboring property, Castle Farm, to add to Hill Top's acreage.  The solicitors with whom she made the transaction were W. Heelis & Co., which included partner William Heelis.  He kept his eye on her various farms and buildings and, eventually, on her.  In 1913, after a long courtship, the two married in Kensington, where they farmed and raised prize registered Herdwick sheep. 

Throughout the remaining years of her life, Potter and her husband were active in the National Trust.  She continued acquiring property to protect the area from development, believing, as had Canon Rawnsley, that the Trust was critical for the preservation of the scenic lands of the Lake District.

Upon her death at her home in 1943, Potter bequeathed more than 4,000 acres of farms, cottages, and her flocks of Herdwick sheep to the National Trust.  Thanks to her, the Lake District continues to be one of the most rural, untouched corners of England. 

Besides her captivating children's books, Beatrix Potter left behind a legacy of precise, realistic botanical drawings and paintings, created to illustrate scientific books on flora and fauna.  She sketched and painted watercolors of lizards, newts, fungi, mosses, lichen, and spiders and is today considered to be a first-rate naturalist--an honor that had been denied her during her own lifetime in puritanical Victorian England.

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