Friday, May 18, 2007

Miss Beatrix Potter

In London at the turn of the century, Beatrix Potter was an oddity. She was 32, unmarried, lived with her parents, and conversed constantly with her own animal caricatures. No one had any notion however that in due time, up until the advent of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter-- she would become the best-selling children’s books author of all time.

As the dahhling ladies of the “ton” flitted from one social party to the next seeking for suitable husbands, Beatrix spent her time drawing portraits of wood animals and making up stories about them. At 11, she boldly declared to her mother she was never going to marry. When her father asked then the child Beatrix, who would make her happy if she didn’t marry, she answered: “I have my drawings, animals and my art…”

And so at twenty, she rejected altogether, a seemingly endless string of spineless eccentric royals, mostly recommendees of her social-climbing mother. Yet to Beatrix, her unique situation was not a matter of circumstance. It was a matter of choice: “I don’t want to marry a man simply because he was acceptable.”

Here was a woman who didn’t fit any of her society’s norms. Before she got her “break”, Beatrix spent her days “traipsing from publisher to publisher with a gaggle of friends.” Her “friends” were her animal drawings—apparently the only ones who have kept her company in her lonely life. She defied the standards of her time and lived bravely according to her own beliefs. She refused to be dictated by her restrictive society. Despite her mother’s disparaging comments: “I can’t wait until your book is out and forgotten--” she refused to surrender. For her, she could not stop until she had finally introduced her “friends” to the world.

After teaming up with the youngest brother (who would eventually become the love—and tragedy--of her life) comprising the F. Warne publishing firm, then one of England’s most prestigious publishers-- Beatrix became a successful children’s books author. Her books were bought by the dozens, others were even shipped to then British-colonized India. All to the dismay, and perhaps insecurity-- of her mother.

And when Norman Warne proposed to her and she accepted—she was faced with the daunting task of fighting with her parents--tooth-and-nail, for their love. Her mother just couldn’t tolerate the idea that her daughter was marrying a “trades man.” Trades people she said, “carry dust into the house.” But when a compromise was reached where she and Norman were to wait a few more months before they were to wed, sadly and very unexpectedly before the period ended-- she lost this one man who finally showed her the path to love.

In her lifetime she became so wealthy that she was able to purchase a beautiful estate in the country and adjacent to it--thousands of acres of prime development land. In the later part of her life, she waged a war against property developers who “destroyed” the countryside. At her death, she donated almost half a hectare of it to the British people, in her efforts to conserve the land. Thus, she left behind two legacies—her art and her efforts to protect the beautiful English countryside..

Her beautiful illustrations, boundless imagination and engaging stories made her books lasting works of art. Beatrix Potter, according to her father, was “the genuine article.” She was indeed a woman ahead of her time. Her Peter Rabbit, Three Blind Mice tales etc. became staple bedtime stories of children across the globe, for many generations.

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