Beyond the adventures of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, author Beatrix Potter had a most peculiar and later, vibrant life worth spinning a tale (or tail?) over.
Today marks the 148th anniversary of when children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter was born. But beyond The Tale of Peter Rabbit and many of her other popular books, how much do you know about the British author? The details of her life may be just as or even more interesting than her fanciful animal tales. Here are some notable facts to know:
Potter’s isolation during childhood was the catalyst to her imagination.
Raised by strict wealthy parents, Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram spent months on holiday alone together in the quiet English and Scottish countrysides. Although they didn’t have many friends their age, they were given permission to invite the animal kingdom into their abode: mice, bats, rats, salamanders, rabbits, and hedgehogs, etc. Beatrix studied them intensely and drew them with great precision. As an adult, she sold her sketches by turning them into greeting cards and later included her beloved animals as characters in her stories.
Potter had a thing for mushrooms.
Being a skilled student of science and observer of the natural world, Potter found delight in studying mushrooms, both for their ephemerality and their various patterns and colors.
Not only did she often draw them in her sketchbook and create beautiful watercolor renderings, but she also wrote a paper theorizing how fungi spores reproduced. She submitted it to the Linnean Society in 1887, but because women couldn’t attend Society meetings, she had to have one of her male biologist friends present her idea.
She was very private in matters of the heart.
Potter was almost 40 when she became secretly engaged to book publisher Norman Warne. Because her parents disapproved of him, she promised she’d keep their engagement a private matter, but only a month later, Warne died of leukemia. Even Potter’s younger brother, Bertram, knew his parents weren’t keen on their romances and only admitted to his own marriage 11 years after it had taken place.
She was a master of merchandising.
Besides selling greeting cards of her artwork, Potter also realized that there could be a market for merchandise to accompany her successful storybooks. Soon after the Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck dolls were born, along with related board games and wall paper. Potter was determined to manage all aspects of her business.
She found inspiration in the youngest among us.
Having no children of her own, Potter enjoyed keeping in touch with the children of her one-time governess.
“My dear Marjery,” reads a letter in 1903, “I was so much pleased to hear about your little white bunnies. My bunnies are always brown, but I once had a dear white rat with pink eyes. I don’t know if he ever wrote letters, but I think if he did, they would have been the same size as your letter.”
Such conversations helped create the backdrop to her many stories.
She became an award-winning sheep farmer and conservationist.
With the royalties from her book sales and merchandise, Potter retreated to the English countryside in 1909, purchasing multiple properties and eventually becoming a prize-winning sheep farmer admired around the region. In 1913 Potter married a local solicitor and became deeply involved in conserving the land in her community. By the time of her death in 1943 she had left 15 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, a U.K. conservation charity that protects historic and green sites.