Beatrix Potter's magical animal tales remain ever popular with children and adults alike - her delightful stories and beautiful illustrations have captured the imagination of children for generations. But what was she really like?
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In his new book, award-winning author WR Mitchell, tells the compelling story of the real Beatrix Potter, a Londoner by birth who went on to settle and spend the 40 years of her later life in the heart of the English Lake District. The picture that emerges may surprise many people.
The book is largely based on personal reflections of people who knew Beatrix Potter. During his time as editor for Cumbria magazine, a position he held for nearly forty years, WR Mitchell interviewed many local folk who knew the author during her Lakeland years, from the time she bought the now famous Hill Top Farm at Sawrey.
These interviews are distilled into this unique book, presenting a fascinating first-hand insight into the character of the famous author.
Beatrix Potter - Under the Microscope
In Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years, WR Mitchell lifts the lid on a little known aspect of Beatrix's life and times. The book explores what Beatrix was doing when she stopped writing so prolifically and why she became so passionate about the Lakeland landscape around her.
Through the book we learn of Beatrix's work in mycology and her drawings and paintings of fungus; her keen interest in farming and support for local customs and way of life; her interest in conservation and preservation and The National Trust.
Beatrix was fascinated with Herdwick sheep, a native breed that had made the craggy fell-country its own and are held in high affection by visitors. Her main interests were with farming, and especially the purchase of farms threatened with development.
In many ways, Beatrix Potter was ahead of her time in her views on conservation. In fact, on her death in 1943, she left all her farmland to the National Trust in order to protect her beloved Herdwick sheep and preserve the environment she loved. She was utterly determined to save the best of the Lake District by buying up property
threatened by modern development.
In Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years, WR Mitchell unearths the very essence of Beatrix Potter the person, not just as a successful children's author, Potter through the eyes and experiences of people who knew and worked with her. We discover a woman of remarkable talents, interests and urgent concerns.
The Heart of It
At the heart of the book are the personal opinions of various people who knew Beatrix well during her Lakeland years. They include Tom Storey, her shepherd, who cared for her prize Herdwick sheep and Amanda Postlethwaite, whose family were near neighbours. Delmar and Josephina Banner, artist and sculptor, had vivid recollections of meeting Beatrix in her home. These provide a unique view of Beatrix Potter as never seen before and pieced together they give the reader a chance to get to know the real Beatrix Potter. Readers discover Beatrix Potter's perverse hostility towards children, her obsession with privacy and her fragile relations with local inhabitants.
Just some of the views expressed in the book about Beatrix Potter are:
“She looked rather like Mrs Tiggywinkle, the hedgehog, featured in one of her books.”
“She was good to work for if you went the right way about it.”
“If she was that side out, she had no room for children.”
What is perhaps most interesting is the many varying opinions of Beatrix which are expressed. While one friend recalls; "If anyone got on the wrong side of her I don't think they ever got back into her favour again", a former tenant says of her, "She could not have been kinder."
20th Century Lakeland Revealed
In examining Beatrix Potter's Lakeland years through the memories of those around her, WR Mitchell also paints a detailed account of what it was like to live in Lakeland through the first half of the 20th Century. The book presents a vivid social history of the area and its people; their unique lives and mode of living. The area itself and the characters interviewed are as large a feature in the book as Beatrix Potter herself.
The summaries of her 'little books' and the portraits of the 'Lakeland Haunts' she frequented and is associated with provide a concise guide that will be of great interest to amateur collectors, fans and visitors to the area who wish to trace and visit Potter locations.
It's a fascinating look at a woman who has remained a mystery - certainly in her later Lakeland years. It's wonderful to hear from those who were around just what locals made of this intriguing woman. Richly illustrated with many archive and current images this book is sure to be essential reading for anyone interested in the life of a truly remarkable woman.
About the Author
Now in his 80s, WR Mitchell has written nearly 200 books, during a career spanning more than 60 years. He has an unparalleled knowledge of the Yorkshire Dales and as the former editor of the Dalesman magazine, has interviewed many of the 20th century's great literary figures from Wainwright to JB Priestley and James Herriot.
WR Mitchell is an MBE and the President of the Yorkshire Dales Society. In 2008, the Outdoor Writers' and Photographers' Guild presented him with their highest accolade, the Golden Eagle award and praised him as "one of the founding fathers of outdoor writing". And last year he was named Yorkshire Dales National Park's greatest living cultural icon.
Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years by WR Mitchell
Published by Great Northern Books, 21 June 2010.
Hardback, 160 pages, full colour