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Reflections on a Personal Hero

Updated: Feb 25

"My dear Noel, I don't know what to write you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter."

When I was little, I remember poring over her stories -- more namely, her illustrations. And I knew that the world of animals, the love of countryside, art, and foxgloves would always and forever be important to me because of her. I also knew that I wanted to be just liker her when I grew up. And I didn't realize at the time what that would mean. But in my adult life, I have learned that we have more in common than the love of things mentioned above. (As a side note: there are many differences between us, for instance, my mother and I have a very healthy relationship. But even amidst that, there is a kindred spirit in many other commonalities.) And so in a strange way, I feel more connected to her now than when I sat on a blanket on the floor at six years old reading her stories and looking at her beautiful paintings, or watching the beautiful PBS miniseries produced in the 90s with her stories (the intro alone is so beautiful that it still brings tears to my eyes).

Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to a family of means in London, England. Her father was a lawyer who loved art and photography, and her mother loved all the commodities of society life. One aspect of having (or appearing to have) wealth in those days was to take extended holidays in the country by renting large estates during the summer months, which her family did. Beatrix lived for the summertime, where she was not confined to the society and noise and bustle of city life, and where she could spend her days exploring, drawing, and painting animals and nature. Her mother saw her artistic talent as a gentlewomanly accomplishment that may mean a potential future suitor who could be intrigued by her art. So formal art lessons were instituted for her. But Beatrix saw it as her way to breathe.

Beatrix grew up telling stories to her younger brother, and drawing pictures of the animals that she told stories about. She and her brother were homeschooled, and didn't have many friends during their childhood. Their parents were protective over their children's moral and physical health (Beatrix was often ill), and so they had governesses teach them from home so that any and all influence on them was from pre-approved adults. Where the Potters restricted their children in social companions, they made up for in the liberality of the number and type of pets that Beatrix and Bertram could have. Almost any creature that could be caught by the children was in their nursery as they grew up. Newts, mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and other creatures were the children's companions.

As Beatrix grew older, her mother began to feel her daughter was at the right age to become a part of society as other young ladies were doing. But Beatrix, having not been brought up around other children her age and having no interest in the goings-on of city life, studied mushrooms extensively and made friends with a painfully shy elderly bachelor who also took keen interest in mycology. Her mother was aghast. Beatrix's art portfolio was full of exquisite and highly-detailed paintings of mushrooms and fungi. But all those art lessons, no potential future suitors, and paintings of dirty things growing from the ground brought Helen Potter to bewilderment. She wasn't sure what to do but to try to hope that her square peg daughter would eventually fit into the round hole of her beloved society.

Another thing that factored in the removal from society was Beatrix's health. During her late teens and early twenties she fell ill for an extended period of time, and as a result much of her hair fell out; what was left had to be cut short. Poor Beatrix not only felt odd among her peers, but now also looked it as well. Beatrix's dream of studying mycology on the university level was also refused by colleges at the time, as she was female. Still, she wrote many essays and papers on mycology, and her scientific illustrations are still some of the best out there.

By the time she was in her late twenties and very early thirties, she had begun writing and illustrating little stories in letter form for her former governess' children. Annie, who she had remained close to and who was only three years older than she, suggested that Beatrix write and illustrate children's stories. So Beatrix did.

She approached a publishing company run by a set of brothers by the name of Warne, and was put off. They insisted that the books wouldn't sell and that it would be too great a risk of financial loss to take. But she persisted with them, and they eventually gave the job to their youngest and least-experienced brother, Norman, who loved the stories and illustrations and who heartily believed in them and in Beatrix. Finally having someone to believe in her with that amount of enthusiasm, Beatrix's creative work was able to blossom. She and Norman collaborated on the books, and she was able to have a say in the size of the books, the saturation levels of the colors when printed, and more. Peter Rabbit and the following few stories were a hit, selling out more copies than could be printed. And throughout the process, she and Norman came to truly care for each other deeply.

When Norman proposed, Beatrix wanted to accept with the same enthusiasm that he had shown for her work. But her mother - who had so desperately wanted to marry Beatrix off - would not accept the idea of her daughter being married to a tradesman and not a man of name. Beatrix finally convinced her parents to let them be secretly engaged during the summer, and after their summer holiday, if she still felt that she wanted to marry Norman, then it could be announced. She couldn't wait for the summer to be over so she could finally marry the one who she loved and who had believed in her so deeply.

But tragedy struck when at the end of summer, Norman Warne passed away from what is now thought to be leukemia. He was 37.

For an artist to lose their advocate, cheerleader, biggest supporter, and publisher, that is a loss that is unthinkable and absolutely irreplaceable. Beatrix lost not only that, but she also lost her love. Her heart was shattered.

That was the final straw. She took the money that she had earned with the books, and moved out of London once and for all. She bought a farm in northern England, near the places where she had spent so many happy summers as a child. She became a sheep farmer and gardener as well as an author and artist. She saw to her horror that the land around her was being sold to be industrialized, and so she began to purchase numerous farms and land to be preserved. Meanwhile, she kept writing and illustrating stories and would make occasional visits to London for the arrangements of publication with the older Warne brothers who continued to publish her work. But for the most part, she remained in the country where she lived and eventually thrived.

Over the next several years, Beatrix became friends with everyone in the village near her, including a local country lawyer, William Heelis, who helped and advised her with her property purchases. He was also enthralled with her work, and proud of the way that she managed the farms that she purchased. Her engagement to William was not told to her parents for some time, as she knew they would not approve. But times had changed, and although she was correct in her prediction of her parents' views, they married October 15, 1913, and their marriage was a sweet and happy one. They both loved life in the country. She was known throughout the world as the children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, but she enjoyed being called in her local village, "Mrs. Heelis."

William played a huge role in seeing that her dreams of land preservation came true. The land was put in trust, so after she passed away in 1943, over 4,000 acres of land and farms remained preserved and are still preserved beautifully to this day. William continued to steward her farms and made sure they were run the way she had intended for them to be during the twenty months that he survived her.

Her life was unusual, and because of that I'm sure she was often lonely. We may never know if her heart ever truly healed in the regret and loss of Norman. To lose someone who fanned the initial flames of her creative work after so long of feeling confined and unwanted, and to lose that same person who made those hopes a reality would be a loss that goes beyond what could ever be recovered. But her life continued to bloom because of him, and in that way his legacy was in every page of her life.

It's strange how God often writes the stories of our lives to be so beautiful and yet that beauty can be so hard-won. That same beauty can sometimes only be seen when we look back and recognize the plot for what it was, whereas we had been unable to read it or comprehend it in the moment of its occurrence.

Beatrix's life and art will probably always be part of my mental furniture. Some of her stories I remember reading as a child honestly made me uncomfortable at times, because in them something resonated of a deep reality that I understood but couldn't put into words. Jemima Puddleduck's naivety costing her her precious eggs, or Jeremy Fisher unwisely going fishing alone always made me quiet, because you can tell when the writer is expressing something that they have experienced even if it is in a childsafe allegory or metaphor. There are days that I feel very much like Jemima, or days that I feel like Jeremy Fisher, or days that I feel like Lucie who has lost three pocket handkerchiefs and a pinafore. Many days I feel like the Tailor of Gloucester who is running out of time and red twist. I think all artists feel as if they are running out of time and red twist.

We are not the same person, she and I. But as I read her story, so much resonates. I know the loss of one who had cheered my work on, I know the loneliness of not fitting in, and I know what it's like to lose a lot of your hair. I know about some hopes and dreams (although not mycology) not coming true. I know a later marriage. I know trying to be the child who behaves to make up for the sibling who didn't. But oh, the joys that I know that we share as well! The satisfaction of seeing a piece of artwork done that you like. The quietude of living among the fields and trees. The birdsong in the country. Gardening. Work boots. Collies. Foxgloves. The sound your paintbrush makes on the edge of the water cup. Petting your dog's head with a paintbrush in your hand, and hearing him yawn as he lies next to you while you continue your work. Sipping tea near a window as you paint.

These things always bring me to that remembrance of a friend I never knew and yet who I feel that I already know so well. God bless the firmament of those memories, and the winds bearing future foxglove seeds. And red twist.

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