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The Baldwin Project: Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter

(1866 - 1943)

1902 The Tailor of Gloucester Literary Fairy Tales


Author biography from the Junior Book of Authors, 1935; courtesy of the H.W. Wilson Company

Beatrix Potter feels that she owes her inspiration to write to three things. First, her matter-of-fact ancestors. They were hard-headed, obstinate folk, generations of yeomen and weavers of Lancashire, England. Second, the fact that she spent much of her childhood in the Scottish Highlands, with a Highland nurse girl who believed in witches and fairies. And third, her remarkably good memory. She says she can remember quite plainly the time when she was from one to two years old—not only places and feelings, but also the way things appeared to a very young child.

Her own childhood fell in the days when there were governesses and only boys went to school in most families, so the little girl with white pique starched frocks just like Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland, and stockings striped like a zebra's legs, was never sent to school. She learned to read on the Waverly novels. She spelled painfully thru a few pages of Rob Roy, then tried Ivanhoe and The Talisman, then Rob Roy again. All at once she began to read, missing the long words, of course. She had very few books, and read Mrs. Edgeworth's and Scott's novels over and over.

In her early days she composed, or tried to compose, such things as hymns and ballads, imitating Isaac Watts or describing Scottish scenery. But her verses wouldn't scan, and she felt she couldn't write, so for a long time she gave up trying. About 1893 she became interested in a little invalid boy, Noel, the son of a friend. He had a long illness and she used to write letters to .him. One of them was about Peter Rabbit. Noel grew up and became a hard working clergyman. After a while small books began to be popular, and Beatrix Potter thought the Peter Rabbit story might do as well as some other stories that were published. She used the story almost word for word as she had written it, but with outline drawings. After six publishers had declined to publish it, she drew her savings out of the post office savings bank and had it published herself. Her amused but obliging relatives and friends helped her by buying some of the books. Later she showed it to the publishers F. Warne and Company, and the next year, 1901, they brought out a new edition, this time with colored illustrations.

The home of Beatrix Potter is at Sawrey, a lovely bit of country in the south Lake District of England. "The motor-bus comes up the hill every hour—which the fairies do not like; but undeniably it is convenient for mortals." She was very happily married at forty-seven, and in everyday life is Mrs. William Heelis. Such books as Jemima Puddleduck, Ginger and Pickles, and The Pie and the Patty Pan were written here. In her upstairs study, led up to by a funny little staircase like the one in The Tale of Two Bad Mice, with a door looking out toward the Fairy Wood, she keeps her many portfolios full of color drawings of settings without the books, pen and ink sketches, water color drawings of settings without the animals, natural history pictures drawn by looking thru a microscope and others, many of which have never been published. The colored drawings for some of her earlier books were done near Keswick. She enjoys writing and taking pains over it, providing she can write to please herself and not to order. Her usual way of writing is to scribble, cut-out, and write again and again. She feels that the shorter and plainer it is the better. If her style seems to want "chastening" then she reads the Bible to improve it. Manys dialect words of the Bible and Shakespeare are still in use in the part of the country where she lives. Her writings and a small inheritance have enabled her to purchase a farm and she owns about fifteen hundred sheep which graze on the mountain side several miles off.

Across the road is Hill Top Farm House, the inside of which is exactly as it is pictured in the Roly Poly Pudding. Here is the kitchen chimney up which Tom Kitten jumped, the cupboard in which Moppet and Mittens were shut, the dairy, the pantry, the staircase, and upstairs there are two closets, one of which has the chest in which Ribby and Tabitha were looking when they heard the Roly Poly noise; the other closet was copied for the inside of the rathole. There are also two bedrooms pictured in the Tale of Tom Kitten. Outside is the path up which Mrs. Tabitha led her disobedient kittens, a cart that looks like the funny caravan, Jemima Puddleduck's farmyard, and the wall on which Tom Kitten and his sister sat and watched the Puddleducks go by. The Fairy Caravan, written for older girls and boys than her other books, contains such real little animals that lived around her home as Pony Billy, Sandy the dog, Tuppenny the sleepy guinea pig, and others. In the town of Sawrey itself is Tower Bank Arms, Ribby's House, Pettitoe's barn, and the Ginger and Pickle shop.

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