At Home With Beatrix Potter
by Susan Denyer
In 1971 when Tom and I visited the Lake District, we did not go to Beatrix Potter's house, and now I'm sorry we missed it. One reason may be that we were in our early twenties, that time of life when childhood things are just about totally disregarded, and another is that we were traveling by train and bus and foot and as Tom recalls, it wasn't an easy trek to her place, and yet another because we were totally absorbed in British Literature, and all that area meant to us was William Wordsworth.
Among my treasures on the bookshelf are two little volumes bought at Wordsworth's house.
I have taken the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth off the shelf, and am going to read along in it at odd moments or maybe long sittings. I think 37 years unopened is long enough, don't you? In case you may have missed it, I posted a great Maxine Kumin poem about the famous poet's sister.
I have no memory of Beatrix Potter's books when I was little. I wonder if they were "in fashion" over here during my childhood years. I think her work first seeped into my consciousness in a dusty, silverfish-laden store in which I bought Peter Rabbit dishes for our godchild. Then a few years later, when my own children came along, I couldn't collect those little books fast enough. I loved them and the kids loved them.
The mobile that used to hang over the crib now is on display in the hall. There's Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, and of course, Peter Rabbit himself.
At this point in my life, I'm not sure I will ever get back to the Lake District, but I'm not as sad as I might be because of At Home With Beatrix Potter. It is as close to a visit as could be. I thought this would be mainly a photograph book - a so-called "coffee table book" that I'd just skim through. Not at all. It is a very detailed description of her house, the period she lived in, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and her farms and gardens. It is my favorite kind of history book - one that tells me the domestic details of life in the context of what was going on in the world.
The author collected information from many sources, and shows us the life of Helen Beatrix Potter through her art. Beatrix drew pictures of cozy, nurturing interiors long before she had her own home. She noticed, really noticed the houses she visited; the rooms, the furniture, the way light slanted through windows, and these details went into what she called her "little books." Later, when she bought her first house in the Lake District, she began a long process of decorating it, and then the later purchases, in the way she had dreamed of (and drawn). She used inherited antiques which she loved as a child. She bought furniture at farm sales to furnish her homes the way she had always imagined she wanted them to look.
These pictures from the book show examples of the real life model for a drawing along with the book illustration.
Something I found interesting is that Beatrix Potter didn't really live in the main house which is associated with her. Rather, this house was like a grander version of illustrating a book. She "illustrated" the house. She made it into just what she wanted it to be, and left instructions that it not be changed after her death.
I've read an excellent biography of her by Judy Taylor, and I have the new one by Linda Lear on my shelf, but honestly, this book serves the author very, very well. Susan Denyer divides the book into chapters about the house, the garden, the "little books," and farming life. This last chapter tells us what Beatrix did for a great part of her life. She loved her area, and she worked hard to preserve it. She was a conservationist, not only of the land, but of the sheep native to the area, and of the way of life. And she "walked her talk" buying up great tracts of land and homes, and greatly because of Beatrix Potter this part of the world has been saved from development and change.
Book one in my nonfiction challenge.