Monday, October 20, 2008

Book Report/At Home With Beatrix Potter

At Home With Beatrix Potter
by Susan Denyer
nonfiction, 2000
finished, 10/19/08

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.


  1. Oh Nan! I have so enjoyed reading this post.
    I love the Lake District, It's beauty is almost overwhelming.
    I love Beatrix Potter, her books have been woven, in and out of my life,
    and. . I love the fact that you cared enough to write about her.

  2. Hi Nan, I am so glad you wrote this report. I will try to find this book to read. It sounds like something I would like since I like Beatrix Potter.

    I also like to read journals so I bet that I would also like Dorothy Wordsworth's journals.

    Maxine is one of my favorite poets too. I love to read her books about her farm and life.

  3. I love the photo you posted of her at the end, one of my favorites. She is a hero of mine. I've been to Hill Top twice and it is truly a piece of heaven. The Linda Lear biography is has almost reached the top of my "to read next" stack!

  4. It has long been my dream to live in the Lake District and before the house market here changed (houses are very difficult to sell right now) we were considering actually moving there. Your post brought back lovely memories - I have been to Beatrix Potter's house and when I was in the Girl Guides we camped at Rydal Water.

    Have you seen the film Miss Potter? It's lovely.

    Margaret (BooksPlease)

  5. How interesting. You are a mine of information, Nan. (I was born in the Lake District.)

  6. Nan I loved this report ... I will definitely try to get hold of a copy of this - in all the times I've been to the Lake District, I've never been to either BP's house or the Wordsworth cottage. But I think of them when I'm there - Wordsworth because he colours and heightens our response to the scenery, and BP because she bought so much land and then founded the National Trust with it.

    I didn't know, but should have guessed, that Dorothy's journal was in World's Classic - I love those little editions, they make you just want to sit down and read.


  7. I'm a new reader and found you through mountainear - clicked and bumped into your glorious photos and book reviews.
    I was brought up on my mother's copies of Beatrix Potter I loved and love them. I can recount most of the stories verbatim, they're so ingrained!
    When I was farming an open piece of moorland I had herdwick sheep from one of the oldest farming families in the Lakes to graze it. Unfortunately they're not suitable for my current farm.

  8. Marvelous book report, Nan! Makes me want to dig out those childhood books for a re-read, as well as plan a trip to the Lake District. Won't you come with me? ;)

  9. Isn't this book just the best? I've collected books by and about Beatrix for years and this one is my all time favorite! This is the exact time of year that I like to brew a pot of tea, and curl up in my overstuffed chair with this book and just dream over its pages. Lovely post-thanks for sharing!

  10. I have this book and look at it over and over. I hope one day to make a small version of the patchwork quilt on her bed. I just adore Beatrix Potter and am doing a stitched Quaker sampler that is hanging in Hill Top Farm. You can see it on NeedleNecessities.

    I also have and read the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. I bought it while we were in the Lake District as part of our own personal literary tour through England. Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount were so amazing! I will never forget looking through the same window surrounded with wisteria as Dorothy did at Rydal Mount. It was at that moment we decided we wanted wisteria in our garden.

    Thanks for taking me back to that memorable trip we too made to the Lake District while reading about yours.

    Hugs ~

  11. Hi Nan - I do hope you are able to make a return trip to the Lakes. You will find the area still as lovely as ever. One of the reasons I decided to set a series there is because it's the most perfect place to research! You may like to know that there's a good recent book about Dorothy, 'The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth'.


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