The gifted author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter was born in London, England on July 28, 1866. The elder of two children, Potter grew up in a secluded world. Her parents preferred to socialize in the community and didn't bother to work because of their inherited wealth. This left Potter to be raised and educated by nurses and governesses, and her brother was sent to boarding school as soon as he reached the age to attend.
A shy child looking for companionship, Potter turned to the wildlife she kept as pets. During the summers, the family travelled to the Scottish highlands or the Lake District of northern England, giving Potter freedom to roam, play, and explore. While her brother was still young, the two children ventured out to study their world. Potter drew the animals and plant life, taking a very scientific approach to her work.
Potter's governesses encouraged her artistic ability, and at age twelve, Potter received art lessons from teachers who her parents believed would give her expertise. Indeed, after several years, she earned an art student's certificate, but for the most part, Potter was self-taught in art and design. Her parents then stopped supporting their daughter's intellectual growth and expected her to be their housekeeper. Unmarried, Potter had little choice but to succumb time and again to their wishes. Her thoughts and observations on life Potter recorded in a journal that she not only kept hidden but in which she wrote in code.
Determined to make something of herself despite bouts of depression and illnesses, Potter continued drawing. She spent time at the British Museum of Natural History, which was near her London home, studying fungi. Her uncle saw Potter's potential in this area of science and tried to help her gain admission to the Royal Botanical Gardens. Her gender prohibited her acceptance. Hoping then to have her drawings published in a textbook, Potter sketched hundreds of precise, detailed illustrations based on her observations. Her uncle showed the drawings to the Royal Botanical Gardens on her behalf. But because she was a woman and an untrained scientist, her work wasn't accepted and it went ignored even though Potter's investigations in fungi supported the belief that a symbiotic relationship existed between fungi and algae in the form of lichens. Only after her death were her watercolor drawings published. Women couldn't attend meetings of the Linnean Society, but Potter found one area of success, in that her paper entitled "The Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae" was allowed to be presented by her uncle. Over time, though, a lack of respect for her studies and work led to frustration, and Potter gave up on her scientific research.
While she was studying fungi, Potter also wrote stories based on the animals she watched during her vacations or those she snuck into the house for pets. She also illustrated a book of children's verse for another author, and it saw publication in 1893. That same year the idea for Peter Rabbit came to Potter's mind as she wrote and illustrated a letter to the ill son of a former governess. Potter's friends admired her stories from her various letters and encouraged her to put them in book form. By 1900, Potter agreed, revised her letter, and sent it to several publishers, all of whom rejected the manuscript. With money from her savings, Potter had the book printed privately, and the copies sold briskly. Within a couple years, Frederick Warne & Co. changed their minds and agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit if Potter would illustrate the story with color drawings. From this book and those that followed, Potter gained fame, success, and enough wealth to make her financially independent of her parents.
For the first time in her life, Potter also found love. Against her parents' wishes, she intended to marry the publisher Norman Warne; however, he fell gravely ill and died of leukemia. Though devastated, Potter resolved to make a new start. Continuing to live with her parents but feeling a further rift in their relationship, Potter purchased land in her beloved Lake District and spent time there often. With the income from her book royalties, Potter bought more land with the help of William Heelis. Potter and Heelis's companionship grew, and by age 47, Potter agreed to marry him. For Potter this was the beginning of a new, happy, fulfilled life, one she had always hoped to eventually find.
With more acreage and a bigger home, Potter turned to being a farmer. She began breeding Herdwick sheep, became famous locally, and was elected president of the Herdwick Breeders' Association. Her writing and illustrating declined dramatically and almost ceased as she enjoyed being a wife and farmer and when she began losing her eyesight. Though Potter published a couple books during her farming life, her greatest literary success came earlier from twenty books detailing the lives of small woodland animals. Her prose flowed hand-in-hand with her watercolor illustrations, making the small books a joy for readers and listeners alike. Also translated into many languages, most of Potter's books haven't ever been out of print.
Upon her death from complications of uterine cancer on December 22, 1943, Potter gave fourteen farms, flocks of Herdwick sheep, and 4000 acres of land to the National Trust. This gift of the countryside would allow future generations to enjoy the land she so dearly loved and had portrayed in many books.
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