The (Mostly True)
Tale of Beatrix Potter
"Miss Potter" (January, '07)
By Cathy Schultz
There's not a lot of suspense in the new film, Miss
Potter. We know from the start that the heroine will triumph
over the nattering skeptics surrounding her. "Miss Potter"
(played by Renee Zellweger) is, after all, Beatrix Potter, she of
Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle fame, whose books have sold in
the hundreds of millions over the last century.
No suspense then, but plenty of charm and whimsy here. And some
good history as well, for the film hews closely to the life of the
actual Miss Potter. It also transports us convincingly to the oh-so-stuffy
world of Victorian England, where affluent ladies were expected
to stay quietly at home, and betrothed couples rarely allowed themselves
anything beyond a chaste peck on the cheek. Here's a guide to some
questions the film raises on the author's life and culture.
Q. The film shows Beatrix as rather lonely, with her illustrations
as her only "friends." Is that accurate?
A. Mostly. Schooled by a governess, and rarely allowed companions
of her own age, Beatrix grew up to be a solitary woman. with few
likeminded friends. She also evinced little interest in the stolid
Victorian suitors suggested by her mother. And her decision to enter
the world of commerce was frowned upon by members of her social
Whether or not her animal illustrations came alive for her we'll
never know, but Beatrix lavished affection on an enormous number
of real pets over the years. She or her family kept at various times
dogs, guinea pigs, birds, rats, mice, lizards, bats, squirrels,
a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, and two rabbits she named Peter
and Benjamin Bouncer.
Q. According to the film. Beatrix first came up with the story
of 'Peter Rabbit' as a ten year old. True?
A. No, the earliest record of it seems to be an illustrated letter
she wrote in 1893 (when she was in her twenties) to the child of
her former governess. "My dear Noel," Beatrix began the
letter. "I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell
you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy,
Cottontail and Peter
" Ten years later, The Tale of
Peter Rabbit became her first bestseller.
Q. Were Potter's publishers convinced that 'Peter Rabbit' would
A. The film exaggerates that, though it is true that the partners
at Frederick Warne's publishing house didn't expect much from 'the
bunny book,' as they called it.
Q. Did they foist the book off on their younger brother, brand
new to the business?
A. Not quite. Norman Warne (played here by Ewan McGregor) had worked
in the family publishing business with his two older brothers for
some time, both as an editor and a salesman. So 'Peter Rabbit' wasn't
Norman's first book. But it is true that Norman was Beatrix's key
contact in the firm. They worked closely together from 1901, publishing
eleven books in five years. Soon they were exchanging letters almost
daily, which were warmly affectionate despite being couched in the
formal language of the era.
Though their friendship was deepening, they were rarely alone together,
as the film amusingly showed. A chaperone dogged Beatrix's steps
whenever she left the house. But despite the obstacles, in the summer
of 1905 Norman proposed -- in a letter -- and Beatrix joyfully accepted.
They were late-bloomers in love. She was thirty-nine; Norman was
Q. So they didn't kiss until long after they got engaged?
A. We don't know, but as proper Victorians they persisted in addressing
each other as 'Miss Potter' and 'Mr. Warne.'
Q. Were her parents really so opposed to her Beatrix's engagement
A. They were. Her parents were proud members of the snobby upper
class of Victorian society. To have their beloved daughter marry
into "trade" was insupportable. They did all they could
to convince Beatrix to end the engagement. But independent woman
that she was, she dug in her heels and refused.
Beatrix was a bit more courageous in confrontation than her younger
brother Bertram. Bertram had moved to Scotland in his twenties and
fallen in love with someone "beneath" him. He married
her, but so feared his parents' anger that he hid the marriage from
them for eleven years.
Q. Did Beatrix agree to keep her own engagement a secret?
A. She did offer that concession to her parents. As seen in the
film, Beatrix and Norman agreed to only tell their immediate families
at first. And Beatrix consented to join her parents in the country
for the summer, leaving Norman in London. Her mother hoped she would
forget him. It didn't work. And without getting into any spoilers,
what happens in the film after that summer passes is also true.
Beatrix moved to northern England later in life, and as shown,
used her fortune to buy up thousands of acres of farmland threatened
by developers, which she donated to the public after her death in
1943 at the age of seventy-seven.. A conservationist before it was
chic, a best selling author despite the disapproval of her class,
Beatrix Potter was in many ways a woman ahead of her time.
Q. Where can I find more information?
A. Try Judy Taylor's charming Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller,
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor
at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.