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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 class.

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 never sell?
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 thirty-six.

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 to Norman?
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, and Countrywoman.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.


Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger make an immensely cute couple in 'Miss Potter.'

© 2004 History in the Movies