October 22, 2007

Beatrix Potter - A Life in Nature

It may seem odd for me to post a book review here, but perhaps it will tide you over until I can grab some time to work out the Stewart Girl's Dress problem. And at nearly 500 pages, it will keep you busy for a while. :-)

Most know Beatrix Potter as a children's book author and illustrator. But few know that she was a scientist, conservationist, and farmer. I was motivated to learn more about Beatrix Potter after watching the recent movie with Renee Zellwegger. As good as the movie was, I sensed there was a lot more to Beatrix Potter. Linda Lear provides a compelling look at a very interesting character.

Potter is a character of contrasts. She is a woman sometimes at odds with her time, but still right in step with her time. It was rare for a woman of the 1880's to 1890's to be taken seriously as a scientist. As an amateur scientists she made significant discoveries about mycology (the study of fungus/mushrooms), illustrating them as she went. She presented a scientific paper to her peers, where it was ignored because of her gender. Undaunted, she pursued other interests which included illustrating children's stories, which made her independently wealthy.

She was often at odds with her Victorian parents. Her parents lived a life of leisure and were supported by inheritances (most of which came from the textile industry). Her parents wanted her to marry up the social and financial ladder. She rejected all of that and chose a tradesman who died tragically before their marriage. In an act of rebellion, she moved to the country side and bought a farm. The rest of her life was spent living as a simple (or maybe not so simple) country woman/farmer/shepherdess.

I was most interested in Potter's choices. She could have lived a life of relative ease - having been raised in a privileged household. Instead, she rejects most of that and chooses a more difficult path. Some like to classify Potter as an environmentalist. Instead, I see her as a conservationist because she actively worked to preserve the English countryside. Using her wealth and influence she purchased large tracts of land and deeded them to the National Trust, an agency dedicated to the preservation of open spaces for the British people. Instead of chaining herself to a tree in protest, she didn't something very practical and real. There is a lot to admire about such an interesting person.

The book does weigh in at a hefty 500 pages and it will take some dedication to finish it. I managed to finish it in about 2 weeks because the chapters were segmented around the different phases of her life. I found it rather easy to read. The book is well researched and documentated - rare for many bibliographies. We must be grateful to Potter for being such a diligent letter writer. Much of the book is made up of letters Potter wrote to many people over the years. This book is worth your time.

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