Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

by Matthew Dennison


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Beatrix Potter is one of the world's bestselling, most cherished authors, whose books have enchanted generations of children for over a hundred years. Yet how she achieved this legendary status is just one of several stories of her remarkable and unexpected life.

Inspired by the twenty-three "tales," Matthew Dennison takes a selection of quotations from Potter's stories and uses them to explore her multi-faceted life and character: repressed Victorian daughter; thwarted lover; artistic genius; formidable countrywoman. They chart her transformation from a young girl with a love of animals and fairy tales into a bestselling author and canny businesswoman, so deeply unusual for the Victorian era in which she grew up. Embellished with photographs of Potter's life and her own illustrations, this biography will delight anyone who has been touched by Beatrix Potter's work.
  • For the fans of her children’s literature who want to know the real-life animals behind Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, Jemima Puddle duck, and of course, Peter Rabbit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781681776811
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 442,875
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Matthew Dennison is the author of several critically acclaimed works of nonfiction, including Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter. He is a contributor to Country Life magazine and lives in the United Kingdom.

Gabrielle de Cuir, award-winning narration, has narrated over two hundred titles and specializes in fantasy, humor, and titles requiring extensive foreign language and accent skills. She was a cowinner of the Audie Award for best narration in 2011 and a three-time finalist for the Audie and has garnered six AudioFile Earphones Awards. Her “velvet touch” as an actor’s director has earned her a special place in the audiobook world as the foremost producer for bestselling authors and celebrities.

Read an Excerpt

'Over the Hills and Far Away'

The Life of Beatrix Potter

By Matthew Dennison

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Matthew Dennison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78497-563-0


'Unloved birthplace'

Beatrix at the age of five, dressed 'absurdly' uncomfortably in starched white cotton piqué, like Alice in John Tenniel's illustrations to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

* * *

'Dogs barked; boys whistled in the street; the cook laughed, the parlour maid ran up and down-stairs; and a canary sang like a steam engine'

The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, 1918

BEATRIX POTTER was six or seven years old – in this instance she muddled the date – when her father Rupert gave her a sheet of drawings she kept for the rest of her life.

Like Aunt Dorcas and Aunt Porcas in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, Beatrix Potter's parents 'led prosperous uneventful lives'. Unlike those resourceful sows, they did not support themselves by taking in washing or keeping hens. Before his marriage in 1863, Rupert Potter had qualified as a barrister; his wife Helen Leech received a legacy of £50,000 on her father's death in 1861. From the outset, husband and wife enjoyed the leisurely spoils of a comfortable fortune and cheap domestic help. Both children of dynamic self-made men, they appear to have cherished few ambitions for themselves beyond social gentility. Beatrix described them as apathetic.

Covertly, Rupert Potter craved the gadfly life of the boule- vardier : he was mostly absent from his chambers at 3 New Square, Lincoln's Inn. In instinct, this voluble, opinionated and irritable man remained pontifical until the day he died, 'oppressively well informed' and 'very fidgetty [sic] about things'; his interest in art was genuine. So, too, his love of fishing and his hearty dislike of Liberal premier William Ewart Gladstone. Over time, his absorption in photography eclipsed other enthusiasms; his many photographs of his wife suggest that Helen Potter mistrusted levity.

Art, politics, fishing, photography and Rupert Potter's 'fidgetiness' all played their part in Beatrix Potter's upbringing. Among Rupert's friends were painter John Everett Millais and Victorian art world supremo Sir Charles Eastlake. For the former he photographed portrait sitters – restless children and a self-dramatising Gladstone – and provided landscape photographs for backgrounds. His purchases on his own behalf included a sepia drawing by Landseer, bought at Christie's for five pounds, and almost thirty of Randolph Caldecott's illustrations for children's rhyme books, for which he paid considerably more. He collected letters, including a complaint about Longman the publisher written by a querulous elderly Wordsworth.

The sketches Rupert Potter gave his tow-haired daughter in 1872 or 1873 were of swans and ducks, with a pelican for good measure. They were not his first attempt at drawing waterfowl. Twenty years previously, doodling as a student, he had outlined a flight of ducks skimming over bulrushes. Two wore hats. One, in a poke bonnet fastened with ribbon under the chin, foreshadowed Jemima Puddle-duck. Later Beatrix drew and kept ducks of her own. They emerge from her published work as foolish animals, none more so than Jemima, whom she treated with contempt bordering on cruelty. That Beatrix afterwards kept her father's sketch is characteristic. She came from a family of hoarders; she mythologised aspects of her childhood.

The Potters lived in London. Not for them the 'cosy thatched cottage ... in an orchard at the top of a steep red Devonshire lane' of Little Pig Robinson's upbringing, or meagre rented rooms like that in College Court, where Beatrix imagined her Tailor of Gloucester; instead, a smart new Kensington townhouse of lugubrious respectability unleavened by picturesqueness. Its plot, south of Old Brompton Road, had been Mr Pettiward's cherry orchard until 1811; afterwards, nurseryman Philip Conway, of neighbouring Earl's Court, gardened here, in an area once dominated by market gardens and fruit growing. Number 2 Bolton Gardens was one of eight new houses built only in 1862. Among local landmarks was a grove of walnut trees. A generation ago, mulberry trees fruited nearby and five acres were laid down to arable farming, including rye. Over the course of her childhood Beatrix would witness the felling of the last fruit trees and the departure of resident rooks. A diary entry written when she was sixteen recorded 'every patch of land being built upon'.

Surviving photographs show an imposing, unlovely house : nine tall plate-glass windows to the front; massed rectangular stacks of chimneys; a pilastered porch at the side, reached by a flight of steps; to the rear a brick-walled garden similar in size, according to Beatrix, to the prehistoric monument at Stonehenge and, despite criss-cross panels of wooden fencing topping its high walls, much invaded by cats. Hierarchical architecture, notwithstanding its monumental aspect : most austere at the top, on the nursery floor, where the wind howled in the chimneys and sparrows nested under the guttering. As in The Sly Old Cat, area steps descended to basement service quarters. Thriftily, Helen Potter had furnished the servants' hall with cast-off dining chairs inherited from her father-in-law. More than once, one of these chairs collapsed.

In the drawing room, aspidistras contributed to an atmosphere of stagnant good behaviour. Bookcases in the same room served a more-than-decorative purpose; in the course of spring-cleaning, the maids invariably – and disconcertingly – rearranged the books. It was not a house for childish high spirits. Feelingly, Beatrix later wrote, 'I think myself that a house that is too small is more comfortable than one a great deal too large', a philosophy she put into practice in the houses that, as an adult, she bought for herself. In her own writing, only one house suggests typical Victorian urban interiors, the 'very beautiful doll's-house' belonging to Lucinda and Jane in The Tale of Two Bad Mice. To her editor Beatrix described this doll's house as resembling 'the kind of house where one cannot sit down without upsetting something, I know the sort!'; to the reader she describes without censure its devastation at the hands of mice Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. Throughout her tales, simple domestic tasks – unpacking the vegetable box, shopping for groceries, carving a ham, rolling out pastry, baking a pie, spring-cleaning – are darkened by suggestions of menace; the home was a conflicted region for Beatrix.

At 2 Bolton Gardens, surrounded by what novelist Wilkie Collins described as 'the clean desolation, the neat ugliness, the prim torpor' of mid-Victorian urban development, Beatrix Potter was born on 28 July 1866. The new streets rang with the calls of bakers' boys and, at times of particular concern, news-criers shouting headlines late into the evening. On horse-drawn buses, conductors blew brass horns 'to summon up the old gentlemen going to their city offices'; the hooves of carriage horses, including the Potters' own, sounded 'clump clop'. In their wake, a crossing-sweeper plied his trade. Rats abounded, hunted by street urchins. Beatrix remembered watching their sport from the nursery window, 'a very favourite amusement' for its participants. Especially in the autumn, fog hung heavy along the grey thoroughfares. For those prepared to look for them, last vestiges remained of a different past : the May Day celebration, near Kensington Square, of dancing round a 'Jack-in-the-green', a male figure covered in leaves. Beatrix described milkmaids flocking to the spectacle. As in eighteenth-century engravings, they wore 'straw hats, aprons, & ribbons'. She would always take an interest in the details of historic dress.

Bolton Gardens was Beatrix Potter's home for more than half her life: she never regarded it with affection. 'My brother and I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,' she told an American bookseller the year before she died, clutching after an explanation; her heart roved elsewhere. Aged seventeen, she protested in her diary, 'Why do people live in London so much?' In the capital it was impossible to see the sky. Rows of houses, she claimed, shut her in like 'great frowning hills'. It was, simply, 'a horrid place'. And 2 Bolton Gardens, despite the climbing rose that afterwards cloaked at least one wall, the fig tree in the garden, the neat rectangle of lawn framed by its path, perfect for sedate games with a succession of pets, and the drainpipes where robins and wrens fought for nest space, was a behemoth of a house. 'A dark Victorian mausoleum,' one observer called it. Despite appearances, Beatrix would remember her upbringing there as spartan.

She was a pretty child (notwithstanding Millais's statement that her face was spoiled by an overlong nose and upper lip). Her elders approved her ready blushes and dressed her 'in print frock[s] and striped stockings'. She sounds something like the North Country 'bonny lass', Bonny Arnot, of The Fairy Caravan, which Beatrix wrote in 1929 : 'Blue were her eyes like the wood violet's blue, fair were her locks like the mary-bud's gold, and her red-and-white dimples like roses on snow?!' When she was three and still an only child (her brother Bertram, known as Bertie, was not born until March 1872), her father wrote to Millais about a portrait the painter had recently undertaken of nine-year-old Nina Lehmann, a businessman's daughter. 'When I look upon that picture,' he wrote wonderingly, despite the difference in the girls' ages, 'I am looking at my child.'

Early photographs of Beatrix, taken by Rupert, make good the comparison. Millais's vision of Nina Lehmann is as much an archetype of contemporary prettiness as John Tenniel's Alice in his illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which Beatrix first saw the same year shereceived Rupert's duck sketches : limpid gaze, rosebud mouth, wavy flaxen hair (in Beatrix's case, held in place by a black or brown band – velvet- or ribbon-covered, depending on the occasion – painfully 'fastened with a bit of elastic, looped over a button behind the ear' and combined with 'absurdly uncomfortable [clothes]; white piqué starched frocks just like Tenniel's Alice ... and cotton stockings striped round and round like a zebra's legs'.) But while first photographs of Beatrix indicate lively and unmistakeable strength of will, Miss Lehmann – limply twirling a pink camellia, collared doves at her feet – is more demonstrably passive. Beatrix grew up to embody both impulses, as well as the contradiction this implies. Her relationship with her parents included a struggle between daughterly submission – endorsed by society and never fully rejected by Beatrix – and her determination, as she wrote in 1883, sooner or later to 'do something'. Rupert Potter declined Millais's offer to paint Beatrix's portrait on the grounds that it might lead to vanity.

* * *

The Potters' world was one of conformities and prohibitions. Rupert Potter disguised aimlessness as urbanity; Helen Potter consumed infinite leisure in an unvarying social round of a sort Beatrix parodied in her descriptions of Tabitha Twitchit's tea parties. Holidays and extended visits punctuated identical years. The household at 2 Bolton Gardens apparently functioned with stultifying regularity. Insofar as their actions affected Beatrix, the indoor staff – George Cox the butler, Sarah Harper the cook and her sister, housekeeper Elizabeth – were clockwork puppets. Mr Cox excelled at polishing silver and folding napkins; Sarah Harper shortly escaped to marry a Scottish gamekeeper met on a Potter family holiday. When Cox fell ill, appearances were kept up by 'a bandy-legged youth named William who answer[ed] to the name of Alfred'.

For Beatrix in the nursery few things threatened the even tenor of repetitive days. Recent in origin – and further tainted by family traditions of religious dissent – her parents' wealth derived from trade: the grit, graft and canniness of enterprising North Country forebears. Thirty years earlier, Rupert's father, Edmund Potter, had established a calico printing works at Dinting Vale outside Manchester; it became the largest of its sort in the world. The John Leech Company of cotton merchants, begun around the same time by Helen's father in nearby Stalybridge, had its own textile mills and shipping fleet. By 1866, neither imposed on its beneficiaries responsibility or excessive duties; Rupert and Helen Potter disdained to dwell on the source of their good fortune.

Rupert made good the vacuum with a fretful concern for his investments. Out of kilter with the reformist spirit of the times, his Liberal politics were decidedly conservative. Apprehensively he absorbed himself in current affairs. He had a horror of public unrest, 'such a terror of any disturbance or violence'; he regularly threatened emigration 'to the Colonies, Edinburgh, quiet provincial towns'. His love of order extended to excessive punctuality over travel arrangements, days unnecessarily 'spent more or less on the railway [station]'. He was assiduous in his attendance at his clubs (the Reform and the Athenaeum) and visiting galleries. In 1869 he was elected a member of the Photographic Society of London; critically, he read the newspapers, The Field, Punch. As a raconteur he seems to have possessed charm and humour, for all his forbidding appearance; Beatrix inherited his taste for risible anecdotes. Rupert, not Helen, was the lynchpin of this second generation of wealthy Northern dissenters. It was Rupert's friends – Liberal politician John Bright, educationalist and Unitarian minister William Gaskell (widower of the novelist Elizabeth) – who supplemented family and extended family in the Potters' social round.

Their background in trade, as well as their religious position outside the Church of England, excluded the Potters from much of London society. 'Intimate with all the rich and respectable Unitarians' families', they existed in a comfortable if unfashionable periphery. One of eight children herself – including an alcoholic brother, William – Helen must have played some part in organising this interaction. She emerges from surviving sources as a two-dimensional character, with a taste for needlework, tea and the seaside, and 'disagreeable' in her dislikes. She devoted her afternoons to paying calls. Her dinner party menus betray the elaborate excesses of the age: 'eight courses; not much of anything, but truly elegant', like those of Johnny Town-mouse, and all served on Minton plates. More than once she received compliments on her resemblance to Queen Victoria; Beatrix described her as having very fat arms. There are suggestions of snobbery – like Amabella Tidler in The Tale of the Faithful Dove, who chooses to forget that her great-great-grandmother was an acrobat. At 2 Bolton Gardens, 'business' seldom intruded unbidden upon the lives of Beatrix's parents. Material comfort was the opiate.

At first Beatrix was never alone. Significantly, her earliest memory was not of London but a house in the country and birdsong – awakening as a baby in a crib, startled by the sound of birds in a hollow elm opposite the kitchen window at her grandparents' house in Hertfordshire. (The kitchen was full of flies, and in time Beatrix would discover that the hollow tree could be climbed from within to spy on owls and starlings.) Jeopardising this idyll was her Scottish nurse, Ann McKenzie, who remained with the Potters until some time after Bertram was born. McKenzie's path to the nursery had been thorny. An elopement in her teens, followed by the death of her husband, had left her destitute with four children, all of whom she entrusted to the care of a family called Swift, while she struggled single-handed to earn a living in London. Beatrix's unflattering description of her as tyrannical and cross may well have been true.

Beatrix's memory of her early childhood was unusually acute; an attachment to her memories – recollections 'as [clear] as the brightness of rich Scotch sunshine on ... threadbare carpet' – became an aspect of her make-up. 'I have been laughed at for what I say I can remember; but it is admitted that I can remember quite plainly from one and two years old,' she wrote later, with a hint of defiance. As in so many similar households, Beatrix's nursery was hermetic. Neither parent appears to have involved themselves unduly in third-floor life: their remoteness was shaped by convention, habit and, almost certainly, inclination. Unlike Tabitha Twitchit in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, they were not then anxious parents (even considering Rupert's fidgetiness). They did not trouble themselves about friends for Beatrix. Other people's children threatened germs or, worse, bad influences, and Beatrix did not form acquaintances among the children of her parents' neighbours. She never would.


Excerpted from 'Over the Hills and Far Away' by Matthew Dennison. Copyright © 2016 Matthew Dennison. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 'Unloved birthplace' 1

2 'I do wish we lived in the country' 23

3 'The irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye' 49

4 'Matters of complaint' 77

5 'I shall tell you a story' 101

6 'All the beasts can talk' 125

7 'A nest right away' 153

8 'A large interesting farm' 181

9 'The company of gentle sheep, and wild flowers and singing waters' 201

Afterword: 'Little friends of Mr McGregor & Peter & Benjamin' 221

Author's Note 229

Bibliography 231

Notes 234

List of Illustrations 258

Index 259

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