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Summary Article: Potter, (Helen) Beatrix
from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


English author and illustrator of books for children

Beatrix Potter was born in Kensington, London, into a wealthy family. The atmosphere at home was oppressively quiet and Beatrix, supervised by nurses and educated by governesses, grew up a lonely town child longing for the country. She taught herself to draw and paint, and while still quite young did serious natural history studies of fungi with the intention of making a book of watercolours.

She turned to sketching pet animals dressed as human beings in order to amuse younger children. The original version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was enclosed with a letter to her ex-governess's child in 1893 and later published at her own expense, with fuller illustrations, in 1900, as was The Tailor of Gloucester (1902). When Frederick Warne took over publication in 1903 she had her first popular success with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903). In an appreciative, if gently satirical, review Graham Greene considered The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908, later changed to The Tale of Samuel Whiskers), to be her masterpiece. Miss Potter was not amused.

In 1913, eight years after she had moved to a farm at Sawrey, near Lake Windermere (where six of her books are set), she married William Heelis, a Lake District solicitor. Thereafter she devoted herself almost entirely to farming and the National Trust (founded in 1895). Johnny Town-Mouse (1918) was her last book in the familiar style. She devised an elaborate cryptic diary whose code was later broken and published as The Journal of Beatrix Potter 1881-1897 (1966).

Beatrix Potter wrote with great realism and without sentimentality; the animal world she describes is constantly threatened by deceit, physical harm and death. She was the outstanding writer and artist of picture-story books of her time, and her characters have become classics of children's literature. Despite the essential Englishness of her stories, they have been translated into many languages, including Welsh, French, German, Dutch and Japanese.

More has been written about Beatrix Potter than about any other children's writer except Lewis Carroll. Her diary was published by L Linder, The Journal of Beatrix Potter (1966). See also M Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946) and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter (1978).

"You may go into the field or down the lane, but don't go into Mr McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor."

- From The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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