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India visits the Beatrix Potter Archives!

by India

Born on 28 July 1866, the world-renowned children’s book author and illustrator just celebrated her 150th birthday!

During the month of June, I spent a bit of time in England and Scotland studying British libraries and archives with the University of Southern Mississippi. A fascinating trip all around, but one of the things that truly made my childlike heart soar was the day we visited the Beatrix Potter archives at Blythe House!

Though Beatrix Potter is often portrayed as having a rather sad childhood, archivist Emma Laws brought up a rather interesting point, “You can’t believe everything people say in a journal because when people write their personal thoughts, it can often be a load of nonsense.”  As a young girl who kept journals of her own, I have to say I believe her! Emotions do not translate well to paper, and the things we write in their midst are often absurdly one-sided.

Laws went on to explain a bit about Potter’s life. She had a rather fortunate, and quite typical, middle-class upbringing for the time–holidaying in Scotland every summer, and treated to the best education her parents could find. Potter did not move away from London, where she lived with her parents until she was 47 years old. As a child, she was not overly sentimental and often drew dead animals. She was fascinated by the natural world around her, and as her artistic talents grew, so did her imagination. Her stories of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, et al. started as letters to the children of her much-beloved governess. As you can see from the pictures below, they grew very organically. She had a natural ability to know where to insert pictures. There were few changes between the letters and the stories themselves.

Original letter for Squirell Nutkin

First draft of Squirell Nutkin

One of the most interesting stories that Emma shared with us was that of Potter’s views on marriage. She fell in love and became secretly engaged to her publisher Norman Warne. Her parents did not approve of the engagement, but their disapproval was not long-lived. A month after becoming engaged, Warne died of leukemia. Emma pointed out to us that Potter essentially suffered in silence after his death. You were nobody in society as a woman until you were married–which didn’t happen for her until she was 47. This explains why she described marriage as, “the crown of a woman’s life.” With marriage came a newfound freedom, and Potter’s motivation for writing and illustrating virtually came to an end.

For more information on the collections at Blythe House,click here

Photos published with kind permission from The Victoria and Albert Museum

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