Women Writers | Beatrix Potter
I wrote a previous blog on Beatrix Potter several months ago. I have incorporated parts of that today, but I wanted to add to it. One of my favorite things to write about is women writers, and particularly children’s and middle-grade authors. What are the various themes of their work? What makes them different and what do they add to the way we view the world?
Beatrix, very much a part of her Victorian society (b.1866, d. 1943), grew up isolated from other children. In her upper-middle-class milieux, girls did not attend school. A governess privately educated her at home.
Because of her love of botany, particularly fungi, developed during her summers spent in Scotland and the Lake District of Northern England, she became a well-known mycologist producing highly detailed legendary drawings. Her superb illustrations added significantly to her work when she turned to children's literature.
In 1900, Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit after being turned down by many publishers. In 1902, having refused to publish Potter’s book in 1900, Frederick Warne & Co. published her “bunny book”, as he called it. (I believe she got the last laugh on that one, having now sold over forty-five million copies in forty-five languages!)
Potter worked closely with the publisher's third son, Norman, to develop a new story about two mice and a doll's house, which became A Tale of Two Bad Mice. The sketch of the doll's house used in the book was actually a drawing of one he was building for his nieces and is part of the illustration for this blog post. Warren proposed in 1904, but after only one month, died of pernicious anemia. Potter’s parents were not pleased about the engagement because Warne was “in trade” and not in their class. With the parents' attitude toward her engagement to someone she cared deeply about and his death within a month, must have caused her a great deal of anger, particularly when she was a thirty-nine-year-old accomplished woman still being ordered about by her parents! She was going to disobey the cardinal rule for a Victorian woman: NEVER to marry below your social class. Better yet, climb higher!
Potter often wrote about how the Victorian belief system caused much of the population to want for basic comforts. Death from disease, horrendous work conditions and childbirth were common occurrences. They considered the ability to persevere despite these tragedies an admirable trait.
Using cute animals as a foil, Potter’s stories, like Dickens, portray vengeful property-owners and dreadful treatment of small children masked as animals. Workers were often so marginalized, the smallest of downfalls through no fault of their own, could see them destitute and starving in the street. Through the use of the animal tales, Potter also addressed class politics, gender roles, economics, and the roles playing in domestic life.
One theme rarely written about, if at all, was single mothers working hard as a businesswoman to care for their families. Potter showed a woman successful as a business owner, as well as a homemaker. Although Potter did not have children, she was an extraordinary businesswoman.