As children, we grew up with many stories and many characters whom we considered friends. One of them includes Peter Rabbit, the creation of Beatrix Potter. This accidental author still manages to charm children all over the world today.
Beatrix Potter was born into a wealthy family in West Brompton in 1866. She was educated by governesses, spent holidays in Scotland, and had many pets. Her early exposure to nature and her love for animals later on developed into an interest in the sciences. She created watercolor paintings of the landscapes, flora, and fauna that she encountered.
Potter started keeping a journal at age fourteen, which contained a combination of her scientific studies and artistic pursuits. She was interested in the natural sciences, namely archeology, entomology, and botany. In the 1890s, she shifted her focus to mycology, the study of fungi. Her interest in this specific branch started with painting the fungi she encountered. Later on, she met Charles McIntosh, a naturalist who helped her with the accuracy of her illustrations and taught her taxonomy. Even though she wasn’t taken seriously by many scientists in her time because of her sex, her studies are being reevaluated today. In 1997, she was issued a posthumous apology by the Linnean Society, who initially rejected her scientific work.
Besides her interest in the sciences, Potter also had an interest in the arts. She loved fairytales, fairies, and fantasy as a child and later studied classic fairytales from Western Europe. She later expanded her interest to mythology, Shakespeare, and romance. She also studied book illustration and developed her own artistic style, drawing the pets she had at home. Potter also created personalized cards with sketches and stories, which she sent out to young friends. She particularly loved sharing sketches and stories to Noel, the eldest son of one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore. Potter would tell Noel a story about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.” This later became the foundation of her most popular story.
Potter revised her rabbit story in 1900 and created a dummy book for it. Initially, no one bought the idea, so she published the story out of her own pocket in 1901 to give away to family and friends. One of their family friends, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, saw the potential in the story and showed it to London publishing houses. He sold the book to them as a children’s book, which, at the time, was starting to flourish. In 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, and it became an immediate success. Potter then devoted her time to being a full-time children’s book author and illustrator, creating many Peter Rabbit books and other books for children.
Other than the books, Potter also created patented Peter Rabbit merchandise, which included games, wallpaper, figurines, dolls, and even tea sets. These made her and her publisher very rich.
Once she was finished with writing books for children, Potter acquired a farm and became interested in breeding and raising Herdwick sheep. She bought a sheep farm in 1923, establishing herself as one of the best sheep farmers of the county. Her experience in the sciences allowed her to create remedies for diseases that sheep usually died from.
Potter still wrote and drew but mostly as a hobby. She died in 1943, leaving her fortune to the National Trust. Today, the farm she once owned is part of the Lake District National Park.
The National Trust also has most of her original illustrations, and the copyright to her stories is owned by her original publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. (now part of Penguin Group). A previously unpublished story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, was discovered in 2013 and published in 2016.
Peter Rabbit lives on to this day as a beloved children’s character, and Beatrix Potter is well-remembered not only as a children’s book author but also a successful mycologist and sheep herder.
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