#71: JUST THE RIGHT SIZE AND WEIGHT. As late as the nineteen-eighties it was possible, if you were in Sawrey in the British Lake District, to run into people who remembered Beatrix Potter, who died in 1943. She was the daughter of a hermetically sealed London barrister’s family—an artist in words and colors turning up from some genetic left field—who found in the Lakes the ideal setting for her work, and who purchased some acres of farmland out of the royalties from her early books. (As her bank account increased, she spent it on further acreage, and the land went to the National Trust.) In the village she was remembered as quite the local character—tack-sharp about business, a thriving and competitive sheep-breeder, and capable of being a bit of a tartar. (It was in these years she dressed down Graham Greene for what she saw as an inappropriate essay on her work, and she was capable of a chilly invisibility to unwanted guests or letters.) She was referred to invariably as Mrs. Heelis; not a single person so much as mentioned Beatrix Potter, the world-famous creator of the Peter Rabbit books, and the reason for all this bookish tourism in town. The books of course have survived heartily on their own, all twenty-three of them still in print with much peripheral merchandise and still, the last I looked, printed on good paper and decently bound. They are masterpieces of design—“just the right size and weight for their little hands,” one of Potter’s friends wrote—but Leslie Linder’s History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (Warne, 1971) details how much variation and experiment went into these now uniform little volumes. This is the irreplaceable book for all Potter fanatics and a wonderful thing of its kind, full of detail, information, unpublished stories and drawings and variant versions to show how much care and revision went into not only the pictures but those terse, simple sentences, as pared-down as Hemingway’s. There is something richly pleasing about so much exactitude and precision being spent on such stories as The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies or (my personal favorite) The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck; Linder’s book is entirely charming, from Potter’s own designs down to the old Kodachrome pictures of the Lakeland settings. Anybody who cares tuppence for Potter should have it and will enjoy it. If you want the Peter Rabbit series in a single volume there’s The Complete Tales (Warne), splendidly printed and a manageable size. (Hold out if you can for the 2002 Hundredth Anniversary printing, which added in four early and charming works.) The Tale of Beatrix Potter, by Margaret Lane (Warne) is a good biography, as is Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin’s).
P.S. 2021: When I visited Hill Top Farm it struck me as the most charming and inviting of the National Trust properties I’d visited: an almost Platonic image of the period English farmhouse. I had no idea at the time that that was exactly the effect it was meant to have. In Susan Denyer’s well-written and handsomely illustrated book At Home with Beatrix Potter (Francis Lincoln Ltd., 2009) she tells us of the mid-nineteenth century notion of the romantic decorated room: rooms artfully cluttered with toys and antiques, all very lovely, very picturesque, spinning wheels by the hearth: a sort of interior Ur-England. National Trust properties get teased frequently for their veneer of the ideal and the twee; it just turns out Beatrix Potter beat them to it. Part of this was to the point: she decked the house out quite consciously to use it for backgrounds to her watercolors, and as a place you could receive visitors. I for one have no objection to this whatsoever—it’s a kind of pretty I rather happen to like, and the landscape photos in the book are spectacularly inviting. I hadn’t known quite how well Peter Rabbit and his buddies had done for Potter: when she died, she left over four thousand acres to the Trust, including fourteen farms and twenty houses. It calls to mind the advice one editor gave to later author of a children’s series: “Don’t quit your day job. No one ever got rich writing children’s books.” The author, of course, was J.K. Rowling.