Sample text for Beatrix Potter, a life in nature / Linda Lear.


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Roots
BEATRIX POTTER NEVER CONSIDERED herself an ‘off-comer’ in Sawrey. For much of her adult life she worked hard at shedding at least the outward vestiges of her upper-middle-class upbringing in the Kensington area of London and at re-establishing and embellishing her country credentials. It was a matter of great consequence to her to be identified, not by her accidental place of birth, but rather by the geographical location of her family’s roots. ‘My brother & I were born in London because my father was a lawyer there,’ she wrote once by way of explanation. ‘But our descent — our interests and our joy was in the north country.’ From this perspective Beatrix’s purchase of land in Sawrey represented both an independent sallying forth, and a return to the land of her ancestors — to a place where she instinctively felt she belonged.1
She had always been interested in her family’s history, particularly in the qualities of the north-country stock they came from. She once wrote to an American friend with considerable pride, ‘I am descended from generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers; obstinate, hard headed, matter of fact folk … As far back as I can go, they were Puritans, Nonjurors, Nonconformists, Dissenters. Your Mayflower ancestors sailed to America; mine at the same date were sticking it out at home, probably rather enjoying persecution.’ Beatrix did not have to search far to find evidence of strong character or conviction. Both sides of her family were distinguished by their Radical political opinions, Unitarian convictions, extraordinary success in trade, and a discerning interest in the arts.2
When Beatrix was a little girl, obscured and forgotten under the table skirt with the ‘yellowy green fringe’ in the library of Camfield Place, the country home of her paternal grandparents, she absorbed stories and family gossip which many years later she could recall with unusual clarity and detail. ‘I can remember quite plainly from one to two years old,’ she wrote; ‘not only facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments — the way things impressed a very young child.’3
The impressionable little girl paid particular attention to the stories told by her adored grandmother Jessy Crompton Potter, once a noted beauty and an accomplished harpist, and now an arresting and spirited older woman. In those recitals of the family’s past, the name Crompton was redoubtable. As far as the family legend went, or at least the version that Beatrix embraced, the Cromptons were the source of all that was independent, outspoken, eccentric and worth emulating in the family. ‘I am a believer in “breed”,’ Beatrix wrote to a friend; ‘I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations. In the same way that we farmers know that certain sires-bulls-stallions-rams—have been “prepotent” in forming breeds of shorthorns, thoroughbreds, and the numerous varieties of sheep.’4
Beatrix’s great-grandfather, Abraham Crompton, settled his family of thirteen at Lune Villa, a Georgian house with expansive grounds on the River Lune in Lancashire. He also owned land in the Tilberthwaite Fells near Coniston: fells that Beatrix could later see outlined against the horizon from the upper fields of Hill Top Farm. His property there was known as Holme Ground, which means a place surrounded by water, as indeed it was. Abraham sometimes spent summer holidays there attended by one or other of his children, most often with Beatrix’s grandmother, Jessy.
Both Beatrix’s father’s and mother’s families had deep roots in the counties near Manchester, which by the time of Beatrix’s birth in 1866 was the second largest city in England and the centre of the textile manufacturing that was fuelled by the Industrial Revolution. The Potters of recent generations came from Glossop, a textile town in Derbyshire, south-east of Manchester. Beatrix’s mother’s family, the Leeches, were from Stalybridge and Hyde in nearby Cheshire.
Edmund Potter, Beatrix’s paternal grandfather, was by far the most accomplished member of either family. His attitudes, passions and talents are important because Beatrix resembled him more than any other family member. She inherited much of his artistic talent, entrepreneurial ability and intellectual curiosity. Edmund was born in 1802 and baptized at Cross Street Chapel, a Unitarian congregation already in the forefront of the Dissenting community. He was brought up rather severely in a hard-working merchant family which valued education. Edmund had a penchant for innovation, held enlightened opinions and kept company with other thoughtful men. Although his eventual wealth qualified him as one of Manchester’s cotton oligarchs, Edmund Potter remained a humble man, dedicated to the well-being and improvement of his countrymen.5
In 1825 Edmund and his cousin Charles bought a run-down spinning mill in Dinting Vale, a small cotton manufacturing village south of Glossop, on the edge of the open moorland of the High Peak. Theirs was but one of the forty-odd cotton mills in Glossop Dale, where nearly a third of the population was employed in the textile industry. They proceeded to establish a hand-printed calico manufacturing business, applying the woodblocks with good dyes to create innovative prints which proved popular. Years later, when Beatrix was absorbed with the selection of endpapers for the de luxe editions of her ‘little books’, she discovered that the most popular calico pattern Edmund Potter & Company ever produced was a small crossed broom or brush pattern on a blue ground that her grandfather had designed.6
Edmund married Jessy Crompton, ‘the pretty Radical’, in the Lancaster Priory church of St Mary near her home at Lune Villa in 1829. Jessy had independent opinions of her own and inherited her father’s Radical belief in the political emancipation of the working classes. Her views would influence her husband’s practices and attitudes as an employer, as well as his views on the necessity of educating the lower classes. The match was remarkably congenial. Jessy was adept at managing a large household and in promoting her husband’s political ambitions and social connections. She bore seven children within a decade: four sons and three daughters.7
The Potters’ social life revolved around the Unitarian community in Manchester. They often attended Cross Street Chapel, where the Revd William Gaskell, an eloquent and compelling preacher, was the newly appointed junior minister. Gaskell’s wife, Elizabeth, became one of the major social novelists of the century before her early death in 1865. The Gaskells and the Potters raised their families in the same environment and their friendship influenced the next two generations of Potters.
The calico print trade was increasingly unstable owing to fluctuations in demand and the imposition of a tax levied exclusively on printed cotton. The repeal of the tax did not come soon enough to save the fledgling firm. The company went into receivership, and the cousins went their separate ways. Edmund rebuilt his calico business in Dinting Vale as Edmund Potter & Company. With hard work and innovation, he emerged in 1837 not only debt free, but captain of a modernized calico printing business.8
When the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway came to Dinting Vale and Glossop in 1845, Potter’s firm was assured a wider market and Glossop became a regional centre of trade. Edmund had wisely moved his family to Dinting Vale several years earlier and into Dinting Lodge, a substantial house overlooking the mill reservoirs.9
As an enlightened employer, Edmund was concerned for the welfare and education of his employees, many of whom were children under the age of 13. He built a large dining room in the mill which could serve a hot meal to three hundred and fifty people at one time. He converted part of a nearby mill into the Logwood School, where the children of his workers, as well as the child labourers, could learn reading, writing and basic hygiene. He also built a reading room and library which was kept well stocked with books and newspapers. Edmund Potter believed in the necessity of educating the working classes and the need to repeal the excise taxes on grain, which raised the price of bread, but he had no sympathy for trade unionism. Such beliefs drew him into association with other politically powerful merchant leaders in Manchester who supported the growing movement for free trade.10
Edmund also saw the art of calico printing and art education as tools for social improvement. In 1855 he published a pamphlet, Schools of Art, arguing for the benefits of art education for the working man. His own achievements in the science of calico printing and his technological innovations were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and earned him election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1856. From 1855 to 1858 Edmund served as President of the Manchester School of Art, collected a little art himself and frequently lectured on textile design. By 1862 Edmund Potter & Company had become the largest calico printing firm in the world. The Dinting Vale printworks produced more than sixteen million yards of calico a year. That year Edmund contested a by-election at Carlisle and won the seat in Parliament as a Liberal by three votes. He left the family business in the capable hands of his eldest son, Edmund Crompton, and settled in London. Committed to the growth of the Unitarian ministry and to the gospel of free trade, Edmund served as a Member of Parliament for the next twelve years.11
In London, Edmund and Jessy settled at 64 Queen’s Gate, in South Kensington. They attended the vibrant Little Portland Street congregation led by colleagues from the faculty of Manchester College. Edmund also served as president of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, the first official coordinating body of the denomination, a position which increased his public stature. He was well connected within the London art and museum community, including the National Gallery of Art and the Kensington School of Art, insisting that the latter provide art education to the lower classes, not just to the sons and daughters of the wealthy.12
In 1866 Edmund bought Camfield Place, a country estate of over 300 acres in Hertfordshire, north of London. The grounds of Camfield, laid out a century earlier by the famous landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, were planted with cedars, rhododendrons and pink horse chestnuts. In keeping with the fashion of the times, the property included several sturdy summer houses, lovely terraced ponds, and, best of all, a grotto. Camfield would always be associated in Beatrix’s mind with precious visits to her dear Grandmother Potter. 13
Edmund retired from Parliament and moved to Camfield, where he died in October 1883 at the age of 82. In the years immediately before his death Edmund’s mind sadly deteriorated. Instead of the brilliant, kindly reformer and energetic Unitarian that he had been, Beatrix remembered him more as a befuddled old man. Jessy continued to live at Camfield and at Queen’s Gate in London until her death in 1891. Edmund died an immensely wealthy man, leaving an estate of £441,970, principally to his wife. A great portion of that wealth eventually passed on to Beatrix’s father, Rupert, ironically the son least endowed with his father’s entrepreneurial spirit or liberal values.14
During the period Edmund served in Parliament, the Potters lived not far from the Kensington home of the family of the late John Leech of Stalybridge, 20 Kensington Palace Gardens. Leech died in 1861, but the two north-country families had long been connected by cotton, Unitarianism, and membership in the art establishment of Manchester. John Leech had been every bit as much a Manchester merchant prince and benefactor of the Unitarian cause as Edmund Potter. Only his more flamboyant style and affinity for risk distinguished him. Although his death at the age of 60 deprived him of a comparable philanthropic career in his later years, Leech acted on a wider international stage than Potter, and also accumulated enormous wealth. In part because his granddaughter Beatrix never knew him, but also because he was a man of action rather than reflection, John Leech’s contribution to Beatrix’s understanding of family character was less vivid and came to her second-hand.
A year older than Edmund Potter, Leech married Jane Ashton, the lively and quick-witted daughter of a wealthy Unitarian cotton manufacturer in nearby Hyde, in 1832. They moved into Hob Hill House, a large brick structure in the middle of the family’s textile mills in Stalybridge. Soon Leech, who was known around the Manchester Exchange as ‘Ready Money Jack’, bought a larger, historic estate on a hill overlooking the town, tore it down and built a new mansion known as Gorse Hall. It included a lake, landscaped gardens, a tennis court, and offered a panoramic view of the distant Pennines. By 1848 the John Leech Company had a fleet of ships sailing the world and was the largest mercantile business in the area.15
The Leeches shared with the Potters a deep commitment to Nonconformity and education, as well as to the promotion of science and art in Manchester. John Leech came to London frequently to promote his firm’s trading relations and to lobby Parliament. Like Potter, he too collected contemporary British art, including at least one landscape by J. M. W. Turner. When John Leech died, after a long illness, the Christian Reformer reported that ‘his name was known in almost every part of the world’.16
His surviving sons, John and William, worked in the family business and remained in Stalybridge. One of his five daughters died in infancy, the eldest never married, but the other three made good matches. Harriet married Fred Burton, a wealthy cotton manufacturer who built Gwaynynog, an estate near Denbigh in Wales. Elizabeth and Helen married two sons of Edmund Potter, Walter and Rupert. John Leech left a personal estate of more than £200,000, and settled a generous legacy of £50,000 on each of his daughters.17
During her long widowhood, Jane Leech turned her attention to the Unitarian community and the working people of Stalybridge. She gave the pioneer Unitarian congregation permission to make the old Leech home, Hob Hill, into a free school which soon became the centre of the Unitarian reform and educational efforts in the town. During the cotton famine that began in 1862, when mills were forced to close because of the lack of imported raw cotton from the United States, the Hob Hill School offered night classes for workers in thirty different subjects. Mrs Leech and her daughters, Elizabeth and Helen, taught cookery, needlework and housewifery. She established kitchens to feed all the mill workers in Stalybridge, not just those in the Leech mills, and organized an annual bazaar for the support of the Sunday School. At the time of her death in 1884, the school served more than four hundred girls and infants.18
As a child Beatrix went less often to Gorse Hall to see Grand-mamma Leech than she did to Camfield Place, although her journal records frequent luncheons and teas at both grandmothers’ London homes. But when Jane Leech died, Beatrix, not quite 18, felt her loss acutely. Her memories of Gorse Hall, like those of Camfield, were vividly sensory; having to do with the smell of the old house and the quality of light there. She recalled ‘the pattern of the door-mat, the pictures on the old music-box, the sound of the rocking horse as it swung, the engravings on the stair, the smell of the Indian corn’ and feared it would all be changed. ‘I have now seen longer passages and higher halls,’ she confided in her journal. ‘The rooms will look cold and empty, the passage I used to patter along so kindly on the way to bed will no longer seem dark and mysterious, and, above all, the kind voice which cheered the house is silent for ever.’19
During Jane Leech’s funeral at Dukinfield, Rupert Potter, Leech’s son-in-law and Beatrix’s barrister father, was seated near his own father’s old pew. As a boy, he had often sat studying a memorial inscription engraved on the south transept wall that began with the Latin phrase ‘Cur viator fleas sepultum? — traveller, why weep for me in my grave?’ After the service he wickedly confided to his daughter that the inscription had always made him think of ‘dog fleas’. His confession amused Beatrix and became something of a family joke.20
As the second son of a rising mill owner, Rupert Potter was born during the time when his father was fighting his way out of bankruptcy and times were hard. His teenage years at Dinting Vale were more privileged, but Edmund, honoured and remote, had little time to spend with his family. Crompton, the eldest by three years, inherited the entrepreneurial ambitions of his father, and although the two brothers had much in common, they were too often in competition as young men to admit admiration.21
At 16 Rupert followed Crompton to Manchester College. One of the last of the lay students to matriculate there, Rupert joined some of the leading students and teachers of Unitarian thought. One illustrious member of the college faculty, the Revd William Gaskell, Rupert already knew well. Cross Street Chapel was closely connected with the college, and students had easy access to Gaskell who served as Professor of English History and Literature at the College. James Martineau, younger brother of the famed educational reform writer Harriet, and the Revd John James Tayler, two of the most celebrated theologians of the Unitarian tradition, were also Rupert’s teachers. Martineau was Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Political Economy. Tayler taught ecclesiastical history and Rupert soon became a regular at Tayler’s services at Upper Brook Street Free Church. Martineau’s influence on Rupert’s character was profound and lifelong.22
Rupert was a good student at Manchester, excelling in the Greek and Roman classics and in ancient history, in which he took prizes in 1849. Rupert and Crompton both inherited their father’s interest in the fine arts, attending lectures at the Royal Manchester Institute, and enjoying exhibitions in London. As adults, both collected art, though on a vastly different scale. From his college days on, Rupert was fascinated by the new art of photography, a subject which had also intrigued his father, but he did not have the opportunity to take it up in any serious way until the mid-1860s.23
Rupert took a London University degree in 1851, the first member of his family to do so. Although Crompton had matriculated at Manchester, he did not finish. After three years he entered the family business at Dinting Vale and, in the same year as Rupert finished his degree, Crompton was made a partner at Edmund Potter & Company. Rupert’s two younger brothers, Walter and William, also followed their elder siblings to the college. Walter took a degree in 1853 from London University and perhaps shared quarters with Rupert at University Hall for a time, but both he and William returned to Manchester to work. Rupert rejected a career in business and instead chose to study law, a choice that met with his father’s approval.
There is an unexplained gap of two years between the end of Rupert’s studies at Manchester in 1851 and his appearance at Lincoln’s Inn in 1854. Evidence suggests that Rupert gave serious consideration to studying for the ministry. But lay students of Rupert’s generation were increasingly choosing careers in the professions, and the law had become an attractive alternative for many wealthy parents. For whatever reason, Rupert was temperamentally wise to strike out differently. While he was scientifically curious and artistically able, he was not disposed to decisive action or energetic leadership. He was deliberative, fond of abstractions, uneasy with both intellectual ambiguity and economic uncertainty, and inherently conservative. He loved books, politics and argument. The law suited him.24
Rupert’s law student days in London were spent at Lincoln’s Inn. He was admitted on 17 January 1854 and became a pupil of Hugh McCalmont Cairns, a leading member of the Chancery bar, Member of Parliament, Solicitor-General and in 1868 Lord Chancellor. Since Rupert had already set his sights on the Chancery Division of the High Court, Cairns was probably his only pupil master. His association with Cairns was one from which he derived professional benefit. 25
Rupert’s apprenticeship in law at Lincoln’s Inn was not all devoted to serious study. A surviving sketchbook from 1853 includes humorous caricatures of his fellow students and life at the Inns of Court. There are also precise pen-and-ink sketches of animals, including a bear in an overcoat smoking a pipe, a dog at a spinning wheel and, most curiously, a flight of ducks over a marsh including one wearing a bonnet, an image which later struck the imagination of his daughter and was the precursor of another more elaborately bonneted duck she would one day make famous. The sketchbook and other evidence of Rupert’s artistry indicate that he enjoyed drawing and that he was skilled at it. He particularly enjoyed copying engravings and book illustrations, and he had an affinity for caricature.26
Rupert Potter was called to the bar on 17 November 1857. He occupied chambers at 8 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, from 1858, moving in 1862 to 3 New Square, where he is continuously listed as occupant until 1892 when he would have been 60 and when he presumably retired. The annual Law Lists describe him as a barrister specializing as an equity draughtsman and conveyancer. This type of specialized legal work had to do with the transfer of property and the establishment of trusts, and as such his business was before the Chancery Division of the High Court. Rupert also practised before the Lancaster Chancery Court in Manchester and Liverpool, courts which specialized in conveyancing matters. As a barrister with north-country connections, he would naturally have business with this court. Potter gained considerable expertise in this area of the law, as demonstrated in a book on the subject he published in 1862 analysing legislation then pending in Parliament.
Equity law and conveyancing normally did not involve the barrister in litigation. Furthermore his career would certainly have been impacted by the reorganization of the judicial system about 1876 when the Court of Chancery was abolished as an independent entity. These particularities of the law help explain the nature of Potter’s legal career as well as the rather casual schedule he kept as a barrister in his later years.27
Rupert’s practice has been the subject of speculation, and, with no case record, it has been accepted that he did not actively practise law, leading a life of cultured idleness and living on inherited wealth. But this view must be amended. First, at least one case in which Rupert appeared as counsel reached the Law Reports, and presumably there were others in which he was a participant and which were not published. On the basis of this record, as well as the nature of the case, and the rarity of cases which identify counsel by name, one must conclude that by the time of Beatrix’s birth in 1866 Rupert had achieved some professional reputation.28
Secondly, Rupert did not come into any of his inheritance until after his father’s estate was settled in 1884. His share was large, but not overly so given the size of his father’s estate, and it was not enough to support him in a life of total leisure. In fact, Rupert’s final inheritance from his father came in pieces: a more substantial portion upon the death of his mother in 1891, and the remainder when his elder sister Clara died in 1905. Finally, Rupert, like his father before him, made a variety of equity investments, about which his daughter reports him frequently anxious. These, combined with his other sources of earned and unearned income, made him extremely wealthy by the early 1890s.29
As a young barrister Rupert pursued an active social life in London, using his father’s connections. Shortly after he came up to London he was elected to membership in the Reform Club. It was a natural choice for the son of a prominent Liberal and advantageous for cultivating clients and finding agreeable society. In 1860 Rupert was nominated to the Athenaeum, the most intellectually elite of all London clubs. Sir Charles Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy, Director of the National Gallery, President of the Photography Society of London, and a trend-setter in the art world, was one of his proposers.
Rupert’s desire to move into such prestigious intellectual and artistic circles reflects his family’s considerable social connections, his own professional standing, and perhaps a certain naivety about social mobility. But it indicates that Rupert was ambitious for himself despite any detriments derived from his north-country birth or his background in trade. There was, however, a fourteen-year waiting list at the Athenaeum between Rupert’s entry into the candidates’ book and the time a vacancy appeared to which he could be elected. By April 1874, when his name came to the head of the waiting list, his original proposers had died. Their successors, however, were equally distinguished and more reflective of Rupert’s own associations. Rupert was elected to the Athenaeum by 243 votes to 5, his supporters’ sheet having about thirty-eight signatures, considered an average number. By this time Rupert’s politics were decidedly more conservative. The Athenaeum rather than the Reform became his club of choice, a preference also driven by his interest in photography and his participation in the London art scene.30
When it came to marriage, Rupert showed an equal mix of ambition and pragmatism. Although he was anxious for entry into London society, he turned to his north-country roots for a bride, seven years younger, whose background and wealth matched his own. Rupert and Helen Leech were married on 8 August 1863 by Rupert’s former Manchester College classmate, the Revd Charles Beard, at Gee Cross Chapel. The 24-year-old bride came with a handsome legacy from her father, and looked forward to the prospect of a genteel life in London society. Since her mother still maintained a family home in London, Helen was not without connections of her own.
Of all the members of Beatrix’s family, Helen Leech Potter’s history and personality is the most obscured and the most controversial. Nothing is known about her childhood and education. Only Beatrix’s reporting of Leech family conversations in her journal hint at Helen’s relationships with her siblings, her parents or her in-laws. According to family gossip, Elizabeth Leech Potter surpassed her younger sister in both beauty and disposition, and was the family’s favourite. Raised in considerable luxury, Helen was educated in the arts of household management and prepared for a life in society. 31
Helen joined her mother in activities that supported the Unitarian community in Stalybridge during the cotton famine, but her participation in philanthropic work reveals nothing about her commitment either to Nonconformity or to improving the lot of the poor since it was expected of young, single women of her background. Beatrix writes of the family attending church but most often she associates religious observance with her father and his family. As a married woman, Helen’s only known charitable involvement in London was the curious transcription of many volumes of unspecified literature into Braille for an association for the blind.32
Helen Leech brought to her marriage in 1863 a particularly colourful, elaborately designed bedcover. It was probably a wedding gift from family and friends to which Helen, with her artful needle, may well have contributed a portion. The large bedcover features the initials of the bride and groom and their wedding date centred around a wreath of flowers and leaves. A diamond-shaped centre section featuring applique; patches of mostly diamond blocks lends a three-dimensional effect. The coverlet’s survival testifies to the value Helen placed on it, and to her daughter’s later appreciation of its workmanship.33
Helen also enjoyed painting and drawing. Several extant landscapes show a pleasing perspective, more than Sunday afternoon skill in brushwork, and a good sense of colour, if a bit too much motion. Her obvious enjoyment of drawing, painting and needlework do not set her apart from most upper-middle-class Victorian women, but they indicate that Helen shared her husband’s art enthusiasms and that she too had artistic talent that added to the sum ultimately inherited by both her children.34
Photographs of Helen as a young mother show her grimly unsmiling and properly undemonstrative, as indeed do most photographs of the period, which required one to remain completely immobile for interminable minutes. She embraced the style and decorum demanded by her wealth and social aspirations, to which was added a measure of stiff reserve, or perhaps the reflection of an unhappy disposition. Her dark hair was severely parted in the middle, pulled back tightly, and elaborately wrapped on the back of her head in the fashion made popular by Queen Victoria, whom she resembled both in stocky stature and prominent feature.
There is no record of Helen’s social activities, other than her daughter’s comments on the daily ritual of making social calls. Just how successful she was in her own society is a matter of speculation. Like her husband, Helen was burdened by a distinctive Lancashire accent and by her membership in the Nonconformist community, both detriments to moving up into the genteel society that she, at least, seems to have aspired to join. The Potters entertained in London during the season and, following the ritual of the social calendar, invited friends to join them on holiday, first in Scotland and later in the Lake District.
The Potters’ social ambitions in London required that they minimize their family’s north-country origins, while at the same time they made use of its social connections. This attitude was not unusual for the second generation of merchant wealth, but Helen’s rejection of her family background seems less forgivable because it was accompanied by an often stinging disapproval of those she marked as inferior. Whether Helen was a snob by nature or whether it was an attitude she adopted as a Victorian norm, she felt herself and her family superior to those who worked in trade and to those professionals who were not in the same social class as her husband. Her pretentiousness was perhaps no greater than that of similarly situated Victorian women, but her attitudes contrasted poorly with those of her generous mother and mother-in-law. In any case her social hauteur was not an endearing quality.
From her daughter’s maturing point of view, Helen was a difficult, controlling woman who demanded time and attentive service from everyone around her. Her insecurities and biases limited the experiences that were allowed to both her children, subsequently narrowing their social horizons. That said, Helen doubtlessly suffered from the oppressive confines of family, the endless boredom that afflicted many Victorian women who were circumscribed by the range of approved activities, and the paternalism of upper-middle-class society. At least in part, Helen Potter’s pretentiousness was a reflection of her personal powerlessness, to which might be added her lack of education and intellectual interests.35
Helen’s page in a family ‘favourites’ album drawn in 1873, ten years after her marriage, provides another glimpse. In it she drew small coloured pictures of the things she liked and disliked at the time. She described dancing, music and the company of a sociable gentleman as favourites. The seashore was her choice for a holiday. But more revealing is a drawing that suggests that she had unusually severe dental problems. To be sure, smiling was not the fashion, and being constantly photographed by her husband was an arduous affair at best. But could it be that Helen’s sour, unsmiling, demeanour in nearly every extant photograph was in part an effort to hide prominent, even protruding teeth?36
We know little of Helen’s network of female friends and relationships and thus are deprived of information about another important aspect that sustained the lives of Victorian women. Helen Potter has been portrayed as a disagreeable, self-centred woman who did more to impoverish her daughter’s life than enhance it. There is certainly truth in this interpretation. But it is also possible that Helen Potter has been understood primarily through the eyes of a precocious adolescent, an unusual daughter with eclectic interests that Helen did not understand, share or condone. Her marriage to Rupert seems to have been more enduring than truly companionable. It is possible, too, that Helen was bored as well as neglected by a husband whose interests kept him out of the house, in the club or behind the camera, and who certainly preferred the company of his artistic companions to social rounds with his wife.
Rupert and Helen first settled into married life in London in Upper Harley Street, then a fashionable area of Marylebone. When Helen became pregnant with Beatrix in 1865 they sought larger, more fashionable quarters, eventually selecting a house in the rural area of Kensington off the Brompton Road. Bolton Gardens was a newly built enclave of large, granite-faced four-storey homes on both sides of the road, each with a small garden in the front and a larger one in the rear. Each house had its own mews with stables for horses, and housing for carriage and livery behind.
Bolton Gardens was an appropriate neighbourhood for aspiring upper-middle-class professionals from mercantile backgrounds who were doing well and viewed themselves as a rising elite. It also appears to have been an enclave of distinguished Dissenters, among whom the Potters would have felt socially comfortable. Helen Potter brought a below-stairs staff of two sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah Harper from Stalybridge, as cook and housekeeper. A Londoner, George Cox, was hired as butler. Albert Reynolds, his wife and school-age sons, and a boarder, David Beckett, who was the groom, completed the Potters’ initial household.37
A daughter, Helen Beatrix, was born at 2 Bolton Gardens on Saturday, 28 July 1866, in the twenty-eighth year of Queen Victoria’s reign. News of her arrival was announced in The Times with customary formality. Nearly six years later, on 14 March 1872, a brother, Walter Bertram, joined her in the nursery on the third floor. This ‘unloved birthplace’, as she later called it, would be Beatrix’s home for the next forty-seven years.38
BEATRIX POTTER. Copyright © 2007 by Linda Lear. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.






Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Potter, Beatrix, -- 1866-1943.
Authors, English -- 20th century -- Biography.
Illustrators -- Great Britain -- Biography.
Lake District (England) -- Biography.
Children's stories -- Illustrations.
Children's stories -- Authorship.