The life of the prolific children’s author was circumscribed, even by Victorian standards.
With 40 million copies sold since its publication in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has made Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) world-famous. Dennison (Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, 2015, etc.) draws largely on Potter’s children’s stories, journals, and letters to document her personal and artistic development, resulting in a narrowly focused biography that offers little perspective beyond the subject’s own. Born into a well-to-do British family, Potter’s world “was one of conformities and prohibitions.” Raised in isolation from other children by domineering parents, her youthful companions were her brother and their many beloved pets. By the time she was a teenager, she experienced recurring illnesses and began to think of herself as an invalid. “Whether her parents were responsible for this attitude, or simply sought to manipulate it, is unclear,” Dennison writes. Intent on becoming a botanical illustrator, Potter obsessively honed her skills as an artist and naturalist, interests covered thoroughly in Linda Lear’s recent biography. Her career as a children’s author began accidentally, when she was 27, with letters to the bedridden son of one of her former governesses. She illustrated tales about Peter and three other anthropomorphic rabbits with pen-and-ink drawings that eventually made their way into her books. Her parents tried to manage her life even as she gained professional success. They disapproved of her engagement to the shy son of her publisher, who unfortunately died before they could marry; and they again disapproved when, at the age of 41, Potter accepted another man’s proposal. She defied them and seemed to live happily ever after. Throughout the book, Dennison, jarringly, compares Potter to her cutely named characters: like “Miss Matilda Pussycat,” Potter was “prone to neuralgia”; like “Hunca Munca,” her disappointment sometimes led to anger; like “Jemima Puddle-duck,” she was determined to follow her dreams.
Potter described her stories as giving “pleasure without ugliness.” The same can be said of this respectful biography.