What was the best thing about writing this book? The best thing was that I discovered a Victorian woman of great brilliance who could have been almost any sort of natural scientist she wanted to be had she lived in another time. I discovered not only her well known genius as a story-teller and artist, but also her love of nature and her scientific curiosity that had not been written about before. Her fame as ‘the Peter Rabbit Lady’ (which only involved a dozen years of her life writing Little Books) overshadowed the other passions and accomplishments that she had. And in the end, I believe I gave Beatrix Potter a wider, fuller and more amazing life.
What situations or people influenced me to start writing? I have been a history professor all my career. But in 1994 I got two big fellowships that enabled me to quit teaching at the university and become a full time writer. Writing as a teacher and scholar has been something I have always done. But writing as an academic and writing for the general public is quite different. So being a non-fiction writer was a completely new challenge. It was my Mother who has always been my literary muse. When others (some male professors in graduate school) criticized my writing, or were less than encouraging, my Mother believed in me. She died in 1994 just a few years before my prize-winning biography of Rachel Carson was published (1997). But she was behind every sentence and was the inspiration to write about nature and saving the environment that was Carson’s story, my mother’s story, Beatrix Potter’s story, and my story. In 1994, I was far away from home on a fellowship at Yale University. Before she died, my Mother created a banner out of paper bags stapled together to put over my desk to encourage me. It reads, ‘You do write so beautifully, dear’. (Mothers are prejudiced of course). But to this day, it still has the place of honor in my study and still inspires me!
What inspired me to write this book? Penguin UK bought my biography of the environmental pioneer, Rachel Carson, whose book ‘Silent Spring’ helped to ignite the world environmental movement warning against the misuse of pesticides. They invited me over to the UK on a book and lecture tour in 1998. One of my first stops was the London Science Museum, and after the lecture my husband and I were looking around at the exhibits. In the lobby there were these fantastic watercolours of fungi, but there was no indication in the exhibit cases who had painted them. Now I happen to be a very amateur collector of botanical art and I know what is good and what is ordinary, and these watercolours were ‘mind-blowing!’ So I inquired about the artist and learned that they were fungi painted by Beatrix Potter in the late 1890s. ‘I didn’t know she did botanical art or scientific drawings’ I said to my Penguin editor that night at dinner at her London club. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘Most Brits don’t know that either!’ And she added almost as an afterthought… ‘Beatrix Potter also had a hand in saving the Lake District, and most Brits don’t know that either’. My husband looked at me, and said, ‘Well, Linda! There’s your next project’. And so it was. And it was a perfect one too! It also turned out that the timing was right for a new biography. Margaret Lane , a journalist and frequent writer of what I call ‘ladies biographies’ had published a life of Potter in 1946 just three years after Potter’s death. It was popular and well-written, but based too much on conjecture and not enough on scholarly evidence. The best portrait of Potter was and remains, Judy Taylor’s ‘illustrated biography’; ‘Beatrix Potter. Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman’ published in 1986. Since then no one had interpreted Potter’s life and work as flowing from her love and knowledge of the natural world. It was a perfect theme for an environmental historian and biographer. But there’s more. As a trained environmental historian, I seem to be drawn to write about literary artists whose lives and work are somehow intertwined with the natural world. My biography of Rachel Carson came about first of all because my history students at University did not know who she was or what she had done. I found that appalling and set out to remedy that ignorance. The result was a much bigger project that I had initially planned, but it was a wonderful decade long adventure which has not stopped yet. With Potter, it was my childhood knowledge and love of reading her books and the images of animals and gardens that stayed with me. It was also about childhood, about being mothered so beautifully that I could hear my mother’s voice in all the tales. It included my love of gardening as well inherited from my family. I think it was all about following what one loved.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I discovered that Beatrix was a young woman of ambition and enormous scientific talent. But the most important discovery was that her ability to observe – was nothing short of extraordinary. It impacted everything she did: art, story, science, sheep raising, and conservation. Her ability to observe was central to her being and to her accomplishments. She wanted to make something of herself other than being a ‘decorative’ lady of the upper middle class. As a Unitarian family, the Potters were excluded from the wider society of their social and economic class. But as Unitarians from the North of England (eg. Manchester), they were proud of their roots in trade and in invention and art. Beatrix was an accomplished artist from an early age. She had a fiercely independent streak and hated art lessons – wanting to do art her way. Thank goodness. Her ability to observe: people, society, nature, animals, landscape was at the core of her genius. There have been few artists whose observation has been more acute or more effectively applied to her art, story and nature.
What do you love or admire most about Beatrix Potter? I admire her inner resilience and courage in the face of disappointment, tragedy and loss. She had a deep sense of herself, a drive to achieve even in areas that Victorian women were excluded. She had enormous fortitude and cleverness. If one avenue was blocked, she would find another way to learn something, or discover a way to do it differently. She was a very talented businesswoman in addition. It was Potter who designed and patented the first ‘Peter Rabbit’ doll, made up a Board Game based on the ‘Tale of Peter Rabbit’, designed figurines, wall papers, tea sets and even hot water bottles and had them manufactured to her rigorous specifications. By the time she stopped writing and turned to full time sheep raising and conservation, she oversaw an empire of merchandise based upon her ‘Tales’. What I love about her most I think is her imagination. Her love of fantasy, her ability to see whimsy in situations, to find humor in animal behavior and in human society – even stuffy Victorian society – and to imagine the natural world and its creatures in ways that even today make us understand a larger truth. Her imagination was key to her resilience in her personal life, especially as a young woman living in a difficult time and household. Her imagination gained her fame and fortune as a writer and artist. Finally her imagination enabled her to see that the fragile environment of the Lake District of northern England could be lost if others did not act to save it from development and preserve its agrarian character. She was a woman ahead of her time in almost every way, yet very much a product of her generation.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? There were two wonderful things that happened: first, my husband and I were able to travel all over southeastern Scotland and the area of England known as the Lake District in the county of Cumbria (formerly Cumberland and Westmorland with parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire). We found all the homes, save her home in London which was destroyed in the war, that Potter lived in or vacationed in. We visited all the farms she owned, the Tarns that she loved and all the lakes. It was essential to me as a writer who needs to absorb the actual places and landscapes to write about them. A life is deeply impacted by place and one’s sense of place. This was crucial when it came to understanding Beatrix Potter, where she lived and what she loved. The second thing was the friends I made as I travelled and did research in the UK and Scotland. Archivists, local shop keepers, people who lived around the Lakes, farmers, sheep herders, especially the National Trust employees who farm her land and keep her flocks. I even held a baby Herdwick in my arms at one of Potter’s NT farms! What a thrill. The members of the Beatrix Potter Society, a membership Society open to anyone interested in Potter’s life and work, were essential in helping me not only find material, but in interpreting it for an American audience. I learned how to write exclusively in British spelling, and my Editor was delighted to tell me that no one could have known I was an American! (I think that was a compliment). Best of all were the personal friends I made: the young editor who became my London research assistant, the passionate Potter collectors and scholars who shared their knowledge and their collections, the people who allowed me to interview them and taught me about the Lake District first hand – all whom I count among my closest friends today.
What was the hardest part of your job? The hardest part for most writers is the writing itself. The discipline required day after day to stare at a blank page on the computer and turn out a daily quota of words or pages. The research for me is the most fun. It is also the part that is hardest to stop, and to gain discipline over. I employed a former student who is a professional archivist to help me organize over twenty boxes of notes, research materials and computer records. Those materials are now open to researchers at the Linda Lear Center at Connecticut College in New London, Ct. We all have different styles of writing. For me it is essential to document carefully everything I write so that I have the references correctly placed even if whole sections never make it into the final draft. After making an outline and dividing material into chapters, the hardest part is to get the narrative flow. I usually try to write five pages a day, I read them aloud and then I edit them. The next morning I read them again, and usually re-write most of them and then try to move forward bit by bit. It is tedious but it is exciting. But it is also very lonely work because it all comes from the writer’s mind, spirit, and ability to tell a life. Such a writer is blessed as I am to have an understanding family.
What is the best part of your job? The very best part is when the book is finally published and you can see the results of all those years. Writing ‘A Life in Nature’ (the original and my favourite title) was an eight year process from the time I went to the UK until the time the book was published by Penguin (UK) and St Martin’s Press in the US. The joy is sharing that labor and enthusiasm with others in book talks, in public lectures, at book clubs, on-line, and with anyone who will be kind enough to ask ‘what do you write, and why did you write the life of Beatrix Potter?’ Now that is a great question!
Do you collect anything? This is a question I am rarely asked. I am an avid gardener, and I love plants. But before I ever knew about Beatrix Potter’s paintings, I collected botanical art – starting with Basilius Besler of Nuremberg who worked in the 17th century. And from his famous Florilegium I branched out into 18th and 19th century botanical artists. Having a background in horticulture helped draw me to Beatrix Potter even more than her Little Books and helped me to understand her life in nature. Now some of my Potter friends in the UK have introduced me to Victorian greeting cards, some produced by Hildesheimer and Faulkner who was Beatrix’s first publisher, to Frederick Weatherly’s verses which she illustrated, and to some of the female artists who were Beatrix’s contemporaries and whom she admired. So now I avidly watch for Victorian card auctions and find this a charming addition to my writing life. All the materials that I collected for the Potter biography, as well as my Victorian card collection are donated to the Linda Lear Special Collections and Archives in the Shain Library at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut where I went to undergraduate college. The Lear/Potter Collection is open to the public as well as to students for research. I am proud to be able to share my work with others for years to come; http:// LearCenter.Conncoll.edu. There is also a description on my website here and more about my life and work here.
Read my review of ‘Beatrix Potter; The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius’ here.