Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales by Marta McDowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ahh! To live vicariously through English gardening books! I devoured this: the photos and illustrations were good enough to eat. I will plan to read this book again and again.
Part One "Beatrix Potter, Her Life as a Gardener" provides a biography and numerous photos and sketches of the gardens the author knew and loved. Amazingly, even in London, she had access to living growing things. The story of her development as an artist is inspiring. She recognized at an early age that she was not cut out to be an ornament in the London social scene, to her parents' disappointment.
She was clumsy in company, once moaning, "I feel like a cow in a drawing room." While other girls her age, including her cousins, were charming in society, Beatrix was awkward...Her health problems were capped by a serious case of rheumatic fever. Her mother was difficult, her father distracted. She was, in short, discontented. She fought back with her paintbrush and her pen. "I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result..."
The result many years later was "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," a surprise success that had Beatrix from then on publishing one or two books with Warne publishers. She developed a friendship with the youngest member of the publishing team, Norman Warne. Their relationship developed into love. Beatrix believed she had her happy ending:
Beatrix compared herself to Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's "Persuasion" when, on July 25, 1905, she received a letter from Norman asking for her hand. Her position changed from spinster daughter one day, to cherished fiancee the next. Alas, her parents objected. Norman was not in the right set. He was, after all, in the trades, and the Potters were in a generation removed from the sullying influence of cotton manufacturing. To keep the peace, Beatrix and Norman agreed to a quiet engagement.
Norman died very suddenly one month after they were engaged. In spite of, or because of her grief, Beatrix threw herself into improving her garden at Hill Top Farm and continued writing and illustrating books. At the age of 47, she married a local solicitor named William Heelis. They spent the rest of their lives together in the countryside they both loved. During this time, Beatrix was an influential advocate of the National Trust in conserving the Lake District.
This was, in a sense, landscaping on a regional scale. "I'm sure I am doing good in trying to save anything I can of our Lake country from being vulgarized," she wrote, "For, as true education advances, the beauty of unspoilt nature will be appreciated; and it would be a pity of the appreciation came too late."
Part Two "The Year in Beatrix Potter's Gardens" chronicles her gardens through the four seasons. Reading this book in late-December, this passage reassured me:
Winter wipes the gardener's slate clean. In Beatrix Potter's sometimes-messy garden everything herbaceous dies back, including the weeds. The beds that do not get dug will still be there next year."
Part Three "Visiting Beatrix Potter's Gardens" warns that "you won't come upon Beatrix Potter's gardens by accident. You will have to seek them out." It then charts a tour around England, Wales and Scotland that I hope to experience someday. Until then, I'll re-read this wonderful book and pull weeds in my oftentimes-messy garden.
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