Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beatrix and Benjamin

Beatrix Potter - author and illustrator of the much-loved Peter Rabbit books - died 70 years ago today. As a teenager and young woman, Potter kept a secret diary written in code. This was not deciphered and published until more than 20 years after her death, but shows how (long before publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit) she was already writing to herself about her rabbit, Mr Benjamin Bunny - very much the star of her diary - in a style similar to that of the books she would publish later on.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, the only daughter in a cultured family with inherited wealth. She was educated at home, and spent much time painting, using specimens from the nearby Natural History Museum. The family regularly spent summer and early autumn in rented houses in the Lake District and Scotland. She kept rabbits and other animals as pets. Her parents entertained many guests, including Hardwicke Rawnsley who was to become one of the founders of the National Trust. He, in particular, encouraged her drawing.

Another friend, Frederick Warne, published, in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, a book which came about because of the illustrated letters Potter had been sending to a sick child. Other books - now famous around the world - followed, as did her engagement to Warne’s son Norman. However, Norman died tragically in 1905. That same year, Potter bought Hill Top Farm near Sawrey in the English Lake District, though she continued to be based in London. And then, in 1909, she bought Castle Farm over the road from Hill Top Farm (now a Potter museum).

Potter remained single until 1913, when she married William Heelis, a solicitor in Hawkshead. They moved to live at Castle Cottage, the renovated house at Castle Farm, and together, ran the farm; later they enlarged it with the help of an inheritance from Beatrix’s father (see Lancashire Life for more on Castle Cottage). Though all of the Peter Rabbit books had been published by this time, she continued to produce occasional books, some of them Peter Rabbit related, for her publishers, Frederick Warne.

In 1930, Potter purchased half of Monk Coniston, a romantic Gothic-style house, with the National Trust agreeing to purchase the other half. Potter, however, managed the whole estate and its many farms - with an increasing interest in conservation - for seven years, until the Trust was able to buy most of it back. Today, Monk Coniston is leased from the Trust for use as a hotel. When Potter died - on 22 December 1943 - she left several other farms and much land to the National Trust, together with some celebrated flocks of Herdwick sheep.

Further biographical information is readily available online at Wikipedia, the Beatrix Potter Society, Frederick Warne & Co’s Peter Rabbit website, the Visit Cumbria website, or the V&A which holds the extensive Linder (see below) archive of Potter work.

From the age of fifteen until her early 30s, Potter kept a detailed diary of her life written in a secret code. This code remained un-deciphered until the late 1950s, when Leslie Linder, an engineer and collector of Potter drawings, found the key and then worked painstakingly to decipher and transcribe the diaries. The Journal of Beatrix Potter - 1881 to 1897 was finally published by Frederick Warne in 1966.

A chapter towards the front of the book, written by Linder, describes the code in some detail, and how he cracked it. The chapter starts: ‘From about the age of fourteen until she was thirty, Beatrix Potter kept a Journal in her own privately-invented code-writing. It appears that even her closest friends knew nothing of this code-writing. She never spoke of it, and only one instance has come to light where it was mentioned. This was in a letter to her much-loved cousin [. . .] written five weeks before Beatrix Potter died, in which she described it as ‘apparently inspired by a united admiration for Boswell and Pepys’, continuing, ‘when I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about (the modern young author is not damped by such considerations). I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand which I am now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.’ ’

From January 1987, Linder explains, Potter put her journal aside, and he concludes the chapter as follows: ‘From now onwards the keeping of a Journal appears to have been put aside as Beatrix Potter became more and more absorbed in the planning of her books. It is of interest to note, however, that in later years she sometimes wrote odd notes and even fragments of stories in code-writing, but it was never used again for the purpose of a Journal.’ Much of The Journal of Beatrix Potter can be read online freely at Googlebooks.

From July to October 1892, Potter stayed at Heath Park, Birnam, Perthshire
20 August 1892
‘Still somewhat disposed. After breakfast taking Mr. Benjamin Bunny to pasture at the edge of the cabbage bed with his leather dog-lead, I heard a rustling, and came a little wild rabbit to talk to him, it crept half across the cabbage bed and then sat up on its hind legs, apparently grunting. I replied, but the stupid Benjamin did nothing but stuff cabbage. The little animal evidently a female, and of a shabby appearance, nibbling, advanced to about three strap lengths on the other side of my rabbit, its face twitching with excitement and admiration for the beautiful Benjamin, who at length caught sight of it round a cabbage, and immediately bolted. He probably took it for Miss Hutton’s cat.’

21 August 1892
‘Went into the garden immediately after breakfast, but saw nothing of the wild rabbit except its tracks. Benjamin’s mind has at last comprehended gooseberries, he stands up and picks them off the bush, but has such a comical little mouth, it is a sort of bob cherry business.’

22 August 1892
‘Very hot. Went to Mrs. McIntosh’s to try and photograph Charlie Lumm’s fox at Calley, but with very little advantage except that I was touched with the kindness of Mrs. McIntosh. She let the pony stand in their stall, gave me a glass of milk, and tramped up the wood with me to the Under-keeper’s cottage.

The wood is very beautiful at the bottom of Craigie-barns, such tall Scotch firs, and the Game keeper’s cottage with its bright old-fashioned flowers and a row of bee hives. The fox proved a tyke, tearing round and round the tree, in the absence of Charlie Lumm, but as things turned out, it did not signify.

Coming down we passed Eel Stew, with high post railings where her Grace’s supply of eels are preserved, having been trapped in the Lochs. Her Grace will have two or three cooked for supper every evening almost, when she is at home, at which information I was much amazed.’

30 October 1892
‘When I was walking out Benjamin I saw Miss Hutton’s black cat jumping on something up the wood. I thought it was too far off to interfere, but as it seemed leisurely I went up in time to rescue a poor little rabbit, fast in a snare. The cat did not hurt it, but I had great difficulty in slackening the noose round its neck. I warmed it at the fire, relieved it from a number of fleas, and it came round. It was such a little poor creature compared to mine. They are regular vermin, but one cannot stand by to see a thing mauled about from one’s friendship for the race. Papa in his indignation pulled up the snare. I fancy our actions were much more illegal than Miss Hutton’s.

After dinner I was half amused, half shocked, to see her little niece Maggie hunting everywhere for the wire. I just had enough sense not to show the stranger to Benjamin Bounce, but the smell of its fur on my dress was quite enough to upset the ill-regulated passions of that excitable buck rabbit. Whether he thought I had a rival in my pocket, or like a Princess in a Fairy Tale was myself metamorphosed into a white rabbit I cannot say, but I had to lock him up.

Rabbits are creatures of warm volatile temperament but shallow and absurdly transparent. It is this naturalness, one touch of nature, that I find so delightful in Mr. Benjamin Bunny, though I frankly admit his vulgarity. At one moment amiably sentimental to the verge of silliness, at the next, the upsetting of a jug or tea-cup which he immediately takes upon himself, will convert him into a demon, throwing himself on his back, scratching and spluttering. If I can lay hold of him without being bitten, within half a minute he is licking my hands as though nothing has happened.

He is an abject coward, but believes in bluster, could stare our old dog out of countenance, chase a cat that has turned tail. Benjamin once fell into an Aquarium head first, and sat in the water which he could not get out of, pretending to eat a piece of string. Nothing like putting a face upon circumstances.’

The Diary Junction


2 comments:

Jenny Bhatt said...

Paul - this is just how I imagined Beatrix Potter's diary entries might sound, having grown up reading many of her stories. You can see how her attention to details, children and animals gave her rich material for the books. Lovely.

Paul K Lyons said...

Thanks, Jenny - and merry xmas!