Friday, September 17, 2010

Miss Potter: Awesome

By Guest Blogger Susan Wittig Albert

For the past nine years, I’ve been writing mysteries featuring Beatrix Potter. You know--the Victorian lady who wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She’s the protagonist in an eight-book series called “The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter.” Book Seven in the series--The Tale of Oat Cake Crag--is out this month, and I’m working on the eighth book right now.

A few years back, a reviewer for Booklist wrote that the Cottage Tales were the ultimate cozies; “as full of country loam, leaf, and lamb as could be desired.”

And little Miss Potter herself seems like the ultimate cozy chick, at least by Victorian standards. She was a shy and lonely girl who lived an isolated life with a governess as a companion. She loved art and nature, and when she grew up she wrote and illustrated animal books for kids--a couple of dozen of them, with such perfectly charming titles as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. She suffered through one broken heart (don’t all cozy chicks have at least one?) She hung around in a dutiful Victorian way to take care of her aging parents, who seem (by modern standards) to be very nearly insufferable.

But wow. Miss Potter turns out to be one awesome Victorian lady. When the entire phalanx of London publishers rejected her first manuscript, she got extremely annoyed and self-published Peter Rabbit (1901). The book was then picked up by Frederick Warne and became an instant bestseller, to be followed by at least two bestsellers a year for the next twelve years. When her editor, Norman Warne, proposed to her (in 1905), she defied her parents and accepted his offer. When Norman died (just a month after their engagement), she didn’t mope around in proper Victorian black: this city girl used her royalties to buy Hill Top Farm in the English Lake District.

A farm? Honestly. She couldn’t live there (those parents again), but she could use it as a get-away, her own personal retreat, and she stayed there as often as she could.

But the farm needed work, and of course animals, so she wrote more books so she could buy cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep. And then more books, so she could buy another farm (1909), and more cows and sheep, especially Herdwick sheep, a now-rare breed that she dearly loved. And then she defied her parents to marry her country lawyer (1913), and stopped writing books so she could become a full-time farmer and shepherd, which is what she did for the rest of her life.

But there’s more. All that money Miss Potter earned from those phenomenally popular bunny books? And the money she inherited from her wealthy parents (whom she finally outlived)?

She used it to buy more land. And more land. Over four thousand acres of the most beautiful land in England. Not to farm it, but simply to keep it from being grabbed by greedy real-estate developers. To conserve it, as it was, for future generations. When she died (1943), she gave every acre of it to the National Trust, which is why you can visit the Lake District today and see beautiful green landscapes and open fields instead of miles of holiday cottages.

The same shy, sweet Miss Potter who wrote all those bunny books became one of England’s most important conservationists.

Book Drawing!
If you’d like to enter our drawing for a copy of The Tale of Oat Cake Crag, go here.  This drawing closes at noon on September 18.
Susan Wittig Albert writes the bestselling China Bayles mysteries, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter mysteries, and the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert. Click here to heck out her website.