Friday, 13 March 2009

The redoubtable Miss Potter

The Fells viewed from the M6 . . .

I feel I have been rather lax on C&C recently, whilst trying to get my Nature Notes up and running, so here at long last, is another post on Beatrix Potter, which I have been promising for a while now.

I have two excellent books on BP - one little one is just the size of her childrens' tales, but a little broader in the waist: The Tale of Mrs William Heelis by John Heelis, who is her great-nephew, and Linda Lear's "Beatrix Potter: The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius". (Both temptingly available on Amazon of course).

I have only dipped into these books when I have had time, rather than reading from cover to cover,but it soon becomes obvious how Beatrix must have suffered from being confined to the town as she was a countrywoman to the tips of her toes! Her farm at Hill Top, which she bought with some of the money from the sales of her books, was 120 acres in total. Here in Wales, 50 acres of less is considered a one-man farm - an amount of land which he could manage, especially with a son or three about the place. 120 acres was serious farming, and indeed, Beatrix Potter was serious about farming it in the proper way. During the First World War, she described it as consisting of "9 arable acres, the rest being meadow hay and hill pastures, 2 horses, 9 or 10 cows, young stock (rear many calves), 60 sheep, 47 being lambing ewes" (she bred, showed and was an authority on Herdwick sheep). She also had "poultry, orchard, flower garden, vegetables." By 1916 she was worried about keeping the farm going having got it into good working order over the previous 10 years, as skilled farm girls were being tempted away from the land by the "theatrical attraction of uniform and armlet" offered by the munitions factories, which also offered wages no farmer could ever afford. These are extracts from a letter she wrote to The Times in March 1916 on the subject of "Women on the Land".

We get a view of the real Beatrix when she is communicating with an applicant for a female farm worker: Having explained that her husband was a solicitor " . . . and as there are all sorts of people in the world I may say that he is a very quiet gentleman, and I am a total abstainer!! . . . We live very quietly in a cottage separate from the old farm house . . . It is best to speak straight out; the great difficulty with a stranger woman is the boarding. I can see Mr Heelis does not want a lady living here (Castle Cottage)". She was hopeful that the applicant would consider living in the front part of the farmhouse at Hill Top for the summer, someone who would care for the old oak furniture. She said that she didn't go out much as she was so busy and the town relished gossip, which interested her not a jot, and neither did she go to church as she liked not the parson (she claimed to be a dissenter). She admitted, "I am very downright, but I get on with everybody. I can make jam, while there is sugar, but should be glad to learn more cooking!"

A down-to-earth woman, who employed Miss Choyce, the person to whom she was corresponding in the paragraph above. She decribed Beatrix thus: "short, blue-eyed, freh-coloured face, frizzy hair brushed tightly back, dressed in a tweed skirt pinned at the back with a safety-pin . . . Mr Hellis is a quiet man, very kind. They believe together in the simple life."

The little John Heelis book offers further insights into Beatrix' character and self-deprecating humour. This from a letter t Miss Choyce (they kept up a life-long communication): "Have I-a-fool-of-myself-at-a-sale made? I do not know. I cannot tell! The advt in the Gazette anounced several cows, an aged black mare . . . a calf, hay mows etc and 'a portion of household furniture'. It was little out of the way farm near Crook, a forlorn dirty little place, everyone dead except an old man removed to the infirmary. My purpose was to buy the calf, a nice little red heifer, which we obtained for £3 and stowed into the back seat of the car.

I poked into dark little kitchen and amongst broken chairs and lumber beheld a carved and dated dark oak court cupboard. I suppose it had been to lumbersme to remove with the other 'portion of household furniture'. I had vain hopes that I was going to get a bargain - no dealers. But there is no such thing as bargains in this district; there appeared two other knowledgeable people - a second auctioneer, R D Dickinson, and an unknown lady & gentleman; between them I paid £21. 10s. . . . Unquestionably it is genuine and untouched - except by rats. It did not seem to be wormy. . . The doors fastened with little wooden buttons. The carving was rather rough . . . It had belonged to the aged wife, the neighbours said she had refused good offers in her lifetime for the 'sideboard'.

A pencilled note added once she had got it home: I think it is a very good cucpboard, horribly dirty but it will polish alright, except for some clumpy later hinges and a drop corner damaged . . . it is in good condition. I must keep away from sales for some time."

As a regular auction-goer and bargain hunter myself (along with my husband) I can sympathise with her wanting a bargain, hoping for one and yet having to pay top dollar! She knew a good piece when she saw one though, and obviously had a good eye. If I ever get to Hill Top, I shall look out for this piece . . .

I will try and add some more to her character profile over the weekend.


A Bite of Country Cupcakes said...

There really was such mystery and whimsy surrounding Beatrix potter.
I just so love all I read of her and of course what she wrote.
Still as an adult they are some of myfavs.
I never knew about her showing of sheep!

granny said...

And well worth the wait!Thankyou so very kindly for sharing.Im enjoying getting to know the more personal side of Beatrix.

Morning's Minion said...

Thank you for that--a bit of a good read at the end of a long day. My Jemima kitten is named for Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddle Duck--she had a funny little walk when I first got her and that name seemed to fit.
Beatrix would have made an interesting no-nonsense neighbor.