Beatrix Potter was a fancy lady with simple aspirations.
“Here is this person who had grown up, it wasn’t ‘Downton Abbey,’ but she is what we’d called upper class — a very privileged upbringing,” said Marta McDowell, author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life. “She could have lived a much higher lifestyle, and she chose the farm life and really loved it.”
McDowell will deliver a Brown Bag lecture on the English writer, painter and gardener at 12:15 p.m. August 23 in Smith Wilkes Hall.
Potter is best known for her illustrated children’s books centered around nature and gardening. Through her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit, Potter told engaging stories, unafraid to stray from the usual milquetoast children’s tales.
“[Peter Rabbit’s] mother tells him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden because his father was put into a pie by the farmer’s wife,” McDowell said. “I read something that said, ‘Peter Rabbit is actually the first story of a latchkey kid because the father is dead and the mother goes to market and leaves the kids on their own.’ ”
That storyline from Potter’s first work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, spawned the long-running franchise that continues today. New stories and editions continue to be released, and Peter Rabbit even has a hashtag to engage with fans.
Still, McDowell said, Potter’s legacy extends far beyond her books. Potter was foremost a painter, she said, who began drawing at a young age and painted until the end of her life when she was part of a collective of watercolor artists.
Along with her husband, Potter amassed almost 4,000 acres of protected farmland in the English Lake District that she left to conservationists upon her death. It was there she explored a nascent interest in gardening and nature, with a particular interest in fungi.
McDowell said Potter painted hundreds of fungi and even attempted to cultivate certain spores. Those efforts never got far, but McDowell said they provide an example of how Potter’s interests mingled and fed each other.
McDowell said her own life shares certain parallels with Potter’s, mixing a love for gardening and writing, and said studying Potter’s words has allowed certain plants into her own garden.
“There’s a very funny quote in a letter of hers that’s about ‘stealing honesty,’ which is a great line,” McDowell said. “But honesty is another word for money plant or lunaria. I had to grow honesty for Beatrix Potter, and now I understand how it was easy to steal because it just spreads everywhere.”
That’s fine, though. McDowell said her own garden has taken on a more natural look while she explores a different side of her interest.
“I spend a lot of my time now gardening at the keyboard because I write so much,” she said.