Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children: The Path to Her Books

Beatrix Potter young

Twenty-something Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943) was conflicted. She had two consuming interests at the time: art and the study of fungi. With the exception of letter writing and a journal which she started in 1881—in elaborate code, by the way—becoming a woman of letters was nowhere in sight. What happened to set and redirect the course of her life’s work?

Helen Beatrix Potter was born to wealth, so she didn’t need to earn a living. Her ambitions were more personal, bubbling up from some inner pool. 


Born in London to a posh South Kensington address, she and her younger brother, Bertram, were raised in the usual way for children of that social class—by a series of minders starting with nurses, then nannies, and finally governesses.

Her parents, Rupert and Helen Leech Potter, both hailed from families whose riches were manufactured, if you will, in Manchester’s booming cotton industry.

 

An avid interest in the natural world

Lessons were held in the upstairs nursery. The nursery was also home to an elaborate parade of pets. At various times, the two children had dogs, birds, lizards, mice, squirrels, a bat, and, of course, rabbits. Beatrix and the six-years-younger Bertram showed early interest in natural history and early aptitude in art. They traveled with their parents (and staff) on long holidays.

Each summer, Rupert Potter would take a lease on a country house in Scotland or, starting in 1882, the Lake District. The children sketched and collected wildflowers, insects, fossils, and mushrooms. While the adolescent Bertram was sent off to a traditional English public school and later to Oxford, Beatrix stayed at home.

“I’m glad I did not go to school,” she later wrote, “it would have rubbed off some of the originality (if I had not died of shyness or been killed with over pressure).” She had private art lessons and completed a course of study at a South Kensington art school.

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Young Beatrix Potter and dog

Learn more about Beatrix Potter

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Delicate health, solitary interests

The young Beatrix was often in ill health, capped by a serious case of rheumatic fever in 1887. She considered herself plain and was painfully shy. At age seventeen, she wrote in her journal, “I feel like a cow in a drawing room.” So it is hardly surprising that her interests tended to the solitary.

She had a passion for drawing and a rich imagination. There were consolations— her beloved pets and the world outdoors. She once recalled, “I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside.” Reading was a joy and a solace.

 

Her favorite books and authors

A list of her childhood books—sent in response to a query from the Denver Public Library in the 1920s—included Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, Uncle Remus, and Little Women (You can find a link to Potter’s list here). She remembered her Nurse Mackenzie reading aloud from Aesop’s Fables, Hans Christian Anderson, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

She also credited this Highland nurse for her lasting belief in fairies. Potter claimed to have learned to read with the weighty tomes of Sir Walter Scott. In her later years she particularly mentioned enjoying the novels of Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather.

. . . . . . . . . Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life

You might also enjoy:
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell

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Her last governess and companion, Annie Carter, was only three years her senior. Carter stayed on until Beatrix was eighteen years old. They remained friends. Carter left the Potters’ employ to marry Edwin Moore. The couple settled in Wandsworth, a London borough on the other side of the Thames.

Beatrix would often visit, driven there in the family carriage or pony cart. As the Moore family grew—Annie and Edwin eventually had eight children—Beatrix remained close. The Moores’ firstborn was a boy, born on Christmas Eve, 1887. They named him Noel.

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Beatrix and her mother with relations and friends

Beatrix Potter around the age of 20, at right
Photo courtesy of The Beatrix Potter Society

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In 1892 while on a trip to Cornwall with her family, Beatrix Potter sent an unusual letter to Noel Moore. She was twenty-five, he was four. Potter wrote, “I have come a very long way in a puff-puff to a place in Cornwall, where it is very hot, and there are palm trees in the gardens.”

The letter continues, 260 words total, in simple language that would have appealed to Noel and his younger brother, Eric, and amused their mother.

Potter described the sights of Falmouth and its working harbor. But in addition to putting her observations into words, she added sketches, vignettes of the train, the Potter family in front of the public gardens, a steamboat on the harbor, tall ships, chickens, dogs, and cats in the neighborhood, and, my personal favorite, a fishing boat at work, with men in the boat above the waves and fish and crabs below. It is the first known picture letter that Beatrix Potter wrote, but it was far from her last.

The next that survives, also written to Noel, came the next year in September 1893. It is arguably one of the most famous letters in the English language, certainly in the history of children’s literature. It opens, “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”

Over eight pages, the letter lays out the entire tale with sixteen illustrations in ink. While Beatrix did own a rabbit named Peter Piper, unlike the letter from Cornwall, this was brand new fiction, custom-made for a real child.

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Beatrix Potter Letter to Noel Moore

Letter from Beatrix Potter to Noel Moore, 1893

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Letters grow into books

She wrote many picture letters to the Moore children over the years and it was their mother — her friend and former governess — who first suggested that Beatrix make them into books. She borrowed the letters back in 1895, copied and amended the stories, and the rest is publication history. More about that here.

About The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she wrote, “I have never quite understood the secret of Peter’s perennial charm. Perhaps it is because he and his friends keep on their way, busily absorbed with their own doings. They were always independent. Like Topsy—they just “grow’d.”

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Beatrix Potter - The Complete Tales

Beatrix Potter page on Amazon

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The secret to her success?

Perhaps the secret to Potter’s success was that she also just “grow’d.” Sometimes hurdles were put in her way, other times gates were opened to her. She never seemed to avoid trying out a new path. Potter married William Heelis, a country solicitor, when she was forty-seven. They lived in a small village in the Lake District where she had acquired several farms.

Her interests included antique oak furniture, preservation of the countryside, and raising Herdwick sheep. While Beatrix and William Heelis never had children of their own, she continued to write, to draw, and to send picture letters to children of her friends. The latest that survives is dated less than a year before her death.

For the writers among you, let me close with Beatrix Potter’s description of her writing methods:

“I think I write carefully because I enjoy my writing, and enjoy taking pains over it. I have always disliked writing to order; I write to please myself … My usual way of writing is to scribble, and cut out, and write it again and again. The shorter and plainer the better.”

Well said, Miss Potter.

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For more about Beatrix Potter’s interests in fungi, there is a good summary on Brain Pickings.

In addition to the books already listed on Beatrix Potter’s biography page here on Literary Ladies, for this article I also consulted:

  • Beatrix Potter’s Americans: Selected Letters edited by Jane Crowell Morse
  • Beatrix Potter’s Letters edited by Judy Taylor
  • Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter edited by Judy Taylor
  • The Journal of Beatrix Potter: 1881 to 1897 edited by Leslie Linder

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Marta McDowell teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and consults for private clients and public gardens.  

Timber Press has published her recent books includingThe World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books in September 2017. All the Presidents’ Gardens made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015 and won an American Horticultural Society book award.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life won a 2014 Gold Award from the Garden Writers Association and is in its sixth printing.  Marta is working on a revision of her first book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, due out in a full color edition by Timber Press in 2019.

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*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

One Response to “Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children: The Path to Her Books”

  1. Hi Marta,

    Beatrix is indeed absolutely inspirational: not just for her timeless and wondrous books, but also for being a “trend setter” in the conservation movement. If it wasn’t for her books, making her a modest income, and Beatrix donating her Lake District farm lands in her Will to the National Trust for the protection of the Lake District Herdwicks… there probably wouldn’t BE any Herdwicks today, and certainly no Herdy Company.

    Excellent write up, Marta. Speak to you soon.

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