In general I don’t read biographies. However I recently saw, for the second time, the delightful movie based on the life of children’s author Beatrix Potter. Miss Potter (2006). Stars include the brilliant Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson.
Last week when I was visiting my local library my eye caught a biography about her (Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature by Linda Lear). I borrowed the book more out of curiosity than real interest in reading a biography.
What struck me was how Miss Potter who lived 1866 – 1943 in a very socially conservative England – managed to nurture her immense creative abilities both as a writer of children’s stories and even more remarkably as a very gifted illustrator. She illustrated all of her own books. And even when the stories were a little “thin” – the brilliance of her illustrations more than compensated for any deficiencies in the story line.
Biographer Linda Lear lays out an extremely detailed and chronological account of Beatrix Potter’s life. In it are many clues to Miss Potter’s success that apply to all authors or artists in any field.
Miss Potter had natural talent and a vivid imagination which she developed easily because of her various passions. For example, she had a passion for observing animals in their natural state and ordinary people in ordinary settings. She loved telling stories to young children. She loved to draw and to paint in water colors. She had an immense appetite for studying many different subjects ranging from animals (rabbits, mice, hedge-hogs, frogs, insects), natural history, gardens and scientific subjects.
From an early age, she understood that she was a unique creative being and she resisted attempts by various adults to shape her personality, her writing style and her illustrating style. She followed her own instincts and ignored, in the main, negative commentary from others.
However, it is the following excerpt from the book that particularly struck a chord for me and was the secret to Potter’s success (in my view).
‘At one time Beatrix credited Peter Rabbit’s success to the fact that it was a story initially written for a real little boy. But she was also quick to acknowledge that she wrote chiefly to please herself. “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.”
Beatrix Potter had in fact created a new form of animal fable: one in which anthropomorphized animals behave always as real animals with true animal instincts and are accurately drawn by a scientific illustrator. The gap between animals and humans in Potter’s work is so narrow that we scarcely notice the transition between the two.’ (Beatrix Potter, Penguin Books, 2007:153)
Beatrix Potter wrote to please herself. She loved what she did. She expressed her natural creativity by developing a new form of children’s books. It was not her intention to do the latter – rather it came as a result of her following her own creative interests and instincts.
Every writer that achieves success does the same. Ultimately they are expressing their unique perspective in some way.
I reached page 175 of the biography (446 pages) – and that will be “enough” for me. I now understand why she was such a success in her day. Most interesting.