The secret scientific career of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter

A year ago, I submitted a satanic review of Sony Pictures’ Peter Rabbit to my editor. The takedown was titled, English Sweetness Turned Lurid CGI Fartscape. In my former employer’s defense, it’s hard to take a review aimed at a “series of puerile-creatively bankrupt gags!” seriously when its cartridge is filled with lines like: “If your kids are dumb, I’m sure they’ll eat this chum right up.” I still stand by the zeal even if I lack the sophistication to honor it. 

I wish more than anything that there was an artful way to articulate my frustration at adaptation misfires orchestrated by Mr. Bernian schlock peddlers, bumping rails off of Beatrix Potter’s coffin beside rallying board members and champagne stained box office receipts, but the failure of 2018’s Peter Rabbit, or even 2012-2014’s Hobbit Trilogy,  denotes how brazen the nostalgia totem is. 

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“I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations.” –Beatrix Potter’s Americans: selected letters”


As a young fan, my knack for self-sabotage began the day I learned that Disney (not the company, but the guy) approached Beatrix Potter in 1936 with a proposal to make an animated feature based on The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She declined-and never reneged.

Remember, Potter died after the release of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, and Pinocchio- the each of them critically adored classics; films with iconography so ubiquitous you don’t even need to see any of them to recite their plots. Honestly, knowing what we know about The Golden Age of animation, it’s really hard to imagine Disney’s Peter Rabbit not becoming one of those omnipresent forces of nature that greets you at the theme park and inspires a more deferential live-action adaption than the one we got last year. 

But perhaps quality and appeal weren’t  Potter’s sole considerations. Perhaps she understood that the three films cited were imprinted with Disney’s legacy so intricately the authors of the stories and or elements made famous by them were destined to be imprisoned in their footnotes.  Sure enough, The Brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are forever intertwined with the Mouse’s progeny; the very fate feared by the late P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins meant so much more to Travers than it could ever mean to the rest of the world (shown in the somewhat surprisingly Disney produced film Saving Mr. Banks in which her utter turmoil with the Disneyfication process was depicted.) After two decades of enjoining, the author was made a reluctant millionaire after she finally capitulated to the rodent, but she knew Poppins would never truly be hers again. 

No one’s to blame here. Walt Disney promised his children that the east wind would guide Poppins to the silver-screen someday because he saw in the character what Travers did and what we all came to.  Walt was right to trust his gut in 1961, and he was right to trust it back in 1936 too. Peter Rabbit and his friends just weren’t up for purchase.    

Wit and wee-beasties

Growing up, subjected to a wealth of governesses and a scarcity of children to play with, the young Potter had to make do with a congress of animal companions, and the disciplined hands of an illustrator, complete with a green thumb. Her teenage years and early twenties were shared harmoniously between her English Springer Spaniel, called Spot, her literary experiments, sketching the ineffable beauty of the Dalguise and all its denizens, and fostering her budding interest in fungi. All of these curiosities were expressed most readily through aquarelle paintings. She began with her pet rabbits.

Benjamin Bouncer, who she would reward with buttery toast and a little marijuana after sketch sessions, got so high on one occasion Potter couldn’t keep him still long enough to illustrate him, writing in a journal entry, “the consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable.”

Then there was Peter Piper, who would accompany Beatrix on her walks (the word’s still out regarding whether or not Peter Piper partook).  This floppy-eared tike was first adapted into Peter Rabbit in an illustrated letter to the young Noel Moore, foreshadowed above, who had fallen ill with scarlet fever.

Potter, a prismatic, quick-witted, blue-sky naturalist, already began planting seeds in the fields of literature and mycology before she entered her thirties. It’s fairly well-known that The Tale Of Pigling Bland would go on to be one of the key influences behind the creation of what is widely recognized as Orwell’s most famous work, but how many know that Potter was one of the first to germinate the fungal spores of the  lichen genus Cladonia in the United Kingdom? More often than not the author’s academic insights were asphyxiated by a Victorian cohesion to gender biases.

Even with limited access to scholastic resources, Beatrix managed to draft her very own study titled, On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricaceae, though the paper was rejected by The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Further research could not be achieved without the aid of an actual academician. Enter George Massee,  a resident mycologist, that agreed to a meeting with the amateur lichenologist in accordance with a request from Potter’s uncle.

Masse even went so far as to present Bea’s findings to the Linnean Society of London, on account of women being disallowed from motioning scientific research. Alas, Potter just as soon discovered that her work was quite beyond Masse’s own. This led to a series of ill-natured critiques penned by Potter and sent to Masse’s base of operations. 

On the amputation of Potter’s mycology career, her biographer Linda Lear writes, “In most ways Beatrix Potter’s foray into professional mycology was completely accidental … It is hard to imagine that Beatrix would have gone so far into the study of mycology without his [McIntosh’s] encouragement … Without him she would have remained simply a painter of beautiful ‘funguses’. It might well have ended there too if the experts at Kew had not been threatened by the questions of a bright amateur, and if her competitive and adversarial uncle, her other mentor, had not taken personal umbrage and thrust her into a world where no woman of her background and qualifications could possibly have been successful. Roscoe led Beatrix into the inner circles of the scientific establishment, where she acquitted herself well, but it was never a place she herself aspired to be. That she had the ‘mind of a professional scientist and biologist’, as one modern writer has claimed, may be overstating, but without question, Beatrix Potter was a brilliant amateur.”

Thankfully, despite a similar push-back from the literary community, Potter’s ingenuity pegged away. Her opus (The 23 Tales) was parented by her sophisticated eye for detail and an appetite for the fairy stories of Western Europe. Her premiere attempt at focusing her talents and love of ‘wee beasties’ into a single digestible format must have been encouraged by the success of Helen Bannerman’s The Story of The Little Black Sambo, a supposedly well-meaning crack at adventure stories engineered with infants in mind;  a succession of rewrites has not judged the work kindly in the years following its release. While I haven’t read Bannerman’s picture book, I know it well enough, thanks in a large sum to the aforementioned controversies in addition to the fact that the book has remained in print since 1899.

In any case, Beatrix Potter’s own turn initially fared less successful. Tailing determined discouragement from her family that felt  “ a respectable lady must eventually marry and certainly mustn’t work,” and the rejection of six reputable publishers, Potter printed 250 copies of her book herself before giving them away for free to any and everyone that would receive them. This strategy secured acclaim so quickly, Frederick Warne & Co, one of the six publishing houses that initially rejected Bea, offered her a contract. A year later the book was a bestseller, selling over 20,000 copies by Christmas.

A few years after the spirited launch of The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, a young fan named William Warner wrote Beatrix a letter venting his dreadful longing for new Peter content, in the hopes to be assured that more adventures were on the way. Potter expressed her appreciation with a modest throat clearing, and was even indulgent enough to attach a delicate drawing of a mouse with the following:

“Thank you for your nice little letter and your sister’s letter too. I have been trying dreadfully hard to think about another story about Peter. I thinked and thinked and thinked last year but I didn’t think enough to fill a book! So I made a story about Jemima Puddle-Duck instead and it will be in the shops very soon. I hope you will like it. I must try and do another rabbit book; all the little boys and girls like the rabbits best. I am staying at a house where there are lots of wild rabbits in the garden – there is quite a black rabbit who lives at the top of a bank opposite my bedroom window. When I am dressing in the morning, I can see him sitting on a stump washing his face with his paws. I have got a rabbit, but it is brown; I call it Joseph. It is very tame and licks my hands, but I think if it got out it would run away into the wood. It lives in a hutch and has a nice little yard where it can run about and eat grass. I have got a little brown mouse called Dusty. It is running about the table while I write, it has been sniffing at this letter. I am sure it wants to send its love to you!”

Here Potter’s menagerie of beasts is attended by the same muse that fostered Peter’s underlying voyage: Simplicity and the desire to engage the imagination of children. The proceeds from her 23 tales allowed her to purchase Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a village in the Lake District, where she would live out the remainder of her days.

The alternative universe wherein Potter accepted Walt Disney’s deal and cowed to the judgments of bigots, is deprived of a paragon of artistic integrity. Peter Rabbit and his friends have been preserved by a determined lack of exposure. One clumsily conceived “CGI Hellscape” can never dispel the image of an over-eager Peter, double fisting two radishes while Mr. Gregor looks on with “I’m gonna put you in a pie“ eyes, adorned on the paperback edition lying around somewhere in my apartment. Just like no intellectual excommunication can ever deprive the importance of a woman born before they were allowed to vote, practice law or attend University without controversy, sending a letter to a well regarded botanical research firm to alert them to the thickness of one of their decorated employees. 

A keen obsession with nature sprouted an indelible work of fiction. Tolkien was heartened by history, Rossetti was animated by apologues, and Potter was inspirited by the living elements in between. 

“Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something.”- Beatrix Potter