Beatrix Potter’s resistance to critics and fans writing about her books is well documented. In 1939 Margaret Lane, who would later become Potter’s first biographer, received a classic brush-off:
So I wrote to Beatrix Potter, as politely and respectfully as I knew how, telling her of my lifelong pleasure in her work, and my admiration, and asking if I might one day call on her and submit for her approval the essay on her work which I was preparing.
Back came, in a few days, the rudest note I have ever received in my life. No, she said, she certainly would not see me. “My books have always sold without advertisement, and I do not propose to go in for that sort of thing now.”
And poor Janet Adam Smith wrote a fine appreciative article for The Listener in January 1943, sending a copy to Potter. The response was not what she had hoped for. Potter told her she read the piece “with mingled gratitude and stupefaction — the writer seems to know a deal more about the inception of the Peter Rabbit books than I do!” When Smith wrote back trying to sort out the misunderstandings, she only made it worse. Potter’s second letter ends, “And for goodness sake don’t write any more rubbish about me.”
At Beatrix Potter Society gatherings, at which her life and work are analyzed (and Potter-themed food is served), one regularly hears someone ask, “What would Beatrix think of all this?” My mind immediately pictures an irate Potter up in heaven with a huge shepherd’s crook, itching to swoop it down and yank all of us off the stage. And what about this December, when Renée Zellweger stars in the film biography Miss Potter? Better watch out!
But Potter, it seems, could be gotten ’round. And it was Bertha Mahony Miller, founding editor of The Horn Book Magazine, who did it, convincing Potter to accept the idea of critical writing about her books, and even to write about her own life as it related to those books. How did Bertha persuade Beatrix that she could and should write about her books and herself? Beatrix and Bertha never met, so Bertha’s only means of persuasion was her letters. What powers of personality allowed her to break through Potter’s barriers, to dislodge the chip on her shoulder?
On the surface, Beatrix Potter and Bertha Mahony could not have been more different. Beatrix was a shy child, born in London to wealthy parents who were fashionably distant toward their two children. As an adult, she struggled to break free from her seemingly predestined fate as spinster caretaker of her aging parents. At forty-seven, she married William Heelis, a solicitor in the northern Lake District where she had bought a farm with money from her books and a small inheritance. Although she was one of the wealthiest people in the district, she preferred to live and dress as simply as she could, wearing clogs and homespun woolens as she slogged through the muddy countryside. Bertha, on the other hand, was an outgoing child born to a humble household in Rockport, Massachusetts. Her parents were warm and attentive, but life was a struggle, especially after her mother’s death when Bertha was just eleven. Never one to be kept down for long, she dreamed up grand schemes both as a child and as a young woman living in Boston, eager to take advantage of its various opportunities. The Bookshop for Boys and Girls was a scheme that paid off in 1916, as was The Horn Book in 1924. When Bertha married at the age of fifty, she kept working at both the bookshop and the magazine, commuting to Boston by train in her stylish hat and heels.
In 1925, when Bertha first wrote to Beatrix, Bertha was passionate about children’s books, but Beatrix was just as passionate about putting Peter Rabbit and her “little picture books” behind her. Life as a farmer agreed with Beatrix, and she seems to have resented everything that came before it, as if the books were the cause of her earlier unhappiness rather than the means of escaping it. Sick of fans and fame, she told her publisher never to divulge her whereabouts, though she made an exception in 1921 when she allowed Anne Carroll Moore, legendary New York City children’s services librarian, to visit. The success of this meeting opened the door to visits and letters from many admiring Americans, though Beatrix made it clear that they were visiting Mrs. Heelis, not Beatrix Potter.
But Beatrix and Bertha had some qualities in common as well. Both women loved the outdoors, and both were attuned to children — not Childhood as a sentimental idea but the true experience of being a child, with all of its peaks and valleys. Beatrix could not have known all this about Bertha at the beginning, but something of her personality and strength must have come through in the early correspondence (and perhaps in Bertha’s Horn Book editorials).
At that time, Bertha was exceptionally busy juggling the bookshop, the magazine, and a large book project that would become Realms of Gold in Children’s Books, written with Elinor Whitney, her friend and Horn Book co-founder. Far from buckling under the pressure, she was thriving. Frances Darling recalled working at the Bookshop for Bertha during this period:
She always bubbled over with ideas — often to her staff’s despair; for a job at the Bookshop, though always exhilarating, was very often maddening. Bertha put her ideas ahead of everything. The words “a fresh look at the situation” would make us groan inwardly. But she worked longer and harder and more steadfastly than any of us, and she was never too busy to talk with us — or visitors — about books and the joy they should bring. Her standards were high; her aims were selfless; and whether it realizes it or not, the present world of books might have been quite different had it not been for Bertha Mahony Miller.
Beatrix was only one of countless people Bertha corresponded with, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some were well-known figures in the children’s book world, but many were young writers and illustrators whose first book seemed to show promise. If she wanted someone to write for the Horn Book, she knew how to approach each person with the perfect combination of insistence, insight, and flattery.
And what about Beatrix’s difficult personality? Bertha was unafraid of conflict and chose some of the prickliest and most opinionated people in her field as advisors. In a Horn Book editorial Bertha once referred to the usefulness of criticism for book creators: “. . . the artist wants and needs the resistance of the intelligent, appreciative, but honest and salty judge of his work. Commendation without this resistance of critical judgment pats an author’s work softly and puts it to sleep.” Bertha needed the salt and vinegar of Anne Carroll Moore and others to keep her fresh and to prevent the perils of complacency.
Back in the summer of 1924, Bertha Mahony and Elinor Whitney had traveled to England to gain some perspective before launching their new magazine. Here, Bertha made her first attempt to contact Beatrix Potter:
In London we had visited Beatrix Potter’s publishers in the hope of calling upon her in the Lake Country, but we learned that Mrs. Heelis hated publicity and did not like visits from Americans. So we went sadly to stay at a small inn at Rosthwaite near Derwentwater, walked about the Lake and up into the hills and coached through the region but did not see Beatrix Potter.
In 1925, as Elinor and Bertha were hard at work on Realms of Gold — a project that began as a new edition of the bookstore’s “Suggestive [sic] Purchase List” and grew into an eight-hundred-page tome covering five hundred years of children’s books — they decided to include biographical information about their favorite contemporary book creators as well. So Bertha sent a letter to Beatrix Potter. (This letter, like all Bertha’s letters to Beatrix, has been lost — hence the mystery.) At first Beatrix ignored the request for information, but when a second letter arrived, she consulted her friend Anne Carroll Moore:
There have been two letters recently from Miss Bertha Mahony of the Boston Bookshop, forwarded through Messrs Warne; and also copies of The Horn Book. The letters which ask for particulars about “Beatrix Potter” are very perplexing. I have a most intense dislike to advertisement. (And I have got on quite well without it.) On the other hand, a mystery is silly, and it invites curiosity. . . . I thought it would be best to write this for Mr. Warne, to forward through the New York branch of F.W. Co. to whom Miss Mahony had applied: —
“Beatrix Potter is Mrs. William Heelis. She lives in the north of England, her home is amongst the mountains and lakes that she has drawn in her picture books. Her husband is a lawyer. They have no family. Mrs. Heelis is in her 60th year. She leads a very busy contented life, living always in the country and managing a large sheep farm on her own land.”
I don’t think anybody requires to know more about me. In the second letter Miss Mahony asks how I came to write the books. . . .
The Horn Book is pleasantly written, I wish all such books of gossip British as well as American, — were in equally good taste. But I don’t want to be exploited!
Then, for some reason, Potter relented. She sent Bertha a long essay about her roots that remains one of the most frequently quoted passages of Potter’s writing. She begins by talking about her ancestors and their impact on her character (“obstinate, hard headed, matter of fact folk”). She describes her childhood experiences as they relate to her books, and her earliest memories (“I can remember quite plainly from one and two years old; not only facts, like learning to walk, but places and sentiments”). She tells about her toys, her grandmother, and her earliest attempts to write. Then, most gratifyingly, she turns to the books we all know, telling how Peter Rabbit was written as a letter for a child, how several years later when she made it into a book she could not find a publisher and used her savings to print it herself. She mentions specific characters and places in her books, explaining their genesis. She tells about her influences and her methods of writing. Near the end of the essay she says:
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. I made enough by books and a small legacy from an aunt to buy a home at the Lakes which has gradually grown into a very large sheep farm; and I married very happily at forty-seven. What are the words in the “Tempest”? “Spring came to you at the farthest, in the latter end of harvest.” I have always found my own pleasure in nature and books.
At last, the gates were opened. Bertha published the piece in the Horn Book (but had to wait about three years because it was originally intended for Realms of Gold). In late spring of 1927, Beatrix had sent the Bookshop a packet of fifty signed watercolors to be sold for five dollars each to raise money to buy a piece of land that was in danger of being developed. This letter was the first item by Beatrix Potter to appear in the Horn Book, and it was given star treatment: a facsimile of the actual letter and a full-color reproduction of one of the fifty drawings.
Over the next sixteen years, Beatrix’s letters to Bertha contained less and less about books and more about daily life, politics, furniture, and farming. Beatrix often asked her American visitors about Bertha and wished they might meet someday. During Beatrix’s lifetime, four pieces in the magazine carried her byline, and after her death in 1943 there were three more, including two stories, “Wag-by-Wall” and “The Faithful Dove.” What may be even more remarkable is that during her life the Horn Book published several pieces about Potter and her books — pieces that she read in the magazines Bertha continued to send her. She raised no objections to these and even wrote to one of the authors (thirteen-year-old Henry P. Coolidge) to congratulate him on his piece about a visit to her house: “I was very much pleased with the way you wrote about your visit here; it was well done in every way, no word too much nor anything one could dislike; and it made me understand so well the sort of interest that the readers of the books feel when they see the real place.”
When Bertha Mahony Miller died in 1969, a number of her colleagues wrote about her. They commented on her energy, her ability to inspire, and her sense of humor. Those who had known her as a giant in the field of children’s books and then had met her in person were momentarily surprised to find that she was very short and spoke in a high, quavery voice. But clearly there was nothing wispy or delicate about her. Bertha learned to drive at the age of fifty. Her husband preferred large sedans, so she needed a wicker contraption on the seat of the car to allow her to reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel (or perhaps through the wheel). She loved to go fast, apparently comfortable at speeds of 70 m.p.h. on winding country roads. Her friends loved to tell stories about the many times she was stopped for speeding only to charm the policeman with her disarming honesty and a promise never to speed again. Her granddaughter tells about the time a policeman flagged her down and said, “Ma’am, weren’t you going a little fast?” to which Bertha replied, “I’m terribly sorry, officer, but you see I didn’t know you’d be there!” Others commented that Bertha’s driving was an extension of her entire approach to life. Once she had an idea, she made it happen as quickly as she could. She kept her eye on the future — on her destination — with only an occasional glance in the rearview mirror. For Bertha, looking back on one’s own childhood had some nostalgic interest, but it was much more important to talk to real, contemporary children to find out what was important to them. In the Bookshop for Boys and Girls, she had spoken to each child as an individual, listened, made gentle suggestions, and then gave them the freedom to make their own decisions.
So what about Beatrix Potter and her unusually receptive response to Bertha’s overtures? While working on this question, I visited Lee Kingman Natti in Gloucester, Massachusetts, very near where Bertha was born and raised. Lee had been a young customer of the bookshop and later knew Bertha as an editor, author, and Horn Book colleague. She had three distinct recollections. First, that Bertha never seemed to age, remaining energetic and enthusiastic into her eighties. Second, that she was very good at working with difficult people. And third, that she was nearly always able to persuade those people to do what she asked them to. All her life, Beatrix Potter hated it when people used her books to make assumptions about her childhood; it seems clear that Bertha Mahony would not have done this. She would have asked Potter to tell her own story not for nostalgic reasons but for all the children in the future who would read her books and want to know more.
This article is adapted from a talk given November 5, 2005, during the Beatrix Potter Society Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts and will be published in Beatrix Potter in America: Beatrtix Potter US Studies I, available from www.beatrixpottersociety.org.uk.
From the July/August 2006 Horn Book Magazine