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Miss Potter fact and fiction

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Miss Potter and you do not know
the full story of Beatrix and Norman, stop after number 7.)

1. In the film, we see a ten-year-old Beatrix telling her brother the story of Hunca Munca (The Tale of Two Bad Mice) and we see a drawing of Jemima Puddle-Duck apparently done about the same time. As far as we know, Beatrix did not make up any of her stories until she was an adult. Many of her books were adapted from illustrated letters she wrote to the children of her last governess, Annie Moore. Other stories were written as presents for Norman’s nieces.

2. Beatrix and her brother did keep a variety of animals, some as pets and some as curiosities to study and draw. Both children were avid naturalists and artists, so they were especially interested in animal anatomy. On occasion, when one of their animals died, they boiled the carcass in order to extract and rearticulate the bones for further study.

3. Beatrix did not meet William Heelis until after she bought Hill Top Farm. In the film he seems to be about five years older than Beatrix, but in fact Beatrix was nearly five years older than William.

4. In Miss Potter, Beatrix refers to her paintings and her characters as her friends, talking to them as she works. In turn, the paintings in the film are sometimes animated and react to Beatrix and others in the room. There is no evidence that she talked to her drawings, nor did she refer to her characters as her friends. While she surely had a lonely childhood, she did have a few good (human) friends. Some of her animals were very dear to her and do seem to have been surrogate friends (as pets generally are), especially Benjamin, Peter, Hunca Munca, and Mrs. Tiggy.

5. Norman was the youngest of three brothers in the publishing firm, but he was not inexperienced in the business when he began working with Beatrix.

6. Millie Warne’s character in the film seems to be a composite of several of Beatrix’s friends, particularly her cousin Caroline Hutton. Caroline was something of a radical and a feminist while Beatrix was decidedly not. On the subject of marriage, in 1894 (aged 27) Beatrix wrote in her journal, “Latter day fate ordains that many women shall be unmarried and self-contained, nor should I personally dream to complain, but I hold an old-fashioned notion that a happy marriage is the crown of a woman’s life.”

7. The pivotal scene in the film takes place during the Potters’ Christmas party. In fact, the Potters were dissenters and did not celebrate Christmas. According to Linda Lear, the holiday was “acknowledged rather than celebrated.” However, Beatrix loved Christmas and enjoyed giving and receiving Christmas presents and painting Christmas cards. She did paint six paintings around 1892 sometimes known as “The Rabbits’ Christmas Party.” She gave four of them to an aunt and the other two to an American visitor in the 1920s. The painting shown in the film is the fifth in the series, but the original is about half the size of the one shown.

8. Regarding the film’s scenes showing Norman proposing to Beatrix and later seeing her off at the train station, the sad fact is that Beatrix and Norman probably never kissed. Norman most likely proposed to Beatrix by mail on July 25, 1905, while she was on holiday with her family in Wales, but the exact details of his proposal and her whereabouts at the time are unclear. She accepted him and they exchanged rings (Beatrix’s was a simple gold band) probably by mail. While in Wales, Beatrix received a cable saying that Norman was dying. She took the train to London and arrived after he died (of luekemia), but before the funeral. The entire Warne family was aware of the engagement but were under orders not to mention it outside the family. After her marriage to William Heelis in 1913, Beatrix continued to wear Norman’s ring — on her right hand.

9. While Beatrix did not give Norman a painting as a Christmas gift, she did send him a painting a few days after he proposed. It is one of several black-and-white washes from around 1891 showing Cinderella’s carriage going to fetch her from the ball. The carriage is being pulled by rabbits and she inscribed the drawing, “For Mr. Warne with kind regards. July 28 05.”

10. After Norman’s death in 1905, Beatrix continued to write and illustrate at the rate of two books a year until 1910 when she began to find her farming duties more absorbing than her books. Between 1910 and 1913 when she married William Heelis, she produced only one book a year. Perhaps she also felt conflicted about maintaining a relationship with the Warne family once her friendship with William Heelis took a romantic turn. After her marriage in 1913, she intended to stop creating books. However, in 1917 Harold Warne was sent to prison for forgery and to save the company from ruin (and protect her own income) Beatrix pulled together Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, a compilation of traditional and original verses illustrated mainly with paintings from her old portfolios. She produced a few more books over the next fifteen years, but her best work was behind her.


More about Beatrix Potter

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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