Nature’s Delights: The Life of Beatrix Potter
by Mark W. Harris
A Dramatic Dialogue for Worship - UU History Convocation – October 2010
First presented at the First Parish of Watertown - October 21, 2007
Call to Worship - from Beatrix Potter
In our Unitarian Universalist faith we have a strong tradition which encourages each person to pursue a
free search for truth. Our way of life is more important than any creedal statements. Beatrix Potter, a
British Unitarian, reflected this approach when she said: “All outward forms of religion . . . are the
cause of endless strife. What do creeds matter, what possible difference does it make to anyone today
whether the doctrine of the resurrection is correct or incorrect, or the miracles, they don’t happen
nowadays, but very queer things do that concern us much more. Believe there is a great power silently
working all things for good, behave yourself, and never mind the rest.”
When we say the name Potter to children today, they are most likely to picture a young man flying
around on a broom at a Quidditch match or wielding a very powerful wand to fend off the forces of
darkness in the person of Lord Voldemort. But the name Potter in Great Britain has another
significance that may prove to be more enduring than the famous literary creation of J. K. Rowling.
This Potter created characters who continue to be among the most famous in the world, one hundred
years hence. We need only to say, “Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names
were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” and we have entered the fantasy world of Beatrix Potter.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 in Kensington, England. Her father was a lawyer, but
had made his fortune from the cotton industry in Lancashire. Beatrix lived a lonely life growing up.
Her one sibling, a brother Bertram, was sent to boarding school. To compensate for this isolation
Beatrix developed deep friendships with all the animals she kept as pets, and encountered in nature.
She had an incredible talent for artistic expression and pursued this drawing skill by sketching her
animal friends. These drawings also included other forms of life, especially fungi. She became an
amateur scientist, and made a discovery about the germination of spores. Unfortunately the paper she
wrote on the subject could not be given in person because women were not allowed to attend the
meetings of the Linnaean Society of London. Feeling the need to make something of her life, she
turned to drawing. She illustrated stories about mice and frogs and rabbits, and even a hedgehog who
took on human characteristics. Friends encouraged her to publish. Printed privately at first because
no publisher was willing to pursue the project, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” appeared in 1900, and then
the publisher Frederick Warne reprinted it in 1902. It was followed by “The Tailor of Gloucester.”
Eventually Warne would publish 24 of her books. Ever since those books have sold millions and
millions of copies. Beatrix became engaged to Norman Warne, whose father owned the publishing
company, but he died before they could be married. She found happiness though when she bought Hill
Top farm in the Lake District in the north of England, where her family had often summered. Here she
continued to write, and in 1913 at age 47 she married William Heelis, a lawyer who had assisted her
with her various properties. Here, at their sheep farm, we meet them around 1920. (Wiliam is inside in
living room, and Beatrix enters)
William: Oh, Beatrix, there you are. I was wondering what took you so long, I thought perhaps one of
your stubborn sheep had fallen trying to climb some craggy hill, and was stuck there. I was picturing
you putting all your weight under her to lift up, and then being stuck there yourself.
Beatrix: No, I was not doing anything so useful and necessary as saving a downed sheep. No, I was
lost in thought out there, surveying our beautiful Hill Top farm. I was recalling how sad I was when I
first bought this marvelous home of ours. It was the autumn of 1905, and Norman had only just died
of that infernal cancer in his blood. How my life has changed since then.
William: Aye, this is a far distance from life in London.
Beatrix: But it isn’t just being far from London that changes things, is it? It is because we are happy
together, here. I suppose London does foster all those pretensions to being important that mattered so
much to my mother. I wish she could have been a little less snobbish. I think she wished to deny that
she was born and bred in the north country, but I find it perfect.
William: She certainly tried to narrow your horizons. Poor Norman. I recall the story when he came
to your house, and your mother reproved you by saying, “I wish you wouldn’t invite tradespeople into
Beatrix: Yes, she had the gall to say “they carry dust.”
William: Yet she and your father gave you many gifts despite whatever shortcomings they had. Your
faith was a long standing family tradition on both sides.
Beatrix: That is true, but their very Unitarianism is what prevented mother from attaining some of her
lofty social climbing. We were not Church of England which meant once upon a time we could not go
to university, were discouraged from the learned professions, and in fact, were heretics. Our
livelihood only two generations ago came from those tradespeople she so despised.
William: But it is a faith that has given you a strong foundation to live by. That counts for something,
Beatrix: There were advantages I will admit. I never thought that creeds mattered very much, or
whether Jesus was raised from some cross. What matters is now. We must rely on our own strengths
to be good and do something with ourselves in the world. Plus a little rebellion against the staid norms
is good for us. I could use more of it. Even our own services are often a little timid, and a weak
imitation of the national Church, and this frustrates me. Yet I shall always call myself a Unitarian
because of my father and grandmother. (Lear, p. 42)
William: I should say that it was that independent religious zeal to discover the truth that led you down
the path to your own scientific discoveries.
Beatrix: I tried to use the application of reason in my observations. It is unfortunate that those
scientists, who were trained to be the rational observers were governed by blind prejudice. Did you
know that I grew between 40 to 50 different kinds of spores, and wrote down all that I did to cultivate
them? But I could gain no audience.
William: I know, it is a contribution that no one ever gave you credit for. As a woman, and as an
amateur you had no opportunity to be recognized, but I think you were brilliant. And I know you think
it, too, Beatrix! Cultivating algal cells and the fungal spores in your kitchen was brilliant... But being
right, and even brilliant, doesn’t mean you’ll be taken seriously by scientists, does it?
Beatrix: No one can be smarter than our stodgy, fellow countrymen who called themselves scientists ,
and so they dismissed me to do some more research . But all they had to do was open their eyes! My
illustrations captured details about fungi that other scientists simply failed to see. I drew everything I
saw. Drawing made it real, made it come alive.
William: Well, Beatrix that’s a gift from your father. He truly seems to have encouraged this love of
art. I know your childhood was lonely sometimes, but at least your parents arranged for drawing
teachers to come to the house. You could have been at boarding school like Bertram.
Beatrix; You are right! Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of
William: Each summer your parents brought you to the best school of all - wilderness retreats,
including here in the Lake District, where we now make our home.
Beatrix: 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, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside;
that pleasant, unchanging world of realism and romance. Here in our northern clime it is stiffened by
hard weather, a tough ancestry, and strength that comes from the hills. Funny to think of my mother
turning her back on what I most love.
(Beatrix to Bertha Mahony Miller, November 25, 1940. Quoted in Lear, p. 419. )
William: I think you were born with an uncanny understanding of animals, as if you knew what it was
to be one.
Beatrix: Yes, it is strange, almost from the very beginning of my life I understood animals and their
behavior. Of course Bertram and I snuck every conceivable animal into the house as pets, and I
examined them and drew them. I wanted to know so much how every move was made. We even
boiled them down to the bones after they died to understand their anatomy. Each duck, squirrel, rabbit
or mouse was a real animal to me, and so I drew them that way in their natural habitats. Yet they all
seemed rather human, too. And so my dear Peter Rabbit was anxious and ravenous like a rabbit would
be, but also as we might imagine him as a hungry, nervous, naughty little boy as well.
William: Beatrix, do we have this long parade of animals now here on our farm to keep your children
with you? Are they ours now here on Hill Top? They did always seem like us with their instincts for
safety, warmth and above all, good food. And Peter did know how to avoid coming to the table inside
the rabbit pie!
Beatrix: Oh, William. I guess it is all about children as I think of how it all began. I always had fond
memories of the governesses who stayed with me, as they were often my only companions. One
particular former governess had children who I wrote to. Once when little Noel Moore was ill I sent
him a story letter with this special tale I had created. I was hoping to cheer him up. It began “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,Cotton-tail and Peter.”
William: You were always thinking of the children. Why even here at the farm you have insisted we
keep some rabbits in the event that children might visit. When you first began to work with Norman
didn’t he tell you he wanted your books to be small for small hands?
Beatrix: The books have all been small that is true, and sometimes I have even wondered about their
appeal. I have never quite understood the secret of Peter’s perennial charm. Perhaps it is because he
and his little friends keep on their way, busily absorbed with their own doings. They were always
independent. Like Topsy - they just `grow'd' ."
William: And you managed to keep finding interesting characters and stories.
Beatrix: When there are children to write to; it just comes . . . Most people, after one success, are so
cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work. But this work
kept me going when I felt so alone. I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I
have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever. So it is about me, but also about my
way of giving, and connecting to others.
William: It is more than making a pretty book, as you say. If we could develop the seeing eye, as you,
then as we lie in bed we can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and
flower and patch of bog and cotton pass by. We can make these natural settings we have known into
the ideal places of the heart.
Beatrix: It is in these beautiful places where the worlds of humans and animals overlap. I have found
some enduring meaning in that place-- like you have, here, William. It isn’t just the landscape; it is the
land itself, and you are the one who knew that and saw it first, don’t you think? Before I came here,
my mind was set on this idea by the American Joel Chandler Harris, and his Uncle Remus. I am not
sure what old mother Goose was thinking though with that old woman who lived in a shoe. I think if
she lived in a little shoe-house— That little old woman was Surely a mouse!"
William: Mice, yes we have a few of those around the barnyard here. And if that old woman was truly
a mouse who had those human qualities, then I am pleased to have a real woman come into the heart of
this sheep infested world. For once I looked after your properties and animals here, but pretty soon it
was you I began to want to look after. My own little, lonely mouse as beautiful and enduring to me as
Peter Rabbit is to the world. Together we see and understand, and even preserve the delights of nature -
maybe because we know of the dangers of Mr. McGregor’s garden and other more cultivated places.
After her marriage to William Neelis, Beatrix’ interest in writing and producing books declined. Her
personal energies were devoted to land conservation and raising Herdwick sheep. Altogether she saved
4,000 acres of land in the Lake District of England from development by giving it to The National
Trust. She died at home in 1943, and William succumbed less than 18 months later. Despite her talents
for drawing, and botany, and her commitment to preserve England’s beautiful countryside, we
remember her today primarily as the children's friend, as we see embodied in her wonderful books for
children. Since its publication in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit alone has sold 25 million copies, and
countless stuffed rabbits, dishware, cards and other memorabilia. Beatrix Potter had an uncanny ability
to merge a biologists understanding of nature, an artists talent to create beautiful images, and a
storytellers magic to make animals come to life and share their all too human adventures with us. She
also came from active Unitarian families on both her mother’s and fathers sides in Great Britain.
Today we celebrate her life as an embodiment of our religious heritage, caring for and learning about
our natural environment, and developing her own talents and believing in herself. Beatrix Potter found
spiritual balance in this beautiful world of ours by exploring the mind’s imagination for fantasy mixed
with an immense curiosity to know the truth.
Closing Words - from Beatrix Potter
“I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can
be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and
Main source : Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. (St. Martin’s Press, 2007)