The Journal of Beatrix Potter From 1881 to 1897: Transcribed From Her Code Writing
I wonder if there is can be any comparable document preserving the early mental development of an individual who went on to a life of such accomplishment, acclaimed both as a popular phenomenon and a genius. She wrote, all in code, from age 15 to about 30, when she first began to entertain the notion of a life of her own, about politics, current events, weather, her own daily life, visits to museums and galleries to see important paintings (her most serious interest at this point), details from the lives of her parents and grandparents, incidents she witnessed in the streets, anecdotes she heard in conversation, birds she observed in her garden, odd facts, things that were said to be true, ephemeral tidbits, jokes. She wrote to establish her voice in a medium no one else could read. The painter Millais was her father's friend and a frequent visitor to her house; she respected him as well as his art, though she obviously already held strong views of her own on that subject. She had two lives ahead of her, as author/illustrator of 23 small books about small animals intended for children but beloved by all ages, and as farmer/sheep breeder/conservationist/founder of the National Trust. Her first and briefest, but still significant, career as a breeder and painter of mushrooms combined her interests in science and art.
This is an amazing work. Her later published works are so brief and focused, it is difficult to reconcile this enormous grab-bag of observations as having come from the same brain. Like the young people who put themselves on you-tube today, she is putting herself out there, but also keeping it to herself. No one knew what to make of the inscrutable papers found long after her death, until Leslie Linder's years of frustration finally yielded, with the word "execution" and the year 1793, the code which allowed us all access to the early thoughts of the great Beatrix Potter.
This is a voice that, despite her sheltered existence, is mature beyond her years in its perceptions and judgments. She treasures her older relatives and their memories of the past. Unlike many young people, who might feel that time was passing too slowly, she feels it rushing by, taking away people, pets (newts, snails, frogs, mice) and landscapes she has loved. Even as a teenager, she grieves for the lost innocence of her childhood, and wonders if her future will be as dark as her present. The cause of her fears for the future is never made explicit, even though she is writing only for herself.
From p. 106 (1884, age 18): "It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? 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, and settles on the queerest things, worse than queer sometimes. Last time, in the middle of September, I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round."
On pp. 207-10 (1891, age 24) she meets, for the first time, an inspirational role model, the Scottish painter, illustrator, and farmer Jemina (Mrs. Hugh) Blackburn, whose book "Birds Drawn from Nature," she had received, with delight, as a tenth birthday present from her father. "Altogether I carried away the impression of a kindly, chatty old lady, with keen common sense and a large fund of humour, capable of deep feeling, but in the meantime heartily enjoying an encounter with an enraged muscovy duck."
Young Beatrix was also fond of visiting the elderly persons who had worked for her family in the past, as maids, cooks, gamekeepers, and washerwomen. Whenever she was able, she sought them out in their country cottages. One of her favorites was Kitty MacDonald, round, be-petticoated human inspiration for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle: "Went. to see old Kitty with some worsted. Perhaps the Kincraigie folk had some ground for saying she was a witch, for, when we came up to her little cottage there was a little toad sitting in the middle of the little flat, grey stone inside the doorsill. When we knocked it hopped away under the closet door, and the little old lady came out in her light slippers, winking and blinking." (pp. 253-4, Aug. 31, 1891)
During her twenties she wrote more and more frequently about driving out into the countryside in her pony carriage, often by herself, exploring, visiting, observing scenery, people, animals, and plants, collecting fossils, shells, flowers, and funguses, photographing, sketching, making judgments, learning in this way about the world as well as herself. She was particularly happy at Lennel House in Scotland during the autumn of 1894, enjoying the picturesque country lanes, an abundance of fungi, and the companionship of an agreeable and sympathetic pony. In 1896, while staying with her parents near the Lakeland village of Sawrey, she wrote: "It is as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in, and such nice old-fashioned people in the village." After 1905, when she purchased nearby Hilltop Farm, the Sawrey neighborhood was to become her permanent home until her death in 1943.