‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: The Life of Beatrix Potter, by Matthew Dennison (Head of Zeus, 304 pp., $24.95)
On a recent morning drive to school, I asked my three kids (ages nine to 15) to tell me the first thing they thought of when they heard the name Beatrix Potter. “Peter Rabbit,” “gardens,” and “angry Mr. McGregor” were the first three ideas they offered. Not bad, seeing that it has been years since our family read Potter’s anthropomorphic tales. What I did not hear — nor did I expect to — from my children was the word “fungus.” Yet, as Matthew Dennison recounts in this new biography, Beatrix almost made her professional mark in mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Rebuffed by the science community of the day for being both an amateur and a woman, Beatrix turned to storytelling and employed her careful observation of detail to create some of the most beloved characters in all of children’s literature.
She was born in 1866 into a wealthy London family. They enjoyed many of the comforts available only to the upper class, including lengthy holidays in the country, where Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram were free to explore the beauty of the natural world. Both of Beatrix’s parents had an appreciation for art, and they had developed limited skill as amateur artists. Many of the pictures of Beatrix as a child that Dennison includes in this book were taken by Beatrix’s father, who had some talent as a photographer. The Potters cultivated this same love of art in both of their children and encouraged them to work at it.