Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Coded Diary

Dec 22, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller

“The more spontaneous the pleasure, the more happy the result.” – Beatrix Potter 

Hill Top (opened 1946)

Near Sawrey, Lake District, England

            For over a century, children have delighted in the adventures of Peter Rabbit, the bunny who dressed in blue coat with brass buttons. To enter the whimsical world of his creator, Beatrix Potter, hop on over to the Lake District’s Hill Top.

            Helen Beatrix never forgot what it was like to be young - the hallmark of all great children’s authors. She recalled, “I have just made stories to please myself because I never grew up.” Ironically, the woman who captured the magic of childhood was deprived of a happy one. She was born in 1866, to Rupert, an attorney, and Helen Potter; the family residence was Two Boulton Garden, Kensington, an upscale London enclave. Her parents abided by the Victorian adage children should be seen and not heard, and Beatrix spent her time with her nanny in her third-floor nursery. Fearful of their daughter contracting germs, Beatrix had no friends and did not attend school. At age five, she was thrilled with the birth of her brother, Bertram. The siblings, with the complicity of Mr. Cox, their butler, snuck in a rotating cast of pets into their nursery including frogs, rabbits, mice, and hedgehogs. The budding artist sketched her four-footed companions in exacting anatomical detail, except they walked upright and wore bonnets and vests. Impressed with her drawings, Rupert took his daughter to visit John Everett, renowned for his painting Ophelia. Her father enrolled her in classes at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, which owns the largest collection of Beatrix Potter’s drawings, manuscripts, and photographs in the world.

             As a teenager, Beatrix vacationed with her parents in a Georgian style house, now the Ees Wyke Country House Hotel, so named from the Norse and Old English words that translate to the “house on the shore,” overlooking Esthwaite Water. She remarked it is “as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived.” At age fifteen, with Bertram at boarding school-that she could not attend due to her sex-she had only her diary in which to confide. Intensely private, she wrote in miniscule letters and in a complex code. She continued the activity till age thirty.

            When Beatrice was sixteen, Helen hired Annie Carver as her daughter’s governess. Annie was only three years older than her student, and they developed a deep friendship. After two years, Annie announced she was leaving to wed Edwin Moore. Distraught at her departure, Beatrix purchased a Belgium rabbit she named Benjamin Bouncer who she sneaked up to the third floor in a paper bag. “Bounce” was partial to hot buttered toast and gooseberries, and she walked him using a leather dog-leash. He kept her company through her bout of rheumatic fever that caused most of her hair to fall out; she was left with a lifelong bald spot. During a second illness, she was bed-ridden for almost eight months. During that time, she sketched the pets such as Bertram’s bat. For verisimilitude, she measured the bird’s wings. Upon recovery, Beatrix’s parents allow her to visit Annie in South London where she delighted in the Moore children, Noel and Eric. The brothers were thrilled she had brought along Benjamin Bouncer. Bounce expired “through persistent devotion to peppermints.”

            In 1893, when Noel was ill, Beatrix decided to cheer him up with a letter that relayed the tale of four rabbits, Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and the carnivorous Mr. McGregor. Peter, along with fellow Victorian the White Rabbit, became the most famous hares in history.

           In addition to her furry creations, Beatrix was fascinated by mycology, (the study of mushrooms); Two Boulton Garden received samples of fungi that ended up under Beatrice’s microscope. She wrote a report, “On the Germination of Spores and the Agaricineae” that earned a presentation at The Linnean Society of London. Her gender precluded the aspiring scientist’s attendance.

            Eight years later, Beatrix wrote Annie-who became the mother of eight-requesting to borrow the letters as she hoped to turn the characters into a storybook. In 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit proved wildly popular; to date, it has sold 250 million copies and appeared in thirty translations including Braille. Twenty-six books followed. Letters from fans flooded the Potter mailbox; one wrote, “May your bunnies and squirrels live forever!” In a brilliant marketing move, Beatrix patented her characters and produced a Jemima Puddle-Duck doll, with a fabric bonnet and shawl, a Peter Rabbit teapot, and a board game.

    The publisher of the Potter books, Frederick Warne & Co, was owned by the founder’s three sons. The youngest, Norman, in love with the author, proposed. At almost forty years old, Beatrice was thrilled, her parents, however, were not pleased as the Warnes were from a lower social class. Helen and Rupert insisted Beatrix accompany them on a trip to Wales to ponder her decision. A few weeks later, her fiancé passed away from lymphatic leukemia. A barometer of the dysfunction at Two Boulton Gardens is Bertram had been married for eleven years before he shared with his family the existence of his wife.

            A few months after Norman’s passing, in 1905, with an inheritance from her aunt and the proceeds from her books, in a bold move for a woman of her era, Beatrice purchased the seventeenth century Hill Top Farm, a thirty-four acre, two story farmhouse in England’s Lake District. The wisteria-draped house has a pitched roof, green wrought iron gate, constructed from local gray stone. At age forty-seven, she married local lawyer, William Heelis, with whom she lived in a nearby secondary residence, Castle Cottage. The widowed Helen lived with them until her passing at age ninety-three. Hill Top remained Beatrix’s private domain, where she wrote, tended her garden, and sought tranquility.

           Beatrice’s beloved home retains her belongings such as metal-tipped clogs and broad-brimmed straw hat. The entrance hall has a cast-iron stove, a flagstone floor, and a nineteenth century wooden dresser. A corner cupboard holds a teapot commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII. In an example of art imitating life, the teapot belonged to Ribby, the pussycat in The Pie and the Patty-Pan.  A bookcase displays a sepia-toned photograph of the later- in- life gentlewoman farmer attending an agricultural show, dressed in a no-nonsense tweed suit, a far cry from the lacy white frocks of her youth. French dolls are on view, likely the models for Lucinda and Jane in The Tale of Two Bad Mice. An adorable doll’s house contains the miniature ham that Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb gazed upon with desire. Beatrix’s writing-room is the home’s largest; its walls showcase landscape paintings by Bertram Potter. The grandfather clock   depicted in Tabitha Twitchitt continues to tick the hours. Hill Top outdraws William Wordsworth’s nearby Dove Cottage and runs neck-in-neck with the Brontë Parsonage as England’s second most visited literary site (next to Stratford-Upon-Avon).

            As she aged, the real animals on her farm took precedence over her artistic ones, and she was delighted when her sheep won competitions. Mrs. Heelis wore wool skirts, men’s boots, and a burlap sack-shawl. Although her bunnies and squirrels would live forever, in 1943 Beatrix died from bronchitis. As her final illness coincided with the Blitz, she wrote regarding the war, “The sheep and cattle take no notice.” The Potter bequest left more than four thousand acres and many farms to the National Trust that maintains Hill Top and its grounds. Her will specified, “Hill Top is to be presented to my visitors as if I had just gone out and they had just missed me.” Her shepherd, Tom Storey, scattered Beatrix’s ashes above Hill Top.

            As it transpired, the female St. Francis of the Lake District possessed a less than sentimental side. Firstly, there was that disturbing chapter where Mrs. McGregor turned Peter Rabbit’s father into a stew. Next was a letter Bertram wrote to his sister from his boarding school where he provided instructions about his bat, “If he cannot be kept alive…you had better kill him, + stuff him as well as you can.” As Farmer Heelis, she sent pigs off to market to be transformed to bacon. Then, in 1997, the Times of London charged Ms. Potter with bunnicide; it claimed she occasionally dispatched her furry friends to gain a greater understanding of anatomy. The newspaper contend Miss Potter boiled Peter Rabbit, an image that rivals the horror of the boiled bunny in Fatal Attraction. A display case at a Victoria and Albert exhibit showed a flattened hare’s hide with the sign: “Rabbit pelt, thought to be that of Benjamin Bouncer.” What a way to treat one’s muse. A ‘hare-raising’ joke announced a recently found Potter manuscript: The Beatrice Potter Cookbook.

            The understanding as to what extent Beatrix was the Victorian Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde would be revealed if one could decipher Miss Potter’s coded diary.

The View from Her Window: From her beloved Hill Top, gazing out to her garden, filled with flowers, herbs, and vegetables, with the backdrop of her beloved Lake District environs, Beatrix wrote, “It is here I go to be quiet and still with myself. This is me, the deepest me, the part one has to be alone with.”