Once upon another time, I was lucky enough to visit England’s glorious Lake District, where vistas of pristine lakes, rolling green pastures dotted with sheep, lush vales, charming stone cottages, miles of slate and dry stone walls bordering fertile farmland, and magnificent fells rising in the distance took my breath away.
I was curious to see the area after learning that England’s greatest poets and writers had flocked there for three centuries. Though studying the Romantic poets in college had stirred my wanderlust (my “friends” Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Blake, and Byron enabled me to envision this paradise on earth), it wasn’t until I fully tuned into Beatrix Potter’s connection with Lakeland that I became totally smitten. Visiting Hill Top Farm made me a forever diehard fan.
Beatrix didn’t just love the countryside, she helped preserve it for future generations. And she established this amazing legacy at a time when it was not proper for women to “travel, attend college, or work.” Her groundbreaking accomplishments are highlighted in this wonderful new picture book, Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, by Linda Elovitz Marshall and Ilaria Urbinati (little bee books, 2020).
Young readers will find it interesting that in addition to writing the beloved Peter Rabbit books, Beatrix was also a natural scientist, savvy businesswoman, sheep farmer, and ardent conservationist.
The book opens with young Beatrix busy sketching some of her pets in her London town house (her rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was a particular favorite). For most of the year, she and her younger brother Bertram led a sheltered, regimented life under the supervision of nannies and governesses.
But come summer, the entire family (with pets!) moved to the countryside. How Beatrix and Bertram loved the freedom of the farm and its gardens!
She and Bertram gathered eggs from chickens, fed ducklings from a spoon, and got fresh milk from cows.
Beatrix loved the gardens with their lettuces, beans, and cabbages. Benjamin Bouncer loved the gardens, too!
Sadly, the summer never lasted long enough, so it was back to London, where one fall, “Bertram went away to school.” Though Beatrix was expected to stay at home, she decided early on that she “wanted to do something important, something that mattered.”
With her photography-loving father, she visited artist studios and museums. She was inspired by what she saw, studied fine details, and soon resumed her sketching.
She drew Benjamin Bouncer from all angles, even giving him fancy clothes. She sent her sketches to various publishers even though at that time, women weren’t supposed to have careers. One publisher (who thought she was a male) liked her work, and soon her art began appearing on holiday cards.
Besides art, Beatrix loved studying the natural world. She had a particular interest in mushrooms, wrote a paper about her discoveries, and submitted it to the Linnean Society. But the male scientists wouldn’t take her work seriously.
Disappointed, Beatrix resumed drawing and painting animals. For a young friend who was feeling ill, she wrote a story about a naughty little rabbit named Peter. She later made it into a small book, the perfect size for little hands.
When various publishers took no interest in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix used the money she’d earned from her holiday cards and self published 250 copies, which sold like hotcakes. She finally got a book contract, and then went on to publish 22 more little books.
She illustrated her stories with pictures of cottages and gardens, faraway hills, country villages, farms, lakes, forests, and ancient stone bridges . . . all the places she loved.
Beatrix even had the foresight to secure her merchandizing rights, designing toys, tea sets and games with Peter Rabbit’s likeness on them. What a genius at character branding! It wasn’t long before people all over the world knew about Peter Rabbit.
Yes, she had done something important, something that really mattered, but there was something else — her love of the country prompted her to purchase a farm in the Lake District. She bought a second farm several years later and married a man who shared her love for country life.
When she began to see how the countryside was changing — how it was becoming more like the city with trees being chopped down, forests sold, roads being built, farm fields giving way to more and more houses, she acquired more farms, cottages, forests and gardens — as many as she could, to protect and preserve them.
In the end, she purchased fifteen farms and over 4000 acres, which she donated to the National Trust. Thanks to Beatrix, her beloved countryside with all its wildlife looks much the same today as it did when Peter Rabbit was first created, and it will be cherished and preserved for generations to come.
Marshall’s narrative is interesting and engaging. I like the emphasis not only on Beatrix’s ability to apply her artistic talents to achieve heartfelt goals, but the focus on her perseverance despite prevailing norms regarding women’s roles.
Though Ilaria Urbinati’s art is new to me, she had me at the cover and endpapers (a collage of Potteresque drawings of the farm animals she loved and made up stories about).
Peaceful pastoral scenes are rendered in a primary palette of greens, browns, blues, and lovely lavender – the color not only of misty clouds on the horizon, wildflowers, and garden foliage, but of many of Beatrix’s lovely outfits.
Depictions of young Beatrix as she grows into a successful author/illustrator, and eventually, a respected landowner, will appeal to the young reader, who’ll get a fair sense of her life in both city and country. They will enjoy seeing the charming animals of field and farm, and begin to better understand why she worked so hard to keep the country, country.
I especially like the final double page spread of Beatrix at Hill Top Farm surrounded by her animal friends (ducks, chickens, sheep, horses, a cat, a dog, a bunny) free to roam and wander, with rolling hills extending far as the eye can see. Urbinati has captured just the right tone of beauty and gentleness, charm and whimsy, with her refreshing, soft-hued watercolors.
Saving the Countryside is the only Potter picture book biography I know of that offers a fuller picture of the remarkable woman behind the Peter Rabbit books. In addition to her lifelong artistic inclinations, it also shows Beatrix’s ingenuity and business savvy — holiday cards financed her self-publishing venture, and then proceeds from her traditionally published books enabled her to purchase all the Lakeland properties.
Though she came from a privileged background, she did not choose a cloistered, pampered existence in fancy sitting rooms. Instead, she wholeheartedly immersed herself in the rural lifestyle she had cherished since childhood, and in later years, did much to help her fellow sheep farmers with vet bills and family medical care.
Children who love Peter Rabbit will like learning that his creator has always had a larger story to tell. An innovative trailblazer, Potter is a wonderful role model whose passion for art, nature, and animals enabled her to become financially independent and self sufficient at a time when women of her upbringing were merely expected to “marry well.”
How lucky we are to have the gift of her books as well as “quiet country places where children, and rabbits, can run through the fields freely and nibble a carrot. Or two.”
BLACKBERRY AND APPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE
I can well imagine Beatrix rewarding herself with a fortifying treat after a busy morning tending her sheep and feeding all the farm animals. One can work up a good appetite after being outdoors in the bracing country air.
When it came to food, she and her husband Willie enjoyed simple, wholesome fare using fresh produce. Their farm and orchard “provided nearly all they needed — sheep, cattle, pigs, hutch rabbits, ducks, turkeys, chickens, eggs, dairy produce, vegetables, herbs and fruit.” Willie liked to hunt and fish, while Beatrix “loved collecting wild plants, fruits and nuts from the surrounding countryside.”
After reading Saving the Countryside, Mr Cornelius and Blue Bear were more than ready for a spot of tea and a sweet treat. They found just the thing in Sara Paston-Williams’s fine book, Beatrix Potter’s Country Cooking (F. Warne & Co., 1991).
You may remember that we made a delicious Lakeland Lemon Bread from this cookbook not too long ago, so we were excited to try the Blackberry and Apple Upside-Down Cake, thinking it would also make a nice addition to an Easter brunch table.
Soon after purchasing Hill Top Farm, Beatrix wrote to her dear friend Millie Warne, mentioning how much she was enjoying gardening.
The apples on the old trees prove to be very good cookers, we have had some for dinner.
We think Beatrix would have liked this apple-y cake, and our friend Peter Rabbit (who always visits us around Easter time), was ecstatic about the blackberries, since in his story he was sent to bed without supper, and only his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, got to eat them.
So Leprechaun Len peeled, cored and diced two apples for us (being an engineer, he’s our go-to person for evenly sized pieces). After coating the bottom of an 8″ round cake pan with softened butter and honey, we arranged the diced apples and blackberries in the pan before covering the fruit with the cake batter.
With upside-down cakes, there’s always a little suspense when it comes time to flip the cake onto a plate — will the cake fall apart? will pieces of fruit stick to the pan?
Not to worry — this baby slid right out in perfect shape, much to the delight of Chef Rotund (*thunderous applause from all the visiting Beatrix Potter people*).
This cake is a fruit lover’s delight, and is wonderful served with a dollop of plain yogurt, sour cream, whipped cream, or even a scoop of ice cream. Why not bake this with your resident bunnies? Yum!
Blackberry and Apple Upside-Down Cake
- 2 tablespoons softened butter for bottom of cake tin
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 large, firm eating apples
- 1 pint blackberries
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) for cake batter
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup white self-rising flour
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon cold water
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Mix 2 tablespoons butter with the honey and spread over the base of a round cake tin that is at least 2 inches deep.
- Peel and core apples and chop into half-inch cubes. Arrange apples and blackberries over the honey and butter in bottom of cake tin.
- Cream 1/2 cup butter with brown sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in eggs.
- Sift the flour with the cinnamon and fold into the creamed mixture. Stir in enough water to make a soft dropping consistency and cover the fruit evenly with the cake batter.
- Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before turning out on a warm plate. Allow tin to sit on top of cake for several minutes to allow the juices to run into the cake. Serve with your choice of topping.
~ from Beatrix Potter’s Country Cooking by Sara Paston-Williams (F. Warne & Co., 1991)
Mr Cornelius, Blue Bear, Chef Rotund, Peter Rabbit and all his friends devoured the cake and sipped many cups of tea. This definitely put them in an Easter-y mood, which called for lots of chocolate, jelly beans, and robin’s eggs.
For many of us, Easter and Passover will likely feel different this year, as the world struggles to deal with the global pandemic. If you cannot be with your friends and loved ones in person, we hope you find creative ways to plan a virtual celebration and use your stay-at-home time to renew your faith. No matter what, love endures.
SAVING THE COUNTRYSIDE: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit
written by Linda Elovitz Marshall
illustrated by Ilaria Urbinati
published by little bee books (January 28, 2020)
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note and Sources
**Starred Review** from Foreword Reviews
Check out my other Beatrix Potter posts at Alphabet Soup (Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley had a big influence on sparking Beatrix’s interest in conservation and encouraged her to self publish A Tale of Peter Rabbit):
- Lettuce Celebrate Easter with Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies (+ 2 recipes)
- A Little Tale of Beatrix Potter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (+ a recipe for Lakeland Lemon Bread)
- The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter and Quentin Blake
- Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig by Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake
- Beatrix Potter: Of Guinea Pigs, Nursery Rhymes, and Cupcakes
- Mrs Tiggy-Winkle Comes to Tea (Carrot Cookies)
- Peter Rabbit makes an appearance in An Easter Tale Starring Mr Cornelius and His Checkmates
Enjoy this short video about Beatrix and Hill Top Farm:
BE WELL, HAPPY EASTER and HAPPY PASSOVER!
*Interior spreads from Saving the Countryside, text copyright © 2020 Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrations © 2020 Ilaria Urbinati, published by little bee books. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.