RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Children's author Beatrix Potter is the subject of a new movie starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. The movie, “Miss Potter,” is mostly a love story between the author and her publisher. It's based on real events around the time she was creating the tales of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny and other stories.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that it's an enchanting film, but one that covers only a small chapter in the life of a very accomplished woman.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Beatrix Potter grew up in an upper-class family in reserved Victorian England. They lived in London, but spent their summers in the country, in Scotland or the Lake District.
Beatrix didn't have many friends except for her younger brother and a menagerie of animals: a hedgehog, a bat, mice and of course rabbits.
Ms. JUDY TAYLOR (Author, “Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman”): She took them with her everywhere. She didn't like to be separated from them.
BLAIR: Judy Taylor is the author of several books on the writer, including “Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman.”
Ms. TAYLOR: She took her rabbit Benjamin out for a walk on a lead there in the garden. And she was very cross because the gamekeeper up in Scotland kept giving him peppermint to eat and it gave him toothaches. She was very upset by that.
BLAIR: She also drew her animals, as well as bugs, frogs and snails, in minute detail down to the tiny hairs on a beetle's legs. The origins of her most famous story come from casual illustrations she included in a letter to a little boy, one of her governess' sons, read here by Lynn Redgrave from a documentary about Beatrix Potter based on Judy Taylor's book.
(Soundbite of “Beatrix Potter: Artist Storyteller and Countrywoman”)
Ms. LYNN REDGRAVE (Actress): (As Beatrix Potter) 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, Cottontail and Peter.
BLAIR: It's perhaps fitting that the new movie about Beatrix Potter is directed by Chris Noonan whose last film, “Babe,” was about a very clever little pig and his array of animal friends. Noonan says he wasn't really a fan of Beatrix Potter's, and at first he didn't think he was the right person to direct a movie about her.
Mr. CHRIS NOONAN (Director, “Miss Potter”): I thought, oh, my God, it's going to be sort of cute and cloying and too sweet. So when I read the script, I was very pleasantly surprised. It's a very emotional story. You know, I thought I knew who Beatrix Potter was, but I had no idea what Beatrix Potter did or had done or what her life had been like.
BLAIR: She was privileged and yet kept away from other children. She's been described as shy, but she was also ambitious. And she didn't marry until she was 47, not the norm in the early 1900s.
The movie makes a pretty big deal out of the fact that Beatrix Potter's parents did not want her to marry her publisher, Norman Warne, because they said he's in trade, at the time considered lower class.
In this scene, Beatrix, played by Renee Zellweger, fights with her mother, played by Barbara Flynn.
(Soundbite of movie “Miss Potter”)
Ms. RENEE ZELLWEGER (Actress): (As Beatrix Potter) When did we become so high and mighty? We're (unintelligible) mother - social climbers.
Ms. BARBARA FLYNN (Actress): (As Helen Potter) Your father and I will not allow this marriage for your own good. And there's no reason to become insulting.
Ms. ZELLWEGER: (As Beatrix Potter) It's not an insult; it's the truth.
BLAIR: Renee Zellweger plays Potter as a determined, disciplined artist who's not easily dismissed. In truth, Beatrix Potter was rejected by several companies before Frederick Warne agreed to publish “The Tales of Peter Rabbit” in 1902. And even then, the Warne brothers didn't exactly welcome her with open arms.
(Soundbite of “Miss Potter”)
Unidentified Man (Actor): Bunnies in jackets with brass buttons. However do you imagine such things?
Ms. ZELLWEGER: (As Beatrix Potter) I don't imagine them. They're quite real.
Unidentified Man: Warne and Company would like to publish your little book, Ms. Potter. I think we can turn a small profit.
BLAIR: The movie covers Potter's phenomenal success with her children's books, but it leaves out a significant part of her life.
Linda Lear is the author of “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.” She says, first, it's important to note that the Potters were Unitarians.
Ms. LINDA LEAR (Author, “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature”): The Unitarians were a sect from the north of England. And they are responsible in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century with being the real reformers, scientists, artists, and they were always merchants.
BLAIR: Linda Lear thinks that heritage might explain Beatrix Potter's passion for science. In her office, Lear points to a meticulous but graceful drawing of mushrooms, one of Potter's obsessions.
Ms. LEAR: This is one of the agarics, which is a class of fungi that she began to experiment with quite a good deal. But she started out just drawing them because she was enchanted with the colors, and they reminded her of fairies and they came and went sort of mysteriously in the grass.
BLAIR: Around 1896, Potter started studying how the mushrooms reproduced and drawing fragments of them under a microscope.
Ms. LEAR: She realized that they had to reproduce by spores and how they might be lichens, they might be in symbiosis with another plant. And that was her major discovery, although she was never credited with it.
BLAIR: Beatrix Potter submitted a paper about her discovery to the prestigious Linnean Society. Linda Lear believes the men of science have probably never read it. Years later, Potter's theory proved to be correct.
The movie may have slighted Potter's scientific endeavors, but it does capture her intensity and her wit. Director Chris Noonan has grown to like Beatrix Potter's books because he has noticed in them a dark sense of humor. She's a realist, he says.
Mr. NOONAN: Even the story of Peter Rabbit has Peter's mother warning Peter not to go near Mr. McGregor's garden because your father had an accident there. He was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Here is an animal who we don't see as an animal anymore; we see him as a character who is being told that rabbits get eaten.
BLAIR: That no-nonsense quality served Beatrix Potter well years later when she owned and managed a working farm in the Lake District, where she lived the last 30 years of her life. She was even elected the first woman president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association.
When she died in 1943, Beatrix Potter left more than 4,000 acres of her land in the Lake District to the National Trust to preserve its farming culture and natural landscape.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.