Interview with Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature
What motivated you to write on this subject?The short answer is my husband made me do it! The longer one is that it came about completely by serendipity. I was in London on a book tour in 1998 when I saw an exhibit of Potter’s fungi paintings. As an amateur collector of botanical art I was completely captivated by their beauty and her skill. I had not known anything about her work in natural history, nor did I know that she spent over a third of her life as a fell farmer in the Lake District, raising sheep and donating generously to preservation. I was fascinated by what I did not know, and always curious about the role of nature in the lives of those writers and artists whose work informs my own earliest consciousness of the natural world, I set out to rectify my ignorance. Finding the existing literature inadequate as adult biography and frustrated by its lack of evidence, I was left with even more questions. And my husband said, “well?”
What kind of experience do you want your reader to have? I want them to become involved in transformation of this heroic life. I hope they will be as fascinated as I am by her genius in storytelling and art, and appreciate how her creative work captured a moment of England and English life. Beatrix Potter had a genuine third act to her life. Unlike most of us, she made the most of that unique opportunity. She was a survivor, as adept at re-invention as she was in imagination. I hope they will discover a beautiful and for many a new part of the world, the English Lake District, and something of the passion of those visionaries who, like Beatrix, who were determined that its landscape and culture should not be obliterated by the modernism.
If there is one thing that you would like them to take away from reading your book, what would it be?That Beatrix Potter was so much more than just one of the best children’s writers of the world, and that her love of a unique countryside and of the natural world propelled her to become more than anyone might have expected, and one of the world’s best stewards of the environment.
Who has inspired you?As a writer, I have been inspired by the English Lake poets, by Jane Austen, and by the American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau, R W Emerson, and Emily Dickinson. As a writer about the environment, my muse has always been the writer of the Psalms, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. As an intellectual, my mentors are personal, in particular mentors from my undergraduate days. The desire to write about nature and the natural world and those who have made a difference in saving it (including my parents and grandparents) is a creative passion.
Who has influenced your work?The writers of biography everywhere, in every age. For Beatrix Potter, Beatrix’s own writings and letters, and Leslie Linder’s passion to break the code of her secret journal. I do not describe a single life to illustrate an age or a time, but to “tell a life” which has inspired me, and to provide the context in which that life was lived such that a reader can understand and empathize with that person’s unique life choices.
During the process of writing, what surprises did you discover?I was unprepared for the deep and lasting influence of English Unitarianism and Dissent on BP and her family and cohort. I was totally surprised by the depth of her scientific investigation into symbiosis, the discovery of lichens and algae and how fungi reproduced, and her early understanding of penicillin. The range of her intellect, scientific and general, surprised me. BP could have been anything she wanted. She was restrained by Victorian culture and by her personal willingness to submit to certain cultural constraints. I was surprised by her lack of interest or sympathy with early feminism, particularly as a Nonconformist who supported education, and by the enormous power of the English class system. I was also surprised and fascinated by her psychic resilience, and her uncharacteristic determination to a useful life.
Is there a particular book or author that has had a significant influence on you as a writer?Not any single one. And so many!