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Linda Lear, author of the biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, has seen director Chris Noonan’s film, Miss Potter, three times since its release. “On the whole, I’m pleased,” Lear says of the film. “It makes Beatrix out to be an intelligent, enterprising, interesting woman. It doesn’t make her a…Victorian twit.”
Coming from a woman who has spent the better part of a decade researching Potter’s life and work, that’s quite a compliment.
This month is a momentous one for fans of Potter, the author-illustrator who created such characters as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Squirrel Nutkin. St. Martin’s Press timed the publishing of Lear’s biography to coincide with the movie’s release. “It’s the perfect film to give interested readers an entry point into Potter’s life,” writes the book’s editor, Michael Flamini, in an e-mail. “A certain portion of that audience will be drawn to books that extend the story.”
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Though the film focuses on Potter as an author and, later, a countrywoman, it largely ignores her work as a scientist—which is what first piqued Lear’s curiosity. During a book tour in London for her previous biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Lear stumbled upon watercolors of fungi in a natural science museum; after “nosing around,” she discovered that the works were made by Potter.
“I’m fascinated in the way…artists and writers and nature intertwine,” says the Bethesda resident, who is an environmental historian.
As she delved deeper into Potter’s accomplishments, Lear found plenty to hold her fascination. Before she began her literary career, the author-illustrator produced drawings of fungi with microscopic detail and was, arguably, the first person to discover symbiosis. Potter then wrote a paper on the matter, which has since been lost. “I suspect it was destroyed by her executors after she died,” Lear says. “They cut up drawings to make bookmarks. They didn’t know what they were.” Later in life—following the death of her publisher and fiancé—Potter purchased a farm in England’s Lake District, devoting herself to farming and land preservation; her environmental efforts would eventually save the Lake District from development. “She didn’t just buy pretty scenery along the lakeshore,” Lear says. “She really had an ecological sense before there was any idea of ecology.”
As an author with an enthusiasm for gardening, Lear says that Potter’s oft-overlooked dedication to nature made her all the more compelling a subject. As an amateur film critic, however, Lear can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the film’s use of artistic licence. “It’s not historically, biographically accurate, as we knew it wouldn’t be,” she says. “They had to make a better story out of it.”