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Marta McDowell's "Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life" is almost sure to delight all who lovingly remember the stories of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, and Jemima Puddle-Duck which readied us for meeting Mole, Water Rat, Toad, and Badger. Even better, if these admirers of Beatrix Potter are slightly mad about gardens and wander in their dreams among the dreaming spires of English foxgloves & delphiniums. (In this review, as in McDowell's book, Beatrix Potter is sometimes referred to as Beatrix, sometimes as Beatrix Potter, and after her marriage, sometimes as Mrs. Heelis. Hopefully, this won't be confusing.)
This richly created book offers on almost every page superbly reproduced water colors of landscapes, plants, and the small creatures of hedgerow and streams, or photographs of the more than 10 homes in which Beatrix lived and gardened. No one, not even Durer, has drawn bunnies like Beatrix Potter, bunnies with the softest fur, and on p. 106, the roundest tummies, as six lie together sleeping off the soporific effects of a lettuce orgy.
Part One of this three part tale describes Beatix Potter's life in McDowell's framework of a plant: germination, offshoots, flowering, roots, ripening, and setting seed (140 pages bursting with the child's precociously talented paintings through her final flowering as a conservationist who wills 4,000 acres of Lake District lands to the National Trust).
Beatrix was the only daughter of second generation wealth. To her supremely status-conscious parents, almost no one was good enough for her company or her love, making her early life lonely. She turned to drawing & botanical research. But a scientific society rejected her exquisite portfolio of mushroom paintings & original studies of spore germination, turning her forever away from formal scientific work. We share her sorrow at her first betrothed's sudden death and we cheer for her eventual declaration of independence in marrying a second suitor, Mr. William Heelis of Sawrey in the Lake district, with whom she shared 33 years.
Part Two has the happy format of classics on gardening: following a year in Beatrix Potter's gardens. The wealthy Potters had summer, winter and spring abodes & Beatrix planted where she bloomed. Here, McDowell relies on Beatrix's letters and diaries as well as her own professional knowledge to tell what Mrs. Heelis & her Willie were seeing, planting, harvesting----and she uses the Tales & their paintings to show how closely Potter intertwined her plants and the poetry of her stories. For instance, the plants surrounding that devious ginger-whiskered fellow, Mr. Tod, are foxgloves. Peter's iconic radish picture is so precise, we can plant seeds of the same fine nibble. The writing in this section is enchanting: for instance, "Poppies unfurl their buds like butterflies from cocoons." (p 127). That's McDowell, not Potter.
The third major section is to me, most magical. Mc Dowell followed the path of Potter, visiting each place she once lived or visited. The result is both a travel guide and history. Photographs and paintings of Beatrix's gardens in her time are shown next to pictures and descriptions of what remains now. This is written as informally as letters home, with details on roads to take, car parks (or not), inns, B&Bs, as well as the gardens themselves.
As with all gardens, even those as lovingly maintained as Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, much is changed. McDowell writes of Hill Top Farm, Beatrix's first "all hers" home place:
"As you look at the garden and its swath of flowers, [you must] realize that few of [Beatrix's] actual plants...are still growing in the garden. The trick to preservation gardening is to keep the garden looking more or less as it did in her day, while dealing with the inexorable fact that plants grow, spread, and sooner or later die."
So do we all, but in this book, the landscapes of Jeremy Fisher and of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail live again, as does that remarkable artist, gardener, and woman, Beatrix Potter.
For gardeners, this book is enhanced by lists of plants Beatrix Potter grew in her farms and showed in her books (splendid idea!). In "The Tale to Tom Kitten," for instance, 18 plants are painted in loving detail, from Japanese anemones to water lilies.
Any reader alerts? This is a gardening biography, not a comprehensive analysis of Potter's tales & writing, not an in-depth analysis of her life and art, and definitely not a guide for gardeners on design & planting. McDowell gives generous and extensive recommendations for in-depth reading on all these points, together with a good index and a comprehensive bibliography of Potter's books. It is rather something magical, the tale of how a great talent unfolded against the odds, and was realized in earthly gardens and in the numinous landscapes of her stories.
If this appeals to your child, reader, artist, and the gardener within----highly, very highly recommended. It is a unique, beautiful, and altogether lovely book.