As many fans and scholars honor the 70th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death, Janis Flint-Ferguson, professor of English and education, visited the author’s home in June to see first hand the setting that launched such works as “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and “The Tale of Gloucester.” A lecturer with Wisconsin Lutheran College for its “Best of Britain” course, Flint-Ferguson, along with 11 undergraduate students, spent four days in Ambleside of the Lake District north of London. With dozens of walking paths, trails and hills, the rural beauty of the Lake District is both a tourist destination and the inspiration for much of Britain’s best literature, especially, Flint-Ferguson said, from the Romantic period. The class visited William Wordsworth’s home as well as the property and home of Potter (1866-1943). Here’s what Flint-Ferguson, whose expertise includes children’s literature, said about Potter:
“At the 70th anniversary of Potter’s death, it was particularly interesting to visit her home and land. As the grandmother of children’s literature, she revolutionized the genre through her illustrations and stories. For instance, as a natural scientist and conservationist, she studied all of the mold and fungi in the Lake District’s wooded areas, fields and pastures so as to draw them in detail, using her scientific skill and knowledge to capture them in illustrations. Many of these drawings as well as her journals were on display at her home this past summer, which we got to see.
“The Lake District is also home to the sheep industry in England—Potter herself owned some 270 sheep farms in the region—and when she died, she left all of her property to the National Trust of England, which virtually opened up the Lake District. She wanted people to be able to come and see, to walk and enjoy the area as much as she did. But in terms of her literary contributions, she wrote in good, standard, proper and appropriate English, even though some of her editors felt she should ‘dumb down’ a bit for children. But she absolutely refused. And as a result it was one of the first times in England that parents were reading to their children, not in simplified English but in good standard English. There’s some tough vocabulary in her books. She would also sometimes ask caretakers to bring dead animals to her—mice, rats, rabbits—where she would set them on the desk in front of her to draw them. So when you’re looking at the illustrations in her books, you’re not only seeing the setting in her home but every animal drawn anatomically correct because she studied them so carefully. She was a woman far more intelligent and curious about the natural world than we often give her credit for being.”