Beatrix Potter was steeped in 19th Century Unitarianism, coming from a long line of English dissenters. Her mother and father, Helen and Rupert, were both from prosperous North Western Unitarian families that made their money in the cotton trade.
Beatrix’s paternal grandparents, Edmund and Jessie, were both notable Unitarians in their day. Edmund was a radical liberal MP, promoting universal education, and Jessie was a beautiful fiery woman, who is said to have gotten into schoolyard battles in defence of her Unitarian faith. Her maternal grandparents, Jane and John Leech, too, were from prominent Unitarian families. The Leech family were the primary benefactors in establishing the Stalybridge Unitarian Church, which opened 1870 - the inaugural address being given by William Gaskell.
Beatrix’s father Rupert Potter was a pupil and friend of both William Gaskell, the prominent Unitarian minister, and the eminent Unitarian scholar Dr James Martineau. Beatrix noted in her diary that her father had the greatest admiration for Martineau’s character and intellect. Rupert trained to be a barrister, specialising in equality law, but given his family's wealth and his own well placed investments on the stock market, he had no need to work, and instead focused with his wife Helen upon their busy social calendar, and his love of outdoor sports, fishing, and shooting, as well as a passion for the arts and photography. There are many pictures of the young Beatrix Potter, one taken of her and William Gaskell, all of which were taken by her father, Rupert.
Unitarianism was then very much in the air young Beatrix Potter breathed. It informed the lives of almost everyone around her, and had a profound impact upon her character.
Despite all the wealth and privilege of upper-middle class Victorian life, Beatrix Potter, we might imagine, had a rather lonely upbringing, not spending much time with other children, except her brother Walter when he was not off at boarding school, and Beatrix herself being taught by the family's governess. But she denied this, saying she always had her animals, and her imagination.
Beatrix was not overtly religious; none the less Unitarianism had a profound effect upon her character. Her driving curiosity, her passion for truth as revealed through nature and science, her need to experiment, and her conviction that life was for doing something useful which left the world a better place. These virtues go to the heart of Unitarianism, but the thing she probably valued most about her Unitarian heritage was its ever rebellious nature.
Beatrix once wrote that she ‘would always be a Unitarian because of her father and grandmother.’ And yet despite this, she felt compelled to be a ‘closet’ Unitarian because she embraced the ethic of intellectual independence. This does strike me as a rather odd grievance to have within Unitarianism, as we above all else want to encourage intellectual independence. It seems her difficulties with the movement came down more to the specific context of 19th Century Unitarianism in London. Perhaps then it would be not entirely unfair to say she embodied the Unitarian Spirit more authentically than those London adherents of her day.
Beatrix was ever the quiet rebel, inspired by the Unitarian struggle against the majority, and by her rebellious, yet respected grandmother, Jessie, and by Unitarian pragmatism, all from which she found an inner strength to help her stand up for what she believed in and stand against the adversity she encountered, be it sexism or her own parents’ disapproval.
Some of her happiest times were found on holiday in the Lake District, where she could be close to nature, and close to the many small animals she kept as pets. She would spend much of her time sketching animals and plants. She was a ferocious reader, reading fairy tales and memorising several of Shakespeare's plays. All this, alongside her isolation, led in turn to her creation of miniature tales, in miniature settings, all about small talking animals.
Unlike other children’s books written about talking animals, such as A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s tales are considerably more vicious, almost always touching upon threat and death.
The primary motivation behind her children’s books, at least at first, was financial independence, to escape her parents’ home in London where she was never treated as an adult. It was awfully Victorian. Her previous attempt to break free was in the world of scientific publication, but her scientific efforts were thwarted by sexist indifference. So she turned to Peter Rabbit for help.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was her first and most famous work. It has been seen as an expression of her alter-ego; like Peter Rabbit, she was mischievous and forced to steal time and energy (as opposed to lettuce), hiding away in her third floor room in her parents’ home, unable to come out from under the shadow of her mother. When she did finally escape that London resistance in Bolton Gardens the rabbits in her work disappeared too. Her rabbit-like existence was at an end.
Beatrix Potter rebelled against the structures of her family, but also against the structures of gender roles more widely, rebelling in following her passion for science, rebelling in becoming an astute business woman, and then a farmer later in life, in a time when these were not the kind of jobs women did.
In 1905 she moved to the place of her happy childhood summers, the Lake District, to a working farm called Hill Top. There the tone of her work changes; preoccupied with hierarchy and power, she begins to focus far more upon farmyard animals, like in the tale of Jemima Puddle-duck we had read. Here, the motherly figure is treated with comic irony. Though she does not have ducklings of her own, despite wanting them, by the end of the story we learn that it is because she is a foolish duck, who would make a foolish mother.
Jemima is not really a grown-up duck. She lacks maturity, she has been domesticated; though her instinctual desire to have duckling of her own compels her into the wilderness, she is without the natural caution of her wild duck counterparts. And so she finds herself dangerously caught between her wild self and her domestic self.
In many ways the story of Jemima Puddle-duck mirrors the story of Little Red Riding Hood, dwelling on the theme of pursuit and prey, and the contrast of the safe world of the village or farmyard, as opposed to the dangerous world of the wood. Innocence out of its depth. Also there is the fairy tale theme of the foolish being rescued from destruction by the loyal and dependable: man’s best friend, the dog. Or in Little Red Riding Hood’s case, the woodcutter.
In the story of Jemima Puddle-duck, Beatrix Potter is coming to terms with farm life - that death is a part of farming, that danger lies in the mingling of the wild world and the domesticated world. The ultimate victor of the piece is not so much Jemima herself, but rather the farmer’s wife, who has been rid of that foxy gentleman and has had order restored to her farm. What ultimately comes through then is Beatrix’s realistic pragmatism in the face of new challenges, and an appreciation of the realities of nature, red in tooth and claw.
In later life, in a letter to an American friend, Beatrix sums up her deeply Unitarian family roots by describing them as ‘obstinate, hard-headed, matter-of-fact folk’. This kind of realism, these hallmarks of the rational dissenters, infused Beatrix Potter’s entire life; it drove her deep sense of individualism, her inquiring mind, and her desire to conserve the beauty of nature for future generations.
Unitarianism is a dissenting movement, a movement throughout history which has made the mainstream, the establishment, deeply uncomfortable. It is not a movement of the centre ground. It shares with Beatrix Potter her pioneering spirit, and her jagged edges, her unwillingness to take no for an answer in the face of discrimination and challenge.
My hope for our movement is that we might hold on to Beatrix’s example. Not compromising, or becoming overly comfortable, but ever daring to stand up for what is right.