Beatrix Potter and the tale of the tragic fiancé

Her books have been warming hearts for a more than a century– but, says Kate Thompson, the heartbreaking story of the author’s doomed romance is the most moving of all

Beatrix looks up from her writing desk in surprise. The housekeeper has delivered an elegant parcel from Hamleys toy store on London’s Regent Street. ‘Just arrived, Miss Potter.’

‘For me?’ she murmurs, setting down her pen. Hidden in the folds of tissue is a set of exquisite doll’s house furniture, from tiny gilt chairs down to a miniature side of ham. It is an odd choice of gift for a 39-year-old spinster, but evidence of the growing bond between her and her dashing editor Norman Warne.

The love story between Beatrix and Norman is one not just of personal but also of professional admiration. As her editor, he wanted to encourage her work and so, when she told him about her idea for The Tale of Two Bad Mice (which she would also illustrate), he sent her doll’s house furniture so she could copy it. Beatrix, in turn, never forgot to let him know how important these gifts were to her. ‘Dear Mr Warne,’ she wrote in one letter. ‘I received the parcel from Hamleys: the things will all do beautifully. I am getting almost more treasures than I can squeeze into one small book.’

beatrix potter
Beatrix in 1890, when she was in her mid-20s

In some ways Beatrix was not a romantic. Unlike many of her female contemporaries, she envisaged a life beyond that of a wife. A barrister’s daughter, born into a Victorian upper-middle-class family, she defied convention early on by refusing to be pressurised into an advantageous match. She once (while recovering from rheumatic fever) wrote in her diary: ‘I am well content to have a red nose and a shorn head, I may be lonely, but better that than an unhappy marriage.’

In 1901, the 35-year-old Beatrix self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit which soon attracted the interest of Frederick Warne Publishers. It was an instant success when published in 1902 – the year she met Norman, then 34 – and within a year there were a further five editions. ‘What an appalling quantity of Peter,’ she remarked, in her typically dry style.

Just when it appeared that Beatrix – now very old for a first-time bride of that era– would die a spinster, love blossomed across the printing presses. ‘Their courtship was conducted in a cloud of Edwardian restraint and propriety,’ says Sarah Gristwood, author of The Story of Beatrix Potter. ‘Even when, in the summer of 1905, Norman wrote her a letter proposing marriage, it crossed in the post with a business letter from Beatrix addressed to “Dear Mr Warne” and signed off “I remain yrs sincerely Beatrix Potter”. But that doesn’t detract from the  strength of their feelings– indeed, if you look at their correspondence, Beatrix had been dropping hints for some time that she would like the relationship to grow closer, telling him of a long walk she’d like to have taken, making a point of adding that, unfortunately, “I have no one to walk with.”’

Beatrix Potter
Her first love, editor Norman Warne

By the time Norman proposed, he was 37 and Beatrix 39. ‘It was an equal and creative partnership which led to love. Beatrix saw her path to independence through her writing and Norman was always encouraging. He would have been an escape from her family home, and a chance to enter into a marriage to someone who wouldn’t stop her from writing and creating,’ explains Helen Antrobus of the National Trust, a co-curator of the V&A Museum’s new Beatrix Potter: Drawn To Nature exhibition that celebrates the author’s life and works.

Not everyone, however, was so enamoured. Beatrix’s unbending mother was shocked and deeply disapproved of the union. ‘Her mother didn’t see Norman as a suitable match for her daughter,’ says Helen. ‘She saw his family as being tradespeople, which is ironic considering the Potters were from Lancashire industrialist stock. In her letters with Norman, Beatrix said of her mother, “People who only see her casually do not know how disagreeable she can be when she takes dislikes.”’

And so the engagement wasn’t announced, despite Beatrix wearing Norman’s gold engagement ring. At the end of July 1905, reaching a deadlock, she accompanied her family on holiday to North Wales. Perhaps she hoped to gently bring her parents round to the love match?

On 24 August she wrote Norman a tongue-in-cheek letter about their future life together – ‘a silly letter all about my rabbits, and the walking stick that I was going to get for him to thrash his wife with’, she recorded in her diary– but he was never to read it. The next morning, she received a telegram from Norman’s sister Millie telling her that he was gravely ill.

Her urgent journey from Wales was to no avail; he had already succumbed to his illness by the time she reached his home. Tragically, Norman had died from a rare form of leukaemia, aged just 37. The potential of their marriage was never to be fulfilled. It was a heartbreak from which Beatrix would never truly recover.

Summoning all her stoicism, she wrote later that she was glad she had not reached London in time to see Norman alive, confessing, ‘I should only have cried and upset him.’

‘But that was far from the whole story,’ Sarah Gristwood says. ‘Months afterwards, Beatrix confessed to his sister Millie that when he proposed: “I thought my story had come right with patience and waiting.” Her engagement present to him had been a drawing of Cinderella’s carriage – the image of an escape. But now the carriage was turned back into a pumpkin.’

Beatrix Potter
Hill Top farm in the Lake District, 1907, where she retreated after Norman died

Determined to be brave, she wrote to Millie that she ‘must try to make a fresh beginning’. That meant looking to the Lake District, a place she had fallen in love with on childhood holidays, and the setting of many of her books. ‘After his untimely demise, I don’t think she ever stopped searching for a sense of home,’ Helen Antrobus adds. This explains why, three months after her fiancé’s death, using royalties from her books, she bought Hill Top farm in Near Sawrey, a village she called ‘as nearly perfect a little place as I have ever lived’. She retreated there, with Norman’s doll’s house furniture, to reflect on a life that never was.

READ MORE: Our tribute to the late, great Helen McCrory

The solitude of the Lake District did eventually work its healing power on the grief-stricken Beatrix. Aged 47, she met and married a respected local solicitor called William Heelis, with whom she had a 30-year relationship. But Norman held a piece of her heart for ever and she wore his ring on her right hand for the rest of her life.

In a letter to Millie dated November 1918, five years after her marriage, she recalls how she nearly lost the ring lifting wet sheaves in the cornfield. ‘My hand felt very strange and uncomfortable without it.’

Beatrix in 1938

The Hamleys doll’s house furniture given to her by Norman as a token of his esteem remains at the National Trust-managed Hill Top farm to this day, as do many of her treasured belongings.

‘Even after Norman’s death, her letters refer to him liking a certain colour or landscape,’ says Helen. ‘Continuing the work they started together was a process Beatrix used to heal from his death; he lived on in the tales that he helped to shape.’

Beatrix died of bronchitis on 22 December 1943 at her Lake District home. She was 77. The National Trust described her as a ‘many-sided genius’. Legions of fans remember her as the creator of Britain’s most mischievous bunny. Her books have sold over 250 million copies, which have been translated into 46 languages. Nearly 80 years on from her death, her stories continue to delight.

What a bitter irony, therefore, that the one tale she never managed to complete was her first and forbidden love story.

Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, in partnership with the National Trust, is at the V&A Museum in London. For details and tickets, visit vam.ac.uk/exhibitions

IMAGERY: EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS/GETTy IMAGES, NATIONAL TRUST/ROBERT THRIFT, ©VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM