Once upon a time a Victorian lady walked into her study, sat down and looked out of the window into her Lancashire garden and the vegetable patch beyond.
She couldn’t see any activity but was sure something was helping itself to her bounty. So whilst waiting she took out some writing paper, picked up her treasured pen, dipped it into the inkstand bottle and began to write. It was 1893.
63 years before this, a 14 year old girl with a head full of imagination wrote six very small books the size of matchboxes for her toy soldiers in the place she called Glass Town. She and her sisters would disappear into a candlelit world of their own as the rain beat onto the window panes of their Yorkshire parsonage.
In the years following, both had to self-publish their first books and each struggled to make any headway. But if Billy Ocean had taken either into a time machine and shown them the effect of what they’d started, they’d have been astonished.
Hang on. What’s a 70’s disco icon doing here? Humour me.
It’s the present day and I’m in the Lake District surrounded by Japanese tourists. It’s a wet Wednesday but still busy.
Hill Top Farm is small and its embattled entry point is controlled by the National Trust using a timed ticket system. Those around me have flown almost 6000 miles to be here. They queue respectfully but cannot hide their excitement.
Almost reverentially they move with a sense of group urgency through the carefully arranged rooms full of antiques and ambience towards their goal. The gift shop. They’re here for one thing. The Japanese are bonkers for Peter Rabbit.
Everything with his image goes into their bags with delight amongst a flurry of selfies and squeals.
Why? They cannot resist the heady mix of small, cute and furry. Add European culture and you have the perfect Oriental storm. Try driving an original UK Mini through Tokyo.
Bizarrely, in June 2006 a life size recreation of Hill Top Farm was built in the Saitama Childrens Zoo outside the city to cater for the Japanese thirst for anything Potter.
But Beatrix didn’t create her loveable animal characters with them in mind. She wrote and illustrated “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” for five-year-old Noel Moore, son of her former governess Annie Carter Moore when she was 27 years old – and like most runaway literary successes it’s not complicated.
Peter is naughty, disobedient and steals carrots from Mr McGregor’s garden, then returns home to his mother who gives him tea and puts him to bed. Not a rollercoaster then.
Jeremy Fisher. Jemima Puddleduck. Mrs Tiggy Winkle and others followed. The rest is certainly history but the success she had with her imaginary friends was anchored in observations of natural reality.
Beatrix was a hardy Northern hill farmer in the 1920’s. She bred and raised Herdwick Sheep at Troutbeck Park Farm a former deer park. She was admired by her staff and shepherds for her willingness to experiment with the latest biological remedies to help her flocks. She loved the land and people she worked with. They loved and respected her back, but let’s not guild the lily. This was hard work.
Her particular writing, success and legacy made her land so successful it’s now protected for everyone to enjoy and The Lakes as a place of beauty has a popularity few can match.
Today the tourism created by the effect of Beatrix Potter and the Lake Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge in C19 is palpable.
When I think about why this is, I suppose it’s because as poets and authors the organic relationship between humans and the natural world resonated with so many of their readers. They translated Nature into words. One of the best storytellers of this genre lived near me.
Thornton is a village on the outskirts of Bradford in West Yorkshire where Charlotte Bronte arrived on the 21st April 1816. Thankfully it’s avoided the publicity Haworth gets and remains much as it was in her day, except for a blue plaque.
She was the third of six children born to Maria and Patrick. Maria died of cancer in 1821 leaving six children to be looked after by her sister Elizabeth. I’d like to tell you Patrick helped.
In her twenties Charlotte was a governess to children in Calverley, the village where I was raised. She attended St Wilfrid’s where many years later I was a choirboy, so I must declare an interest.
The Bronte Society recently made a successful bid for the last tiny book she wrote and signed. It will now join the other five and they will be finally be brought back together at the former family home of Haworth Parsonage in 2020.
President of the Society Dame Judi Dench: “These tiny manuscripts are like magical doorways into the imaginary worlds they inhabited, and also hinted at their ambition to become published authors”.
The cost to bring this small but very treasured item back home? £666,790. It took a mammoth fund-raising effort but they will now be reunited where they belong.
Many women in Victorian times really struggled with little support, money or help in a time when even the basic right to vote was denied them. Women writers even had to pretend to be men to get into print sometimes, George Eliot being most notable.
Mary Ann Evans used this male pen name to avoid being considered just a creator of light-hearted romances. Had she not, Martin Amis may never have got the chance to describe “Middlemarch” as the greatest novel in the English language.
So when you’re next gazing out of your window into the garden and wondering if you’ve got the courage to see your idea through to reality, take heart from the example of these inspiring women – and do it anyway.
How does it go Billy? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
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