March 08, 2016

Beatrix Potter: The Business Women Behind The Bunny

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Happy International Women’s Day, fellow humans! To mark this special day, where we can all unapologetically celebrate our favourite women (even though I pretty much do that every single day of the year, #sorry #notsorry), I wanted to write about one particular woman that I’ve recently rediscovered: Beatrix Potter. From looking at her life, relationships, career and journey of endless creativity, it’s clear that she had her shit together. Even though she came from quite a well-to-do family, she was ahead of her time in terms of how she made her own money and created an empire doing what she loved. 

So I wanted to write a post about Beatrix Potter, the business woman.

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A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the Beatrix Potter Penguin archives at the V&A. It was a Monday morning and the sun was shining. I hardly ever leave my postcode in Hackney these days, so I often feel like a proper tourist in London sometimes, especially when visiting museums in the middle of the day.

I met with a really lovely representative from Frederick Warne, an imprint of Penguin who are celebrating the 150th anniversary of her books in print. How cool is that? The same publisher who first published Beatrix Potter is still going and still publishing her work, all these years later. I was impressed at just how much material they have saved from Beatrix’s life, you immediately begin to get a sense of who she was.

I loved her books as a child, but going along and seeing so many beautiful archived books, letters, drawings and paintings it brought back loads of memories I forgot I even had. All of the characters. The animations I used to watch as small child, the way her paintings would come to life and suddenly your shoulders would drop, become less tense, and away you’d disappear, into a magical land of talking animals. Who knew a little family of mischievous rabbits would becoming one of the biggest selling children’s books of all time: 45 million copies have been sold to date.

I wasn’t aware of how business savvy she was. She self-published Peter Rabbit with her own money as a mock up (pictured below) and then sold it to her publisher who said “yeah, we might sell like 5,000 copies if you’re lucky” and kept calling it “the bunny book” in letters. Then, in the first week it went mental and they had to re print it multiple times. Then she was their star author and is still in print 150 years later. She dealt with everything herself (even though her dad and husband often tried to muscle in and get involved) and earned money by selling Christmas cards with her illustrations on them. She then went to live in the Lake District to stomp around in the leafy hills. I held her old clogs today that still had mud on them.

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Here’s four things I didn’t know about Beatrix Potter:

She was home-schooled until she was seventeen. When asked about school, Beatrix once said: ‘Thank goodness I was never sent there [to school] it would have rubbed off some of the originality‘.

She wrote a diary in code. Like we all did when we were in our teens, she would write it in ways that people couldn’t quite decipher – the diary was discovered fifteen years after her death.

She self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit before getting a publishing deal. We know now that Peter Rabbit was one of most popular stories of all time, but it was rejected by quite a few commercial publishers first so she self-published her own mock-up version in 1901. 45million copies have been sold globally and it’s been translated into 36 languages.

She died at the age of 77 and Beatrix left her Lake District farms, covering more than 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust.

If you’re sharing posts for International Women’s Day tomorrow, Twitter is promoting the hashtag #SheInspiresMe, dedicated to tweets with or about women that inspire you.

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