11. A biography: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell
List Progress: 13/30
This book found me at a strange balance. On the one hand, I was raised on the stories of children’s author Beatrix Potter and still love them to this day. On the other hand, I have very little knowledge of classic gardening and manage to kill almost every plant I try to grow. To really appreciate Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a 2013 biography by Marta McDowell, you need to be truly passionate about both Beatrix Potter and gardens, or at least half of the book will leave you a bit cold. However, this book is also about as comfortable and cozy of a read as you’re likely to find, which does have its place in my reading life.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was an English author, artist, gardener and natural scientist, best known for her children’s stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Fairy Caravan (The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was my personal favorite as a child). McDowell, who admits in the introduction that she did not read any of Potter’s books until she was an adult, sets out to tell Potter’s story not through a global lens of her whole life, but with a focus on the gardens, plants, and farms that were Potter’s passions. Beyond the meticulously detailed illustrations of plants in her work, Potter spent much of her life gardening, studying plant and fungal life and working towards land conservation in the historic Lake District. It’s a fascinating idea for how to approach a biography, and makes me think about how other artists could be studied through the lenses of their non-writing work.
The book is divided into three sections: a more general biography of Potter’s life, a season-by-season account of what plants Potter grew on her properties, and a walkthrough of the preserved properties as they exist today. The first section appealed to me the most, as more of a Potter fan than a plant fanatic, but the last two sections were interesting in their own way. I ended up reading it quite often before bed, as a mellow, low stakes bit of description of beautiful things that people put a lot of time and love into.
Accompanied by a great number of photographs and Potter’s illustrations, the work is at its heart a coffee table book, meant to be flipped through and admired more than read cover to cover. But that should not detract from how thoroughly researched it is, with McDowell combing through mountains of archived letters and journals to determine exactly what Beatrix Potter grew, where she got it from, how she felt about it, and why it mattered to her. McDowell’s tone is more conversational than clinical, positioning herself as a tour guide leading you through the Lake District and back through the past.
If you do not care about plants at least a little bit, there is almost nothing for you here. If you just want a biography of Beatrix Potter, the first section will serve you well, but there are almost certainly better or more comprehensive ones out there. But if you want to come along for a gentle country walk, look at beautiful things, and learn something about plants and gardening along the way, this is a really nice time.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but only for the intersection of gardening and Beatrix Potter fans.