Miss Potter: A Woman Ahead of Her Time



Renee Zellweger is deep in character, and unrecognisable in costume with her natural, almost non-existent make-up, plump figure, and thick English accent.

She is in London playing the generally memorable role of a perennial spinster, but it is not Bridget Jones’ Diary—the film is Chris Noonan’s heartfelt tale from 2006, Miss Potter.

This exquisite film is a biopic depicting the life of Beatrix Potter early in the 20th Century as she makes the transition from a dependent spinster to a wildly successful children’s author, illustrator and landowner.

The charm of the story comes through her romance with a sweet and unassuming publisher, Norman Warne (played by Ewan McGregor), as well as the interludes of her iconic characters, such as Peter Rabbit, who hops, skips and jumps across the screen in a blue overcoat with shiny brass buttons.

But there is more to this film than animated animals and first love; it also provides an important social commentary of the Edwardian Era, from the perspective of a woman who defied all conventions.

It begins with Beatrix Potter packing up a portfolio of her drawings to take them (along with her droll chaperone Miss Wiggin) to the offices of the Warne Brothers Publishing House. The senior Warne brothers think her proposal for a children’s book a ridiculous waste of time but are in search of a project to keep their other brother Norman distracted and so begrudgingly acquiesce to publishing Beatrix’s “little bunny book.”

A single woman in that time with aspirations to become an author was distasteful enough, but Beatrix also had the highly undesirable habit of having firm and unavertable opinions. She had very clear ideas about how Peter Rabbit should be published, including the look, colour, size and price, and would not be diverted from it. These character traits alone set her apart as a troublesome woman but to a modern audience, she was a pioneer, clearly ahead of her time.

Beatrix was born into the aristocracy, in a time of horse-drawn carriages, waist-coated footmen, long white gloves and petticoats. The only future expected of her was to marry a suitor of her parent’s choosing and live an obedient life in a respectable home. Her mother often reiterated the fact that Beatrix should learn how to run a household, plan parties, and keep a full social calendar, but Beatrix had other ideas: “You see, we cannot stay at home all our lives, we must present ourselves to the world and look upon it as an adventure!”

She was a rare specimen of her time, a woman unmarried and not unhappy about it, and nothing “like others that sat around gossiping and bursting into tears.” At least, she was until she met Norman.

As the youngest son in a trade family, Norman had similar societal expectations thrust upon him. His place was also in the home as a “nurse maid” for his wheelchair-bound mother. He knew what it was like to live a life of stifled ambition and became Beatrix’s kindred spirit, but class prejudices of the time dictated their union would not be seen as a “favourable” one.

In the Edwardian era, an ideal marriage was not based on shared opinions, mutual regard or love but on the benefits of class, money, and connections. Women relied on men for their livelihood and unmarried women like Beatrix depended on ongoing financial support from their fathers.

When her little books started hopping off the store shelves, Beatrix was given something very rare for women at the time: financial independence. For the first time in her life, she could be the determiner of her own future, make her own decisions, and speak her mind without fear of retribution.

One conversation in the film illustrates this well:

“This book has changed me, Mr Warne.”

“How’s that?”

“For one thing, its given me the chance to prove to my mother that an unmarried woman of 32 can do more than attend parties and smile at dull conversations.”

Norman’s sister Millie was also an instigator of social commentary in the film. Also a spinster, with no intentions of becoming one of those “stationary unfulfilled” women who marry, Millie provides Beatrix with friendship and a feminist perspective that encourages her to continue a solitary, independent life. As she puts it, “Men are bores. They are useful for only two thing in life: financial support and procreation.” But when Beatrix confides in Millie that Norman has proposed, her prior objections to marriage and the lives of married women completely disappear. Her advice then becomes, “You have a chance to be loved, take it!”

As with any good romance, the crux of the film becomes a love story. All happy thoughts of self-sufficiency or independence for women are promptly cast aside when a love interest comes along… they share smiling looks, steal a kiss in the rain, and exchange besotted letters, as every young infatuation should.

But make no mistake, this film is not a Hollywood-ized version of Beatrix Potter’s life. The love story was a real one, based on documented fact. For Chris Noonan, it was a case of finding a gem in the reality that was better than anything he could have dreamed. ♥



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