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An insider's guide to Beatrix Potter

By Jackie Dent for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A troubled love affair, a rabbit named Peter in a blue coat, rich and snobby parents, theories about lichen: The life of illustrator and author Beatrix Potter is perfect fodder for a Hollywood biopic.

"Miss Potter" stars Renée Zellweger and charts the travails she faced in her life, including career setbacks and a difficult love with Norman Warne, her publisher, played by Ewan McGregor. The film opens world wide in the coming months.

How did Potter get into drawing? The daughter of wealthy Londoners and unable to attend school because she was a girl, Potter began drawing at an early age to fight off boredom and loneliness. She spent her holidays with her brother Bertram exploring Scotland and the Lake District in north-west England with a box of watercolors in hand.

According to Judy Taylor, Potter's biographer, the two children had a menagerie of pets, including snakes, rabbits and bats, and when the animals died, they would boil them so they could analyze their skeletons.

Is it true she was a scientist? Potter was really a scientific illustrator before she became a children's writer. In her teens she became interested in lichen and fungi, and spent years drawing them.

In 1897, her paper on the germination of spores was presented to the Linnean Society by her uncle Sir Henry Roscoe as women were barred from attending meetings. One hundred years later, in 1997, the Society issued an official apology to Potter for the way she had been treated.

So Potter's disillusionment with science led her to Peter Rabbit? Definitely. Sir Henry took Potter and her drawings to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in the hope she would become a student. She was horribly snubbed and decided to reject the world of "science". Her formal career in mycology, the study of fungi, was finished.

How did she come up with Peter Rabbit? The famous rabbit in the blue coat was born in a letter she wrote to five-year-old Noel Moore, the son of one of her governesses, in 1893. The letter, famously, started: "My dear Noel, I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits..." Unable to find a publisher for her work, Potter put out the book privately in 1901. It was picked up a year later in 1902 by Frederick Warne & Co.

Did she marry? Norman Warne was the youngest of the Warne brothers, and helped Potter with her books. The two fell in love but Potter's family were against the relationship as publishing was not considered a respectable business. The couple persisted and were engaged in 1905, when Warne proposed by letter. Potter accepted but a month later her fiancee died.

In 1913, Potter married William Heelis, a solicitor, despite the opposition of her parents who considered the "country solicitor" not good enough for their daughter.

What is Hill Top? It is the 17th-century farm near Sawrey in the Lake Districts that Potter purchased after Warne died and it was her first move towards independence. She continued to write children's stories -- the farm inspired characters such as Samuel Whiskers, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck -- but her passion for farming soon overtook her life and she moved there permanently.

According to her official Web site (click hereexternal link), she bred Herdwick sheep, a rare and threatened breed indigenous to the Lake District, and was the first woman to be elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association.

When she died in 1943, she left her vast estates to the National Trust, a UK society that preserves historic homes and gardens.


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Potter began drawing at an early age to fight off boredom and loneliness.

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