Last week we had a very distinguished guest speaker, Juliet Dusinberre, the author of Alice to the Lighthouse, one of the best critical studies of children's literature, written almost thirty years ago. She talked about Beatrix Potter, and this talk very nearly made me change my mind, once again, about the value of biographical information for literary studies. I didn't know much about Beatrix Potter beyond basic facts (I guess, most of them from the movie, Miss Potter), and the letters and diaries that Juliet spoke about were really illuminating. One of our students wrote an excellent blog post about this talk, so I won't repeat it.
What struck me, however, was the similarity of Potter's life and struggle to her contemporary, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. Once upon a time I was a Lagerlöf scholar (published a book and several articles), and even then I wasn't interested in her biography, and even then I was wrong because there were many facts in her life that were reflected in her writing and therefore worth knowing. For instance, the loss – or threat of loss – of the childhood home surfaces in all her novels. When she got the Prize – first female writer ever to receive it – she bought back her father's estate, and, much like Potter, kept buying adjacent land and expanding farming. As rich and famous, she still had to challenge her male fellow writers and was often referred to as "fairy tale auntie". Unlike Potter, she wrote novels, but she also wrote one book for children that is, at least internationally, better known than her novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Among many remarkable things she does in this book, commissioned as a geography textbook, she is a passionate animal rights promoter. Could she be familiar with Beatrix Potter's books? Possibly. Could Potter have read Nils? It was translated into English early. Does it matter? Not really.
Of the many famous words by Lagerlöf, my favourite is from her diary: "Today I sold twenty sacks of flour and a short story". That could have been Beatrix Potter.