The well-kept paradise she dreamed about during chemotherapy came straight from her old Beatrix Potter books. Nothing so lovely could exist in real life. Could it?
By Catherine O’Neill Grace
One of my early memories is of a tantrum I threw in my room in our apartment at 102 Golf Links in New Delhi, India, where my father was posted with the U.S. State Department. I don’t remember what thwarted me, but thwarted I was. I had a low, white-painted bookcase along the wall under the windows that looked out over a dusty square lined with acacia and neem trees where the neighborhood boys played cricket. In my rage, I slammed my books onto the floor, stamped on them, and threw them around my room. All the while, my ayah, Maggie, sat quietly watching me, impassive in her white sari, endlessly patient. And my rage ran out, as rages do.
I remember Maggie picking up one of my childhood books—possibly The Little Engine That Could or A Child’s Garden of Verses, but more likely my beloved, battered little Tale of Peter Rabbit—and held it out to me. “This book is your friend,” she said. And she kissed the cover and handed the poor volume back to me to put on the shelf.
The books of my Indian childhood were eclectic—a mash-up, if you will, of Ogden Nash and Edward Lear, Superman comics and the School Friend Annual, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton mysteries (my favorite was Upper Fifth at Malory Towers), Louisa May Alcott and Rumer Godden.
My beautiful boxed set of the diminutive Beatrix Potter books followed me through many, many moves, eventually disappearing during my adulthood as I relocated from Washington, D.C., to St. Paul, Minnesota, or from Waltham, Massachusetts, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or from Chapel Hill to Buffalo, New York. Who knows? I hope a child in one of those cities got as much joy from The Tailor of Gloucester and The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse as I did. That child found my name carefully written in the little “This Book Belongs To” box on the frontispiece of each volume. I wonder if she wrote her own name beside it.
In Delhi, we lived in a second-floor apartment with a roof garden full of bright hollyhocks and marigolds, but it was the benevolent green gardens of the Potter books that I saw in my imagination when the dust storms came in the night. My books were the perfect size for small hands and, holding them, I could ignore the malevolent nighttime roar of my enormous window air-conditioner. In their pages, there were no jackals or bandits or black panthers or rabid pye-dogs, as ferocious strays were known. There were threats, God knows—cue Mr. McGregor, the farmer who loves rabbit pie and tries to capture Peter under a garden sieve. (You will recall that Peter escapes, wriggling under the garden gate and going home to be put to bed with a cup of chamomile tea.)
I believe each of us holds our own Eden in our imagination. Mine is the natural world in Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations—the hedgerows and bracken, the stone-fence-enclosed fields, the bean rows, the field daisies, the forget-me-nots and foxgloves and cottage roses. But I never knew how much I needed those storied gardens until I reached my early sixties.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer during the second spring my husband and I spent in New York City. For many weeks, I took the M5 bus uptown to Mt. Sinai Hospital on Fifth Avenue from our apartment in the East Village for treatment—bald, and jazzed and jumpy from steroids. As I rode, I pictured Beatrix Potter’s garden. I imagined myself into it as I sat in the infusion clinic, chemo’s contradictory gift flowing into my veins. Someday, I promised myself, I will go there. When this is over, I will find this garden.
Reader, I traveled there.
Early one morning in 2015, I arrived at Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District. Potter bought Hill Top in 1905 with the proceeds from her runaway best-seller Peter Rabbit.
With three indulgent traveling companions, I walked through a gate in the boundary hedge and up a path to Hill Top. It was high summer—late July. Astilbe foamed through the slats of the garden fence. Delphiniums dared their stakes to try and hold them upright. Pinks and sweet William nodded in the beds. There were bellflowers and poppies, stock and zinnias in profusion. The vegetable garden overflowed with lettuces and carrottops and cabbages—and Peter Rabbit’s little blue coat was mounted on crossed sticks to scare away, well, rabbits. Lavender and rosemary and sage scented the air. Roses climbed toward the windows of the house. The door was propped open as if its owner had just stepped out to snip, or to sketch, or to inspect the sheep she so successfully bred.
Somehow, I had been here before.
Adulthood, they say, is about forging through disappointment, tolerating ambiguity, making peace with loss. Very few things turn out to be better than you expected them to be. Not so Hill Top. Though it’s beloved by tourists of all ages and nationalities, though it’s one of the National Trust’s most visited sites, though it has a gift shop and a tearoom, it feels utterly outside time, and is as peaceful a place as I have ever been.
These days, I am fortunate enough to live next door to a garden not unlike Miss Potter’s, though its plants are mostly North American. My friend Ellen’s garden is enclosed in a weathering wood fence with two latched gates. In June it overflows with peonies and irises, in July with black-eyed Susans and coneflowers and Joe Pye weed and the trailing vines of French beans on a bamboo trellis. In the quiet of these past months of staying home since the pandemic set in, I have sat and watched the garden move from bud to blossom, from daffodils to peonies to poppies to hydrangeas. And the other evening, I saw a sizable rabbit slipping back out onto the lawn, squeezing his considerable bulk under the garden gate.
I guess Peter is still with me. ☾
VIDEO Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge. A charming, veddy British sketch of Miss Potter’s life and art, hosted by the actress Patricia Routledge (Keeping Up Appearances). 47’05”
AUTHOR’S BOOK PICKS Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter, by Matthew Dennison (Pegasus Books).
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, by Marta McDowell (Timber Press).
CATHERINE O’NEILL GRACE spent nearly eight years living in New Delhi and the Himalayas as a child, returning to the U.S. when she was twelve. She graduated from Sidwell Friends School and Middlebury College, and has an M.A. in English Literature from Georgetown University. She is the author of 26 books for children and adults, including 1620: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic) and Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children (Ballantine), co-authored with Michael Thompson and Lawrence Cohen. Now an editor and writer for the Wellesley College alumnae magazine, she lives in Sherborn, Massachusetts, and is at work on a memoir about her childhood in 1950s India.