Beatrix and her Secret Code

Beatrix Potter and her Secret CodeLittle is known about Beatrix’s life in her early teens apart from summer holidays spent in Scotland and later The Lake District. As in her childhood she continued to live a solitary life in her attic quarters where her only company was her dolls and her animals and sometimes visits from several governesses. Her main activity consisted of a few drawing lessons and tending her animals.

One would think that this would be a most boring life for a young girl in her teens but she had an extremely creative mind and occupied herself with reading, drawing and painting.  She used her brother’s microscope to study insects and even learned whole plays of Shakespeare.

This creative imagination may not have developed had she not been so isolated.  In fact in later life she commented

“Thank goodness my education was neglected; I was never sent to school…The reason I am glad I didn’t go to school – it would have rubbed off some of the originality”(1)

It was during this period in her life, probably when she was 14 or 15 years old, she invented her now famous secret code.

This 200,000 word document may never have come to light if she hadn’t mentioned it in a letter to a cousin in the last few weeks of her life.

After her death Leslie Linder, a devoted fan of Beatrix Potter, painstakingly decoded what Beatrix had intended should remain secret.

Beatrix continued to write in her secretly coded Journal about her everyday life until she was in her thirties. The interesting thing is that in these secret writings there was very little about her private thoughts and feelings or her inner experiences but she wrote much about  about art and literature, science and nature, politics and society.

It is not known why Beatrix felt the need to keep such a secret Journal but it was evident that she had perfected her code sometime before she began keeping a record in her Journal and it appears to have been written with speed and accuracy.

She may have been influenced by her knowledge that Mr Samuel Pepys had written his diary in cipher-shorthand. On one occasion, having severely criticised one of Michael Angelo’s paintings, she had noted “No one will read this”. 

Children love secrets and there is no doubt that the fact that no adult could read her Journal was an added attraction. But this urge to write was more than just a childish whim.  According to Margaret Lane from “Quite an early age Beatrix Potter had been conscious of a creative urge which she had been at a loss to know how best to satisfy. Painting every object or creature that struck her fancy – an old barn a lizard, a bat – was not enough: collecting and classifying fossils or articulating the skeletons of mice was not enough either; learning the psalms by heart or even composing hymns failed to satisfy the restless energy which demanded that she must also write, in spite of the fact that she seemed to have no material. The invention of the code was a challenge to which she responded with zest recording anything and everything which happened to catch her attention”(2)  Beatrix seems to have been driven “by an inner command to use her faculties, to stretch her mind, to let nothing of significance escape, to create something.”(3)

This secret coded document “plots for us the slow course from Beatrix’s imaginative beginnings to her unique achievement” (4) and would appear to be her greatest work.

 

(1) The magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane – pp 19

(2) The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane – pp 31

(3) The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane – pp 31

(4) The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane – pp 32

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