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“Beatrix Potter’s Subversive Ideal: Darwin and the Survival of the Writer”

Name: Stefanie A. Jochman
Year of Graduation: 2007
Hometown: Sheboygan, WI
Major: English, with Secondary Ed. Certification

Name: Dr. John Pennington, Professor of English
Research Specialty: Victorian Fairy Tales and Children’s Fantasy Literature

We all know Beatrix Potter. Or at least her creations: Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor, Benjamin Bunny, Little Pig Robinson, and Jemima Puddle-Duck, to name only a few. Potter (1866-1943) is most famous for her illustrated children’s tales, but she was also an accomplished scientist. This seemingly discordant connection is the focus for our collaborative project.

Beatrix Potter’s scientific background, particularly her interest in the lichen, a dual-organism, mirrors Potter’s own “dual perspective” in her writing. Her animal tales and illustrations capture both the idyllic landscape of the Lake District and the contrasting, ruthless Darwinism of the animal cultures within it. Potter’s ability to portray such a dynamic and dramatic universe within the context of children’s literature makes her a daring and subversive writer for her time.

Potter’s illustrations have initiated discussion of the importance of clothing (or lack thereof) in determining the demeanor and fate of her animal characters. Past critics have narrowly examined Potter’s stories, suggesting only that the animals’ acceptance or refusal of clothing depicts Potter’s own feelings toward the confines of her Victorian upbringing. Now having read studies of both Potter’s life and work, I would argue that Potter was too determined, practical, and scientific a woman to use her animal stories merely as a lightly cloaked metaphor for the state of Victorian womanhood. Rather, Potter addresses the lives of both women and men in a postlapsarian society where the cruel reality of “survival of the fittest” pervades. Potter acknowledges such Darwinism in full and presents it rather matter-of-faculty in her “little books”; however, her illustrations remain hopeful that some ideal, some piece of childhood can be retrieved and preserved, a sentiment perhaps reflected in the author’s philanthropic contributions to England’s National Trust. Beatrix Potter’s stories combine her acute and perceptive knowledge of the natural world with a reverent sense of wonder that inspires its continued (albeit forewarned) exploration and preservation. In turn, the stories’ revelation of human “beastliness” spurs readers into examining another “natural” world—that of human nature itself.

My project with Professor Pennington, then, asserts Potter’s position as a literary Darwinist; denied a voice in the scientific community, Potter enabled her scientific theories’ survival by weaving it into the ink and paint of her tiny children’s books.

I first became interested in this project as I was preparing for my semester abroad in Lancaster, England. I needed to choose a topic for my Honors Program Study Abroad credit, and Professor Pennington suggested that I research the life and work of a writer from Northern England, perhaps Beatrix Potter or William Wordsworth. As a child, I read many of Potter’s tales, so I chose to focus my research on her work as an author and advocate for the preservation of England’s Lake District.

When I returned from Lancaster, I presented my work on Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales and their role in preserving the Lake District. As I completed my essay, I discussed my progress with Professor Pennington. He proposed a faculty/student collaboration that would allow us to pursue related interests. We would combine what I had learned about Potter’s work as an amateur scientist and children’s writer with Professor Pennington’s prior work on children’s literature and the Pre-Raphaelites to develop a Darwinist criticism of Potter’s animal tales.

Since beginning my study of Beatrix Potter, my interest in and respect for her has only grown. Potter was a pioneer and an innovator; her subversive children’s tales enabled her to demonstrate her scientific prowess when the science community ignored her on the basis of gender.

While in England, I learned to submerge myself into an author’s world; my visit to Hill Top, Potter’s farmhouse, was invaluable. I’ve also learned to stay abreast of new critical developments, namely those of the Darwinist critical movement, a growing school that is exciting to learn about and investigate as we continue our project.

I am now a St. Norbert graduate, but I am pursuing graduate studies in English at UW-Oshkosh, while teaching full-time at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay. I am a better teacher when I am also a student, so I appreciate how this project challenged me to be a teacher-scholar even before I began my M.A. program. I look forward not only to presenting the completed work at a conference and submitting it for publication but also relating it to my future graduate work.

Professor John Pennington
As a Victorianist, I have always been interested in the impact Darwin had on the literature of its age: Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” anticipated Origin of Species (1859), which influenced such divergent writers as Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and Samuel Butler. The major studies on Darwin and 19th century literature examined how these writers grappled with evolution in their works, particularly in relation to religious belief, or in Butler’s case rejected Darwin for a moral, intentional revamping of Lamarckian theory. In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson pose the following: “The core problem posed by art and altruism is the same: How do we explain behavior that produces such ostensibly unfavorable cost-benefit ratios? . . . How could the artist . . . successfully compete with individuals who eschewed cave painting, axe-handle elaboration, and storytelling in favor of hunting, gathering, pursuing mates, lavishing investment on offspring, cultivating allies, and other behaviors that directly augment survival and reproduction?” Art, one might conclude, is a tool of survival. Evolutionary literary theory investigates the survival value of literature. Stefanie and I are speculating how Potter, herself an accomplished scientist, who was unable to break into the scientific “men’s club” of her age, used writing and painting to engage in scientific debate while finding in this activity a survival technique.

Stefanie Jochman

Stefanie A. Jochman

“I am now a St. Norbert graduate, but I am pursuing graduate studies in English at UW-Oshkosh, while teaching full-time at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay. I am a better teacher when I am also a student, so I appreciate how this project challenged me to be a teacher-scholar even before I began my M.A. program.”

St. Norbert Collaborative

Phone: (920) 403-3147
Fax: (920) 403-4086

St. Norbert College • 100 Grant Street • De Pere, WI 54115-2099 • 920-337-3181