Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

I've read Book 2 (The Tale of Holly How) and Book 3 (The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood) of this series by Susan Wittig Albert.

The Plot: Beatrix Potter (yes, that Beatrix Potter!) solves crimes. These are cozy mysteries, set in England's Lake District in the time between the turn of the century and World War I.

The Good: I was reminded of Agatha Christie. These are tightly plotted mysteries, with enough clues to figure out the mystery along with Beatrix. She solves the mysteries not from being some busy body, but because she's becoming a member of this tightly knit village, and she observes, and puts two and two together. To assist the reader, each book begins with a map of the farm and surrounding villages, along with a "who's who" list to help keep track of the sometimes quirky village residents.

Books about Beatrix Potter have to include animals; and in these, the animals are active participants, with their own stories that parallel the main human mystery. A rat is concerned about rat company that has overstayed their welcome; meanwhile, the vicar is having similar troubles.

The humans cannot understand the animals; the animals converse amongst themselves. At times, the books almost move into an area of magical realism, in that some of the animals live the types of lives depicted by Beatrix in her books. For example, the Badger takes tea, some rabbits wear aprons, animals read and write books, animal homes have chairs and beds. (Yet no human ever observes this aspect of animal life.) (What would this be called? I'm hesitant to say it's fantasy, yet magic realism doesn't seem right, either.)

I also liked these because of where Beatrix is in her life. This mystery series is set during the time that Beatrix had just purchased her farm and was beginning her life there (roughly, the years 1905 to 1913). Her fiance had just died, and Beatrix is trying to rebuild her life. It isn't easy, because she has many constraints on her, both due to her sex and her class. It has taken her over 30 years to begin to assert her independence, and she is still doing so. The story of her fiance illustrates what Beatrix was up against: Beatrix got engaged despite the protests of her parents, who objected because the fiance was the wrong class (he worked) and because Beatrix marrying meant that she would be unable to fulfill her role of dutiful daughter, taking care of her parents.

In the first few books, the farm is a place of escape, of visiting; her real home remains with her parents, who judge all she does and have their own opinions about what is proper and what is not. Usually, books that are about "running away to start anew" are about how wherever you go, there you are; you cannot start anew because you carry the same baggage with you. This is different, because Beatrix has never been able to be herself. In these Tales, she is, for perhaps the first time, able to be be herself. I particularly liked how SWA was able to show the tension between what society expected and what Beatrix wanted.

Part of what I liked about these books is the glimpse of English life before World War I. There's one 12 year old boy in the story, and I'm rather grateful that the author plans on ending the story before the war starts. Still, I cannot help but appreciate this peek into a life and society that is so radically different from our own.

After reading these, I wanted to know more about Beatrix and am looking forward to the movie version of her life (not related to these books.)

Who'd be interested? Those who read and liked Beatrix's books; those who like mysteries; children who are looking for high-level reading materials; those who like cozy stories.

The author has put together a supporting web site, that includes everything from photos and the true story of Beatrix Potter to menus and recipes for a tea party. (Food figures in these books, and the books also include local recipes.)

Links: SWA's blog. the Sisters in Crime interview.


Anonymous said...

Susan Wittig Albert also writes, with her husband Bill, as Robin Paige, in another Victorian mystery series. I recall that one of the early books in that series also featured Beatrix Potter as a character. I guess SWA got attached to her, and decided to give Beatrix her own series. Thanks for the head's up!

Leesa said...

Beatrix Potter's lake district is absolutely beautiful.

Sophie Brookover said...

What SWA doesn't mention is what pieces of work Beatrix's parents were. They really didn't get either Bertram or Beatrix, and Beatrix felt moved to devise a fairly impenetrable code in which to write her diary. I often wonder what kind of science career she might have had, had she been born later -- did you know she was the first to identify lichen as two organisms living in symbiosis? If memory serves, she had to submit her paper and illustrations on the subject anonymously to the Royal Botanists' Society or similar.

I will totally be reading these books. I need a cozy mystery!

Liz B said...

Sophie, I should have posted more on it, because SWA does! Keep in mind I didn't read book 1, but in book 2 they mention abusive governesses & the code BP devised so people couldn't read her journal. The village boy who wants to go to school but cannot also is shown to parallel her own history of wanting more education etc and not being able to. Book 2 I passed along to someone, but I'll hold onto Book 3 for you.

Sophie Brookover said...

Oooh, thanks! I checked out Book 1 from my library yesterday and started reading it -- so far, so cozy.

Quite fortuitously, there's an article about Mrs. Heelis' friendship with Bertha Mahony Miller in the brand-new issues of The Horn Book.