March Is Women’s History Month
Miss Potter, starring Rene Zellweger, Mansfield Studios, 2007
Frankly, in the mist of time back to the days of my childhood, I was both fearful and delighted by the stories and illustrations of the famous English children's' book writer and illustrator who is the subject of this film, Ms. Beatrix Potter. Perhaps it was fear of the size of the animals in the editions that I would receive from a great aunt. Or because that aunt was poor but thoughtful it might have been the black and white illustrations in the editions that I received. (I was rather startled to see in this film that her work during her lifetime, at her fervent request to her publishers, was done in multi-colors.) Be that as it may be there are a couple of points that I want to make about this very interesting and well-acted film (particularly by Rene Zellweger as Ms. Potter) which on the face of it would seem outside the parameters of the kind of thing that would interest me and the kinds of subjects that I tend to write about in this space.
I am not sure how faithfully the creators of this film were to the biography of Ms. Potter's life, however, for my purpose that is neither here nor there. The story line here concerns (aside from the various romantic interests which a commercial film seemingly cannot do without even with accomplished middle class educated women like Ms. Potter or Ms. Jane Austen) the public flowering of the her story telling and illustrative talents under the guidance of a member of her publishing company (and eventual doom-struck lover) in early 20th century England.
That, of course, is a feat worthy of recognition in and of itself as this is the height of the Victorian period in that country. Her pluck and fortitude as she runs up against the ill wishes of her middle class but very class conscious parents (particularly dear Mrs. Potter) is one of the themes that drive this film. Another is the fate of a thirty-two year old unmarried woman who, moreover, is not concerned about being married if it interferes with her chances for artistic success. Fair enough, but Mother England (to speak nothing of Mother Potter) does not approve.
Finally, this film is a nice look at the fate of the creative artist who is in searching for her self-expression faces at least some condescension for being, merely, a children's' book writer (especially when she could be a ...wife and mother).
Those are the interesting themes presented in this film. The way that Ms. Potter struggles and perseveres to become an independent person with her own resources and navigate her own course through life is another in a now long series of female "uplift" films. This one is a worthy addition to that genre. As to the downside of Ms. Potter's story. The period under discussion was one of great social turmoil in England. This is, after all, the heyday of the women's suffragette movement led by the like of Sylvia Pankhurst (and her sister and mother) and of the emergence of a British Labor party led by Keri Hardie as well as other social experiments. There is no sense in this film that Ms. Potter was aware of such movements or much interested in them.
No one expects an artist, a creative artist to boot, per se to devote their talents for the greater good of their society in a political way. However it helps. Ms. Potter did begin to display a little of that consciousness toward the end of the movie, after she broke from her family and set on her own course, and set up independently in the country and attempted to preserve her Lake District surroundings. But rather than belabor that point let me end with this thought. When we fight for and get a more just society than we have now then maybe there will be time and space enough for a thousand thousand Beatrix Potters to flourish. Until then watch this film and do not be afraid to read her little books with those little animal drawings.