Saturday, June 30, 2012

Beatrix Potter

Today on TV I saw the 2006 movie Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger, and was much impressed by it. I wish I'd gone to see it when it was in theatres, but I had feared the movie would be too cutesy, what with making her illustrations of animals come to life. Indeed I still think that showing her talking to her characters and calling them her "real friends" when she was a grown adult of 36 was really stupid. It made me think she was hallucinating and genuinely unable to distinguish reality from fiction. She didn't look merely eccentric, with an overactive imagination; she looked mentally ill and "potty."

And yet I loved most everything else about the movie. It was better than Hysteria in some ways, especially in its handling of spinster women and feminism.

The film is principally about Beatrix Potter becoming a successful author and having an ill-fated romance with her editor Norman Warne, though it does show some of her life afterward. In London in 1902, Beatrix nervously prepares to bring her portfolio to the publishers Frederick Warne & Co., all while muttering insanely to her drawings. The Warne brothers act stilted and mostly cold as they look through her illustrations and her handmade book of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." She makes her case worse by talking about the characters as if they were real, even though Harold Warne was explicitly asking about the animals wearing human clothes, which is not in anyway real. What a delusional idiot. Unexpectedly, they agree to publish her book, and she goes off in delight. Privately, the Warnes say they will hand off the book to their younger brother Norman, because they think it will be a failure.

When Beatrix arrives at home, she argues with her mother, insisting that she's adult and doesn't need permission to go out with her friends. Her mother says, "You don't have friends," and she counters that she has friends in her drawings. (This really makes her look sad and pathetic, and I've since read on Wikipedia that Beatrix did have friends whom she sent her picture letters to all the time. Why make her look like a painfully lonely introvert? She needn't be turned into Emily Dickinson.)

Anyway, Beatrix's mother Helen says that the paintings are pretty, but aren't great art. (Wikipedia says that both Beatrix's parents were artistic, so apparently the writers discarded that to make the conflict between a traditional domestic woman and a creative genius sharper.) Then we see a flashback to Beatrix's childhood, running around with her brother Bertram and playing with their various pets--a bunny, mice, newts, etc. She draws and paints them in watercolor, and her father praises her talent, but then she starts hallucinating the animals moving. Her mother is more concerned with social climbing, and reminds Beatrix that one day she will be married, running a household of her own. Beatrix just imagines them riding off in a pumpkin coach drawn by giant rabbits. At bedtime, she also tells stories involving their pets to her younger brother and their nanny. Bertram, incidentally, is never seen as an adult, and he's shown as an amateur entomologist, which Beatrix seems to find cruel. (In real life, Beatrix was into entomology too, as well as the study of fungi. She spent some of her younger years doing experiments and trying to have her theories be accepted in legitimate scientific societies. I know fictionalization can sometimes necessitate simplification, but it's sad to pretend she was all art and no science.)

In the present, Norman (Ewan McGregor) visits Beatrix at home to discuss the book, and he admits to his inexperience. They see eye to eye about the book, though, and they determine to prove their families wrong by making it a success. Another flashback to childhood summers spent in the countryside. When the children get muddy, Beatrix's mother speaks again about Beatrix needing to be ladylike to get married someday. This time Beatrix says she won't marry; she'll draw. Her father Rupert thinks she'll change her mind when she grows older. In the present, Norman takes Beatrix to the printing house to directly supervise the choice of colors for the illustrations. Then he takes her to meet his sister and his mother.

Beatrix's spinsterhood is emphasized by Norman's sister Millie (Emily Watson). Millie is also unmarried and bonds with Beatrix immediately over it. Millie, unlike Beatrix, is more modern and feminist; her hair is always untidy, and she wears a variety of "manly" outfits, which include waistcoats and ties (though she always wears skirts). Beatrix is almost always proper and ladylike, despite her rebellion from her mother. This difference in costume is a far more subtle contrast to how Emily and Charlotte dressed in Hysteria. Emily was feminine while Charlotte often left her blouses unbuttoned to an unrealistic degree; she would surely have been mistaken for a loose woman rather an independent one. Whereas Charlotte was always spouting feminist sentiments about society and haranguing people about her causes, Millie's outrageous talk feels more natural and personal. She says she is sick of unmarried ladies of her social class always gossiping and crying. Later, in private, she says that men are bores and only useful for financial support and procreation. She says that married women pay a high price in domestic enslavement and childbirth. But it's not said in a lecturing tone; it's more good humor and between friends who share similar views of defying convention. Beatrix herself confesses her relief at age 20 when one of her suitors married, and her mother no longer brought suitors to her. Beatrix was quite happy. I was almost thinking this film would be a nice nuanced portrayal of asexuality and happy spinsterhood (not knowing anything about how Beatrix's life, much less Millie's turned out). If only the contrast between Emily and Charlotte Dalrymple had been like this in Hysteria.

At home, Beatrix's mother Helen still doesn't take the book seriously and criticizes her for going to inappropriate places like the printer's. They argue about how Helen introduced Beatrix to many eligible men, but Beatrix stubbornly rejected them all. We see brief flashbacks to three such men, caricatured as a sheep, a pig, and a horse, but nothing else seems to be wrong with them; they aren't portrayed as bullies, nor even given enough time to prove themselves bores. Beatrix for whatever reason just didn't like them.

The romance between Beatrix and Norman continues, charmingly. Her first children's book is an immediate success, and they start discussing more books to publish. Another flashback. In 1904, Beatrix decides to invite Norman and Millie to her parents' annual Christmas party. However, at home, her mother objects because Norman is a mere "tradesman" and should not mix with the high society types who are her guests. Beatrix's father Rupert settles the dispute because he has heard compliments from all his fellow Reform club members about Beatrix's books. Rupert even bought a book himself and says he is proud of Beatrix's accomplishment; he's sorry that he too was dismissive of the books at first because he still thought of Beatrix as a little girl. However, now he sees that she's an adult with a career. He always wanted to be an artist himself (but was forced into the more respectable law), and now he's happy that Beatrix has become an artist. So Rupert is happy to invite Norman and Millie.

At the Christmas party, Beatrix spends much time with Norman and Millie, not enjoying the frivolous small talk of the other guests. Norman hatches a plan to get Beatrix's chaperone drunk, so they can be alone. Millie also helps by taking Norman's place in a gentleman's game of whist. When Beatrix takes Norman upstairs to her room to view his Christmas present, he dances with her and then tries to propose. Beatrix is stiff and nervous when dancing and seems almost terrified of his proposal. She's glad when her mother interrupts, and Beatrix insists that she's an "impeccably genteel unmarried woman" not behaving scandalously. She grabs Norman's present, a large painting of a Rabbit Christmas party, and goes downstairs. She tells the other guests about it, and receives their genuine interest and praise. Everyone tells Helen that she should be proud of her daughter, and Helen is rather surprised. Beatrix takes Millie aside to confess about the proposal, and she's worried that Millie would not approve. Millie tells her not to be foolish, and to marry Norman if she loves him. Beatrix asks, what happened to Millie's talk of marriage as horrible, and Millie says, "hogwash," that's just what unmarried women say. I was very disappointed in that remark. They could have instead had Millie say she was perfectly sincere, but that it only applied to herself, and that she would not force her viewpoint or her celibacy on someone else who couldn't live that way. Anyway, Millie gives her blessing, and Beatrix hurries back to softly tell Norman "yes" before he leaves the party.

The next day, Norman goes to see Beatrix's father at his club, presumably to ask permission/get his blessing. However, Rupert is very literally short with him, dismissing him after five minutes. At home, Beatrix argues vehemently with her parents about the proposal. Rupert and Helen are united in thinking Norman an unsuitable tradesman, while Beatrix argues that her own grandparents were in trade. Helen threatens to disinherit her, but Beatrix retorts that her brother wasn't disinherited for similar behavior, and she points out that she has her own means as an author. She storms up to her room, and her father again tries to argue with her, mentioning all the men she's rejected before. She says she didn't want to be a silly woman who only married for a man's prospects. She wants love.

Beatrix then inquires at her bank about her income, for she wishes to buy a house someday and be independent. She happily learns that she's wealthy and able to buy anything she desires. At home, her parents talk to her about a compromise. They believe that Beatrix is being impulsive and will change her mind given time, so they ask for Beatrix to keep her engagement secret, to wait until after their usual summer trip, and then marry afterward if she still feels the same. The secrecy is so there will be no public embarrassment if she breaks off the engagement later. Beatrix agrees to this absurdity instead of just buying her own house and going off immediately. So months pass in secrecy, as they exchange rings and Millie helps them. When Beatrix leaves for the summer with her parents, Norman comes to see her off. He stands in the rain, and she says he'll catch a cold, but he doesn't care. He kisses her before she leaves on the train. (Obviously, in movie tropes, this means that he shall catch a cold and die before she returns. In real life, Beatrix and Norman got engaged in July 1905, not Christmas the previous year, and he died only a month later of leukemia. So no, it was not a fatal cough brought on by the rain. Dramatic license really tries to pour on the tragedy, doesn't it?) Anyway, while she's in Windermere for the summer, they write letters, but he doesn't mention any illness. She also tours a neighboring farm that's for sale, and runs into an old childhood friend named William Heelis who's now a local lawyer. She wants to buy the house as a country home, even though she plans to live in London with Norman after the marriage.

Then of course, Norman's letters stop and Millie writes that he's gravely ill. Beatrix returns to London alone, but is too late for even his funeral. Norman's brothers are unaware of the engagement, and you'd think Millie would have confessed the truth to them, so they could delay the funeral for Beatrix. Anyway, Beatrix goes to her home and locks herself in her room to grieve for Norman. There's a sequence with her drawing, and her animated characters running off in dread. Finally Millie comes to visit her, to get her cleaned up. Beatrix decides that she'll leave the house and buy the Lake District farm she looked at. Soon her parents reluctantly watch her move all her things out of the house, and they can't understand it. Beatrix says she's not moving out because of them, but because she needs to make her own way in the world. So she moves to Hill Top Farm, but still has some sad nights there sobbing, until she starts to draw again. Millie comes to visit her, and Beatrix says that she's had offscreen visits from her brother and her mother, and everything's okay. She's happier now, and painting stories anew.

Then we see her and Heelis attending a meeting of local farmers to debate creating a land trust to protect the area from city development. We learn that she has had local farmers keep Hill Top a working farm, and that she wants to buy up other adjoining properties to save more land. The last part of the movie is spent on this issue of preservation and she grows closer to Heelis, until they are on a first name basis. In the end, she gives a voice over about being where she belongs in the country. We see titles explaining that Beatrix married William Heelis 8 years later, despite her mother's disapproval, and that she also donated 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust. Great to see her find a new purpose in life, and a way to still be unconventional even if she doesn't end as a spinster.

It's mostly a satisfying movie except where it concerns Millie Warne's "hogwash" statement, making it seem like she didn't choose to become a spinster, and would take romance and love any day over being alone. So it's not perfect, but as I said, better than Hysteria. I think I might try to see Hysteria again, to see how I feel after learning the truth about Mortimer Granville and after seeing Miss Potter.

I do wish that I could write this sort of feminist character in my sketches of Helen and Julia Stoner in my Holmes novel. Well at least the part when Helen initially believed she'd never marry, and disapproved of Julia's quick engagement to escape Stoke Moran. The dynamic could work for the quasi-sisterly friendship of Helen Stoner and Irene Adler too, when Irene has sworn off men and Helen returns to New York after her broken engagement with Harry Tibbs. Or one of these days I should write an asexual character who doesn't succumb to romance in the end.

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