The first two books in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert
I received both these books as a gift from a beloved aunt. Having seen Miss Potter (the movie starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger) not that long ago, I was intrigued to read these novels and hopefully glean a hint of Beatrix’s real life in the process.
Set in the Sawrey area of the Lake District in England, these books are a nostalgic flashback to 1905-06, and Susan Wittig Albert does a terrific job in painting a picture of the atmosphere, particularly highlighting the natural world that was so precious to Beatrix Potter and which she fought hard to preserve for future generations. (Having been to the area myself during a college study abroad trip, it was fun to recognize mention of places such as Ambleside).
It’s a time when village life seemed simple and idyllic on the surface (cozy farms, a forge, quaint cottages, a pub, etc). The villagers make frequent visits to each other’s homes and places of employment, gabbing on in the local dialect (a glossary of terms is a handy reference at the back of the book). On these encounters, the characters frequently enjoy a buttery scone and a cup of tea (or several), making my mouth water while I read – one of the unique features I appreciated about these books is that recipes that make an appearance in the story are given at the back of the book, such as Mrs. Beeton’s Veal and Ham Pie and Mrs. Lythecoe’s Recipe for Rhubarb and Raspberry Tart. I haven’t tried any of them yet but even without making them it’s interesting to see how things such as sausage were compounded, especially a century ago.
You’ve probably already guessed that while they’re eating, the neighbors are also betraying the gossipy underside of small town life. While some matters might be trivial and a bit of a yawn, there’s also the occasional mystery or underhanded maneuver to chat over. If you’re a fan of the world of Avonlea from L.M. Montgomery’s novels and Kevin Sullivan’s Road to Avonlea (7 Pack) TV series and related movies, you’ll love stepping back in time to the turn of the last century, and visiting a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else – and wants to know their business, too. Beatrix Potter comes to the area as the new owner of Hill Top Farm, which gives rise to much speculation on the part of the villagers. The men can’t figure out why a London cityslicker – a woman, no less – would want to try to run a working farm. The women are excited because Beatrix is the author and illustrator of many well-known children’s books (namely, The Tale of Peter Rabbit), though they, too, are perplexed as to why she would want to reside there. It turns out that Beatrix is no stranger to the Lake District, having vacationed there several times with her parents. Recently devastated by the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne, Beatrix sees Hill Top as her chance to have her own home, independent of her parents, and a fresh start (during the time period in which the series takes place, 1905-1913, Beatrix comes to Sawrey occasionally to oversee the farm, but because of her duty to care for her parents, she must frequently return to London).
Beatrix soon finds herself caught up in the village happenings, occasionally summoning a surprisingly strong will from the depths of her usually shy demeanor. Susan Wittig Albert has written a Victorian-Edwardian mystery series as well, and this experience plays into this series too, giving the reader some fun puzzles to ponder, but in a way that, while exciting, is never truly spine-tingling (in other words, creepy flashbacks didn’t give me trouble sleeping after reading). The first book deals with, among other things, a painting gone missing and possible poisoning; the second is largely a murder mystery. Beatrix Potter herself plays lead detective in the tales, assisted by some surprising sleuths: her pet animals and those of her neighbors, as well as wild animals residing in the village and the surrounding lakes and fells. I have to admit that I laughed aloud when I realized that this adult novel was going to feature talking animals (though admittedly the humans can’t understand them). However, having the animals converse actually lends to stimulating subplots. I was kind of disappointed, though, that there wasn’t even one person with whom they could really communicate (I was hoping it would be with Beatrix). The novels neatly tie up all loose ends by the close of each story, leaving the reader well satisfied, yet reluctant to return to the 21st century. I am hoping to track down book three in the series soon. Hopefully this sleuth won’t have to snoop further than my local library. While I’m there, I might also check out some of the Beatrix Potter biographies Susan Wittig Albert referenced for her stories (she provides a listing at the close of each book as well as a brief biography of her subject). If you’re looking for quaint and entertaining historical fiction, this series might just be your cup of tea.