This small inclusion has led to a frequent question. Upon handing my card over to an interested party I will get a quizzical look before being asked, "What's a polymath?"
- A person of great or varied learning
- AKA a Renaissance Man
To provide an example this entry is about a particularly humble polymath who I feel doesn't get enough credit for her incredible range of work. I've not done a Mighty Women post in a while so for those who are unfamiliar with them, this is my tribute to incredible women who have shaped and changed the world.
For most, Beatrix Potter is simply a name on tiny little storybooks for children. The life of the woman behind the writing and painting is not well known. At least for me, until I visited the Lake District, this was certainly the case.
Miss Potter, later Mrs. Heelis, was born into a middle class family when the middle classes were something very new. This was a class of people not quite born into wealth and not quite born into poverty. They perhaps had to work for a living but also often had a bit of wealth from family members before them. The difference between this inherited wealth and the wealth of the upper classes was that it was earned, often through industry. This was the case for Beatrix Potter's family, who had come from a long line of 'Tradesmen' who had done well and made their fortune.
For Beatrix, much of her life was spent observing duty. Her parents looked down on tradespeople, despite the source of their wealth, and they expected both Beatrix and her brother Bertrum to play the role of dutiful upper class children.
For Miss Potter this sort of life felt quite false, although the impression is that she didn't feel that she could often disagree with what was expected of her. It was a time when women were particularly beholden to the household life. If you were unwed you were expected to stay in the charge of your parents. If you were married then it was to your husband that you belonged.
But Miss Potter had ambition and refused to let it be squashed. She had been painting and drawing since childhood and in her early twenties she began to look at turning her art from hobby to work. Miss Potter first attempted to publish the many drawings and paintings she'd done of fungi specimens whilst on holiday in Scotland or the Lake District. She was, unfortunately, turned down for not having an education in the field and, of course, for being a woman.
This did not put Miss Potter off in the slightest, however. She was a head strong individual and she knew very well what she wanted to do. She enjoyed writing as well as art and in her thirties she finally managed to secure a publisher for a little story she'd written in a letter. This was 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' and this was the beginning of Miss Potter's independence.
She was, in her day, a more successful author than J.K. Rowling. In just a few years the royalties from the sale of her books was significant enough that she was independently wealthy, despite the fact that she still lived in the care of her parents.
She did eventually marry at the age of 47, to Mr. Heelis, a solicitor in Near Sawry. Married life did not at all hinder her incredible passion for knowledge and developing new skills. She became an avid baker, enjoying the exploration of this field as she'd enjoyed learning about farming or discovering the many fungi that grew wild in Scotland.
In her life, besides being the artist and author of 23 different tales for children, Miss Potter was a conservationist, farmer, property developer, and political activist. She owned thirteen different farms in the Lake District by the time of her death in 1943, which she left to the National Trust to ensure that the Lake District continued to be the stunning, undeveloped land that it is. She was active in the farming community and made a solid effort during both WWI and WWII despite the fact that she suffered from frequent illnesses.
She truly was an incredible human being with a great passion for many things. She had an insatiable desire to learn all she could about the things which interested her. I believe she is a great example of a polymath and all that embodies. She is more than worthy of the title 'Mighty Woman'.