When Roald Dahl met Beatrix Potter
The curious tale of when two of Britain’s most famous authors met in the 1920s still fascinates people today. The true story of when Roald Dahl met Beatrix Potter, around a century ago, has even inspired a movie.
Although their meeting was short and not very sweet, according to Dahl, he always recalled it as a fond memory after Potter’s death.
She was his favourite author and he had been desperate to see her in person, travelling from Wales to her home in the Lake District unannounced.
When the tale of their acquaintance came to light through a fellow author, Brough Girling, Sky television bosses were so fascinated that they made it into a film, Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse, which aired in 2020.
Dahl and Potter are two of the UK’s most popular and ground-breaking children’s authors, each writing many best-sellers. The film of their brief meeting has added to the mystique of their own life stories.
Potter was born in July 1866 in West Brompton, London. She wrote more than 60 books during her long and prolific career. The most famous were her 23 children’s books featuring animals, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was her first published work in 1902. The series of animal books have sold more than 250 million copies today.
Potter also realised the value of marketing and merchandise: Peter Rabbit was the oldest licensed character to be made into a patented stuffed toy.
Her other famous animal books included The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Illustrating her sheer joy at country life and the local community, she told her tales through the eyes of animals.
Potter was also a natural scientist, conservationist and illustrator. As a child, she had spent many happy family holidays in the Lake District. She had lots of pets and loved the natural landscape, which she would paint.
The proceeds of her books enabled the author to buy Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey, in the Furness area of Cumbria. Over the years, she bought more farms to preserve the unique countryside.
In 1913, aged 47, she married a local solicitor from Hawkshead, William Heelis. By this time, Potter was a prosperous farmer and breeder of Herdwick sheep, who was interested in land conservation. Her writing and merchandise enabled her to preserve the area around her home.
She carried on writing and illustrating her famous children’s books for publisher Warne until thwarted by failing eyesight. On 22nd December 1943, she died aged 77, leaving almost all her land to the National Trust. It has created much of today’s Lake District National Park and Potter is credited with its preservation for future generations.
Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales, in September 1916. On leaving school, his first job was selling kerosene. Joining the Public Schools Exploring Society, he travelled across the Atlantic on the RMS Nova Scotia in August 1934 and hiked through Newfoundland.
He joined Shell Petroleum Company the same year, working in Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at 20 years old, where he encountered fascinating wildlife, including lions and black mamba snakes.
At the start of World War II in 1939, Dahl joined the King’s African Rifles as a lieutenant. He later served with the RAF. Despite a plane crash in September 1940, when he fractured his skull, he carried on flying after recuperation, having many successful missions with fellow Hurricane pilots during the war. He was discharged after suffering severe headaches that caused him to black out.
His first published book, A Piece of Cake, about his wartime adventures, was released in August 1942. A prolific author in various genres, he was best-known for writing children’s fiction. His most famous included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
The Witches, Matilda, George’s Marvellous Medicine and James and the Giant Peach.
Dahl died in 1990, aged 74.
When Roald Dahl met Beatrix Potter in the 1920s, he was about six and she was 60. Shortly before his death, he had related the tale to Girling over dinner one night.
A big fan of Potter’s books, Dahl had asked his mother if he could go and visit her home. She had agreed. It was a time of great sadness, as his sister had recently died of a burst appendix. Dahl remembered walking up the road to Potter’s house and feeling extremely nervous.
Reaching the farmyard, he said it was like stepping into one of his favourite books. He had read Jemima Puddle-Duck and recognised the farmyard from a drawing.
According to actress Dawn French, who played her in the film, the author was “grumpy” – probably because she always had children running into her garden and she was tired of it. She was also struggling with poor eyesight and lacking inspiration.
Dahl adored her writing and soon spotted the author in her garden. He went over and stared at her. She asked him what he wanted. He replied he had “come to see Beatrix Potter”. The story goes that she replied, “Well, you’ve seen her now – so buzz off!”
What appeared to be a relatively short and unfriendly meeting was given the Christmas movie treatment by Sky. Potter’s rather curt responses to Dahl’s youthful enthusiasm were turned into a poignant conversation in Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse.
The meeting between a boy and his hero did have some dark moments, such as when Potter dangled a dead mouse by the tail and complained there was “only one culprit: Tom Kitten”, who became a character in one of her books.
Dahl’s admiration for Potter was well documented. He once told his agent he wouldn’t tell stories about animals because “Potter had already done it so well”. In James and the Giant Peach, he chose insects, because they were “a part of the animal kingdom she hadn’t covered”.
Even though both authors are long gone, their legacy continues with their legendary books. They have inspired generations of new writers to rise through the ranks, such as George Orwell of Animal Farm fame and Watership Down author Richard Adams.
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