Thursday, August 14, 2014

July 11: Kew Gardens and the Andrew Wiltshire Lecture

The last day of the week was our trip to Kew Gardens and Royal Botanic Garden Archive, and you read about Kew on their website. We first met one of the head librarians, Fiona, who was very kind and knowledgeable. She showed us a great deal of selected texts/materials from Kew's library and archive, and she took us around the archive itself. I found the library and archive accessible and welcoming, and I appreciated the amount of natural light. Their reading area is both welcoming and practical.

She also showed us some Beatrix Potter material, and we learned a great deal about her. Most people only associate Beatrix with her sweet little Peter Rabbit stories, but she was actually much more interesting. One of her main interests was botany, and she began coming to Kew, before writing the Peter Rabbit stories, to research mushrooms and fungi in general. She had a theory about the way fungi reproduce, that the fungi release tiny spores that germinate into new plants. Beatrix came to this conclusion after researching heavily at Kew. Fiona showed us the sign-in sheets she used, calling herself "Beatrix Potter" at first and then signing as "H.B. Potter" later, which was probably an attempt at gender neutrality. Her theory, however, ran counter to what was commonly accepted. To make a long story short, Beatrix tried desperately to get scientists, all of whom were male, to accept her theory. They all refused to help her or take her seriously, and one man shut down her research. Sadly, Beatrix was right! As Fiona said, if she had been taken seriously, there is no telling what she could have done or what we have remembered her for.

Later that day, we were treated to a lecture from Andrew Wiltshire, a true English gentleman if there ever was one. He was witty and engaging, and his story was fascinating, adding another element to Beatrix Potter's persona.

Interestingly, Mr. Wiltshire is related to the man who decoded Beatrix Potter's diary. Apparently, Beatrix kept a diary, but it was completely written in a code she made up. The family has had the diary for a long time, but no one knew what it was; it looked like gibberish. Here is a page from the diary I found online:


As you can see, it is indecipherable...or so it would seem. Mr. Wiltshire's relative received permission to view the diary, as Beatrix had been an interest of his. It took him several years, but one day, when he was about to give up, he found one name she forgot to decode! Four years later, he had deciphered Beatrix Potter's diary! Now, the diary is available to purchase. Truly, a remarkable story! Frankly, I have not read Potter since I was a child and never realized her story was so interesting, nor that she was so complex a woman. As Fiona pointed out, the drawings in Peter Rabbit are very exact, which underscores Beatrix’s knowledge of botany.

Truly, the visit to Kew was one I will treasure and always remember fondly!

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