In November of 1943, Beatrix Potter wrote a letter to her beloved cousin, Caroline Clark. Seventy-seven years old, laid up in bed with pneumonia and heart disease, Potter was doubtlessly thinking back on her long and varied career: her hundreds of landscape watercolors, her respected mycology research, and her 24 children’s books, some of which, like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Two Bad Mice, were already considered classics.
In the letter, though, she didn’t mention any of these. Instead, she reminisced about a very different project—longer, bolder, and entirely secret. “When I was young I already had the itch to write, without having any material to write about,” she explained to Clark. “I used to write long-winded descriptions, hymns (!) and records of conversations in a kind of cipher shorthand.”
Five weeks later, Potter died. As far as we know, this is the only time she ever mentioned what may well be her masterwork: a private journal, written in secret code, that she kept for over fifteen years. In it, she wrote her innermost thoughts—about art and literature, science and nature, politics and society, and her own hopes and frustrations. Its eventual publication transformed her reputation, from “brilliant children’s book author” to “writer for the ages.” If it weren’t for one tireless, dedicated fan, we might never have seen it at all.
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Potter began keeping her journal when she was about 14 years old, “apparently inspired by a united admiration of [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Pepys,” as she later wrote to Clark. While those two luminaries were adult men when they started their diaries—Boswell a 22-year-old city playboy, and Pepys an up-and-coming civil servant—Potter, as a young woman in a Victorian household, was writing from a different life stage and station.
Her mother, Helen, herself constrained by social circumstances, wanted a quiet, obedient daughter—one that, when she grew older, would stay home and look after her parents. This was not a role that came naturally to Beatrix, who was adventurous, opinionated, even mischievous—the Peter Rabbit to her mother’s Mr. McGregor.
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Decades later, though—after her bestselling books had brought her fame and fortune—she was keenly aware that people besides her mother would now be interested in her private thoughts. Before she died in 1943, she and her husband, the lawyer William Heelis, bequeathed their entire 4,000-acre estate to Britain’s National Trust, along with her original illustrations. She failed to tell anyone about the diaries, though, or to provide for their translation. “[They were] exasperating and absurd compositions,” she wrote in the letter to Clark. “I am now unable to read [them] even with a magnifying glass.”
So when Stephanie Duke, a younger relation of Potter’s, came across what she described as “a large bundle of loose sheets and exercise books written in cipher-writing” in the late author’s home in 1952, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of them herself. She did know who to ask for help, though—Leslie Linder, a close friend and neighbor of hers, and the biggest Potter fan around.
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As codes go, Potter’s wasn’t inordinately complicated. As Wiltshire explains, it was a “mono-alphabetic substitution cipher code,” in which each letter of the alphabet was replaced by a symbol—the kind of thing they teach you in Cub Scouts. The real trouble was Potter’s own fluency with it. She quickly learned to write the code so fast that each sheet looked, even to Linder’s trained eye, like a maze of scribbles.
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For five years, Linder pulled out his pile of pages, looked over them, and filed them away again with a sigh. “By Easter 1958, I was beginning to think somewhat sadly that these code-written sheets would remain a mystery for ever,” he remembered later. That Monday, April 7, he decided to give himself a final crack at them. He pulled a sheet at random from his stack. There, near the bottom of the page, was something decipherable at last: the Roman numerals XVI, and the year 1793.
To which sixteenth person had something happened in 1793? He fruitlessly flipped through a Dictionary of Dates. He then turned to a more appropriate ally, a children’s encyclopedia, which told him: “Louis XVI, French King; born Versailles 1754; guillotined Paris 1793.” “Here at last was a possible clue!” he wrote.
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All told, it took Linder 13 years to decode Potter’s journals. In 1966, they were published by Frederick Warne Ltd. as The Journal of Beatrix Potter. Up to that point, critics had mostly considered Potter “a writer of bunny rabbit tales” and not much else, says Wiltshire. The journal showed that she was much more—an inquisitive spirit with a sense of humor and a great gift for language, and a keen observer of Victorian life.