A Kitty Leads A Double Life In Beatrix Potter's Posthumously Published Tale

Sep 1, 2016
Originally published on September 5, 2016 12:33 pm

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter, one of the most enduring and cherished children's authors of all time. To commemorate the anniversary, a new, never-before-published story by Potter, called The Tale of Kitty in Boots, has been released.

Readers, we've been down this road before, not too long ago, and it didn't end well.

Atticus Finch's reputation took a hit after his exposure in Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman as a segregationist and reactionary extremist. Do we really want to risk losing cherished illusions about the likes of Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-Duck in exchange for the novelty of a freshly unearthed tale by Beatrix Potter?

Oh, but it's already too late for this question. As many of us learned in Potter's most famous story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, once the garden of unknown delights beckons, it's all but impossible to resist entering in.

Here's the backstory to this "new" Beatrix Potter book: Two years ago, a woman named Jo Hanks who's an editor at Penguin Random House in the United Kingdom came upon a reference to a letter that Potter wrote in 1914. In that letter, Potter mentioned working on the manuscript of a story about "a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat who leads a rather double life."

Hanks dug into Potter's archives at The Victoria & Albert Museum and she found the manuscript of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. Potter had written three drafts of the story and had done one watercolor illustration of Kitty, but for various reasons, she died in 1943 without completing the book.

Skip to the present and this lavish debut edition of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots.

To use an antiquated phrase that Potter herself would have known, this edition is "done up brown." Quentin Blake, best known for his work on Roald Dahl's books, has created the illustrations and, on an audio CD included with the book, Helen Mirren reads the story.

Ironically, such glitzy trappings make for a disconcerting Potter reading experience. After all, the charm of Potter's tales emanates, in part, from their humility — the signature compactness of her books and animal characters. Add to that, the fact that Blake's style as an illustrator is jittery and impressionistic, in contrast to Potter's fluid precision. His illustrations end up emphasizing, rather than countering, the violence that lurks in even the most amiable Potter tale.

That ominous tone is set in the very first story when Peter Rabbit's mother gives him and his sisters — Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail — a warning: "Now, my dears," said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, "you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor." In its own quaint way, Potter's landscape is every bit as Gothic as the Brontes'.

And, sometimes, as in The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, Potter's stories are nearly as surreal as Lewis Carroll's. The "Kitty" in question here calls herself "Miss Catherine St. Quintin," and she does, indeed, lead a double life. By day she's the docile pet of a kind old lady; by night she's a poacher who prowls the countryside armed with an air-gun and dressed in "a gentleman's Norfolk jacket, and little fur-lined boots."

Kitty is such a convincing gender nonconformist that she's mistaken for "a sportsman" by Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, the hedge-hog from an earlier tale. Other recognizable furry faces include fellow feline Tabitha Twitchit, Mr. Tod the creepy fox and a much older Peter Rabbit, described as "stout" and "very fat." Rest assured, this is the closest we come here to that dread Atticus Finch moment in which a beloved character is changed for the worse.

Newly discovered manuscripts by revered authors hold out the promise of familiar, yet fresh, literary magic; in truth, though, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots is just a curious afterword to the 24 children's books Potter completed in her lifetime. Perhaps the best thing about this "new" story is that it will send some readers back to the originals and to the life of the extraordinary woman who wrote them.

Potter was a naturalist, fascinated by fungi; she was a shrewd businesswoman, who patented an early "Peter Rabbit" doll and other spin-off merchandise; and she was an environmentalist, responsible for the preservation of much of The Lake District in England. Potter's tales sprang from her deep appreciation of all creatures slight and small, but — as a woman and a writer — she was a smart, tough cookie; certainly no Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter, one of the most enduring and cherished children's authors of all time. In November, a collection of Potter's tales and characters reimagined by 32 contemporary illustrators will be published. It's called simply, "A Celebration Of Beatrix Potter." But there's no need to wait any longer for a new story by Potter herself. "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots" was written in 1914, but never published until now. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A newly discovered manuscript by a beloved author. Readers, we've been down this road before not too long ago, and it didn't end well. Atticus Finch's reputation took a hit after his exposure in Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman" as a segregationist and reactionary extremist. Do we really want to risk losing cherished delusions about the likes of Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-duck in exchange for the novelty of a freshly unearthed tale by Beatrix Potter? Oh, but it's already too late for this question. As many of us learned in Potter's most famous story, "The Tale Of Peter Rabbit," once the garden of unknown delights beckons, it's all but impossible to resist entering in.

Here's the backstory to this new Beatrix Potter book. Two years ago, a woman named Jo Hanks, who's an editor at Penguin Random House in the United Kingdom, came upon a reference to a letter that Potter wrote in 1914. In that letter, Potter mentioned working on the manuscript of a story about a well-behaved prime black kitty cat who leads a rather double life. Hanks dug into Potter's archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And she found the manuscript of "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots." Potter had written three drafts of the story, and had done one watercolor illustration of kitty. But for various reasons, she died in 1943 without completing the book.

Skip to the present, and this lavish debut edition of "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots." To use an antiquated phrase that Potter herself would have known, this edition is done up brown. Quentin Blake, best known for his work on Roald Dahl's books, has created the illustrations. And on an audio CD included with the book, Helen Mirren reads the story.

Ironically, such glitzy trappings make for a disconcerting Potter reading experience. After all, the charm of Potter's tales emanates in part from their humility, the signature compactness of her books and animal characters. Add to that the fact that Blake's style as an illustrator is jittery and impressionistic in contrast to Potter's fluid precision. His illustrations end up emphasizing, rather than countering, the violence that lurks in even the most amiable Potter tale. That ominous tone is set in the very first story when Peter Rabbit's mother gives him and his sisters - Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail - a warning.

(Reading) Now, my dears, said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, you may go into the fields or down the lane. But don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there. He was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.

In its own quaint way, Potter's landscape is every bit as Gothic as the Brontes. And sometimes, as in "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots," Potter's stories are nearly as surreal as Lewis Carroll's. The kitty in question here calls herself Miss Catherine St. Quintin. And she does indeed lead a double life. By day, she's the docile pet of a kind old lady. By night, she's a poacher who prowls the countryside armed with an air gun and dressed in a gentlemen's Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots. Kitty is such a convincing gender nonconformist that she's mistaken for a sportsman by Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, the hedgehog from an earlier tale.

Other recognizable furry faces include fellow feline Tabitha Twitchit, Mr. Tod, the creepy fox, and a much older Peter Rabbit, described as stout and very fat. Rest assured, this is the closest we come here to that dread Atticus-Finch moment in which a beloved character is changed for the worse.

Newly discovered manuscripts by revered authors hold out the promise of familiar, yet fresh literary magic. In truth, though, "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots" is just a curious afterword to the 24 children's books Potter completed in her lifetime.

Perhaps the best thing about this new story is that it will send some readers back to the originals and to the life of the extraordinary woman who wrote them. Potter was a naturalist fascinated by fungi. She was a shrewd businesswoman, who patented an early Peter Rabbit doll and other spin-off merchandise. And she was an environmentalist, responsible for the preservation of much of the Lake District in England. Potter's tales sprung from her deep appreciation of all creatures, slight and small. But as a woman and a writer, she was a smart, tough cookie - certainly no Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots" by Beatrix Potter, which has just been published for the first time. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Pamela Adlon. In her new semi-autobiographical FX series "Better Things," she plays an actress and voice-over artist who's a single mother of three girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER THINGS")

MIKEY MADISON: (As Max) You're my mom. I want you to know if I have sex or if I want to get high.

PAMELA ADLON: (As Sam) Ah, no. Hide things from me. Please.

GROSS: Adlon created the series with Louis C.K. and was a producer and co-star of his series "Louie." I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.