This is the kind of thing that a booklover’s dreams are made of; a story by one of the most loved authors of all time, discovered more than 100 years after it was written. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter was uncovered by Jo Hanks, a publisher at Penguin Random House. Illustrated by Quentin Blake, it has been published for the first time in 2016 by Potter’s original publishers Frederick Warne.
This new story introduces us to a new character: Kitty, or should we say Miss Catherine St. Quintin (Q to some) or perhaps Squintims. Whichever moniker we use it is fair to say that a cat with so many aliases is surely a queen of mischief. By day, Kitty is the much loved and pampered pet of an old lady. But by night she sneaks out to hunt, enlisting a look-a-like cat, Winkiepeeps, to take her place in the old lady’s house.
Donning a Norfolk jacket and fur-lined boots she sets off into the night. Despite her confidence it becomes apparent that Miss Catherine is not a great hunter; she struggles to keep her gun under control, she misses easy targets and even manages to get caught in a trap herself. What she lacks in skills she more than makes up for in guts and bravado as she holds her own against the ferrets who attempt to make off with her gun. The trap she is caught in was set by a familiar villain of Potter’s, Mr Tod, who is no match for Miss Catherine and she eventually gets the better of him after a day long stand off.
As for other well known characters we have Mrs Tiggy-Winkle making an appearance in this book as well as Tabitha Twitchit and her cousin Ribby. And, with a non-speaking part, a familiar rabbit who is older but still with his distinctive blue jacket.
This is one of Potter’s darker stories but with plenty of humour and a lead character that was ahead of her time. A cross-dressing cat leading a double life and completely defying gender roles. Perhaps when this story was originally written in 1914 the world wasn’t ready for Kitty and this may be part of the reason why it was never published during Potter’s lifetime. Although she never fully finished it, Beatrix Potter had begun to illustrate it and an original painting of Kitty can be seen here. A further illustration of Kitty which includes the older Peter Rabbit is featured in this article here.
As the illustrations were left unfinished the job of completing them was given to much loved illustrator Quentin Blake. A controversial choice according to some reviews I have read who questioned why Blake was chosen rather than an illustrator whose work is similar to Potter’s. However, Blake is more than qualified in illustrating children’s books and it is wonderful to see his interpretation of Potter’s characters. The rebellious Kitty and dark plot are a perfect match for Blake’s wild drawings and with such a contrast in illustrative styles between Blake and Potter it is hard to draw comparisons between them, I would argue that this makes him the perfect man for the job.
A book such as this will always be divisive. There is a lot at stake. But Beatrix Potter wrote her books for children so I will look to mine for how well it has been received. My four-year-old, who has heard the original stories but doesn’t hold lifelong opinions about Potter’s work, loves this book. Prior to getting this book his only strong feelings about the Beatrix Potter stories was that he does not like Mr Tod so perhaps it is Kitty’s triumph over him that he enjoys. Whatever the reason there is that definite Potter charm about it that has captured his attention. He asks me repeatedly to read Kitty to him, which is truly the mark of a good book.
An interview with Jo Hanks who discovered the book is on the Penguin website here along with an image of the story written in Potter’s notebook.
Many thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots for review.