I was so excited when I received my mail on Thursday morning.
Inside a padded Jiffy bag was a book I’d been waiting a long time for. Not quite 150 years, but quite a few months.
The book in question was The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter, discovered 150 years after her birth and published on 1 September 2016 by Frederick Warne & Co, part of Penguin Random House Children’s.
According to the press release I received, this lost story of Beatrix Potter’s was discovered two years ago by Jo Hanks, a publisher at Penguin Random House Children’s. A literary history about Beatrix Potter had referred to a letter that Potter had sent to her publisher in 1914 with an idea for a story featuring ‘a well-behaved black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life’. Jo Hanks visited the V&A archives, where many of Potter’s items are stored, and found three manuscripts, a rough colour sketch of the main character and a pencil sketch of Mr Tod, the villain. Potter fully planned to write the story but things kept getting in the way – the First World War, her marriage, sheep farming and various illnesses. So the book lay unpublished.
When illustrator Quentin Blake received the manuscript of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots in 2015 he said he immediately liked the story for its ‘incident and mischief and character’. Blake says while he’s unsure why Potter never got round to illustrating the book, he likes to think that an element of fate comes into the reason why he was chosen: ‘…I have to confess that there are times when I can’t altogether resist the simple fantasy that she was keeping it for me.’
And this is truly a match made in heaven. While I adore Potter’s original artwork for all her other stories, Blake’s interpretation of this story brings to life the cheekiness of the characters and Potter’s dry humour. Kitty, when she is with the kind old lady, is very proper and dignified (she liked to call herself ‘Miss Catherine St Quintin’) and enjoys a spot of flower arranging. However, two ‘very common cats’ Cheesebox and Winkiepeeps know Kitty’s other side – an adventurer who often sports ‘a gentleman’s Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots’. She certainly cuts a debonair and feminist appearance in this outfit, her shotgun slung over her shoulder, looking quite the sportswoman, in Blake’s drawing.
However, she’s not particularly adept at using this weapon and inadvertently aims it at everyone around her, her panic and alarm captured hilariously in the pictures.
While Kitty declares that she ‘will mouse instead’, she still has a go at aiming her rifle at anything that moves, including mice, sticks, crows – before she accidentally hits one of two nasty ferrets – John Stoat-Ferret and Slimmy Jimmy, who are poaching rabbits. They are scared off by our old friend Peter Rabbit, wearing his trademark blue coat and menacingly wielding an umbrella. Kitty rather fancies her luck with a rabbit and follows Peter (she won’t shoot him ‘because he was wearing such an elegant jacket’) and ends up falling down into one of Mr Tod’s traps where she remains stuck until we see a cameo appearance by another of Potter’s favourite characters – Miss Tiggy-Winkle.
As in many of Potter’s stories, there is a moral. Poaching is naughty, and Kitty must pay the price for her transgression. This comes in the form of a toe that gets left behind in Mr Tod’s trap. Potter declares that ‘For the rest of her days Kitty was a little lame; but it was an elegant limp; and she found quite enough occupation about the yard catching mice and rats; varied by tea-parties with respectable cats in the village, such as Ribby and Tabitha Twitchit’ (such a marvellous name for a cat!). Kitty no longer associates with the likes of the ‘common’ Cheesebox and Winkiepeeps (the latter used to cover for her when she was out on her nightly escapades as he was a dead ringer for her). No, now Kitty has returned to a more genteel life of frocks and tea pots and seems none the worse for it.
I found this to be the funniest of Potter’s tales that I have read. The independent young Kitty who likes a bit of adventure gives a fresh and welcome alternative to Perrault’s Puss in Boots – just a shame that she was so bad with a rifle! As many of you know who visit my blog, I am rather fond of cats, and make up my own stories about where they wander at night (we had two cats that always lost every collar we put on them within hours of having them – we reckoned the neighbourhood top cat was taking them as trophies_ so this story really appealed. Even though this is a Beatrix Potter tale, I can’t think of a better illustrator than Quentin Blake to capture the movement, the humour and the mischief of the story. Potter’s beautiful illustrations tended to be on the more gentle side, whereas Blake’s perfectly capture the scattiness of Kitty and her actions.
Children will love the adventure and humour of the text and the pictures. I am sure this tale will rapidly become a classic to add to all of Potter’s other creations and I can’t wait to share this with the children back at school.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Children’s for sending me a review copy of this book.