Beatrix Potter was something of an odd duck—and her Edwardian animal stories would seem odder still, if we were to encounter them for the first time. But the most curious part of the Beatrix Potter phenomenon may be that it’s nearly impossible to discover her work for the first time. After all the bedtime readings and birthday gifts of her works—all the bookstore displays and innumerable editions since she first appeared in print with The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902—she has wormed her way too deep into the consciousness most readers formed back in childhood. We can’t read Beatrix Potter. We can only re-read her.
That’s true even with The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, the newly published 24th of Potter’s books. The Edwardian author had a properly Edwardian publisher, Frederick Warne & Co., for all of the books published before her death in 1943. But in 1983, Penguin bought out the publisher, retaining the Frederick Warne name only as an imprint. More recently, Penguin merged with Random House to become one of the largest publishing houses on the planet—and last year, Jo Hanks, an editor for the new conglomerate, came across some typewritten pages of an unpublished story among Potter’s papers in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s archive.
Digging deeper, Hanks discovered that Potter had sent the manuscript to Warne in 1914, with the suggestion that it might become her next volume. The war, however, pushed the book off to a back burner, and Potter’s own increasing interest in nature conservation in the Lake District kept her from returning to her a story of a cat who, unbeknownst to her owner, sneaks out to go hunting.
Some of the work Potter left undone involves the text, for we have only a draft, not the final version as it might have been after her edits, and perhaps the story would have smoothed out a little if she had worked on it more. But, in truth, there was always a strangeness to Potter’s prose. Her diction, for example, employed a register far too adult for editors of children’s books to allow these days, and the tone was surprisingly unsentimental, given the sentimentality already built into a tale of, say, a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Potter felt no need to avoid alluding to the death of animals at the hands of humans or the claws of predators—another feature that would make a modern publishing house flee from her work in horror. “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden,” Mrs. Rabbit calmly instructs her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. “Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”
Of course, Potter always had an easy rhythm to her prose, as well. The stories from Peter Rabbit to the 1930 Tale of Little Pig Robinson are wonderfully vocalizable; they beg to be read aloud.
Still, the illustrations are what lift a Beatrix Potter manuscript above the thousands of other animal stories published for children over the 150 years since her birth in 1866. She was, in essence, a miniaturist, watercoloring her pen-and-ink drawings to achieve a highly detailed effect.
Her greatest artistic achievement—and the gift she gave subsequent generations of illustrators—was an anthropomorphizing of animals that allowed them to dress and act like humans while keeping them recognizably, even realistically, the animals on which she based them. Hunca Munca may dress like a housekeeper in the 1904 Tale of Two Bad Mice, but she remains a mouse. Jemima may wear a cap and shawl in the 1908 Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, but she still waddles like a duck.
Unfortunately, Potter prepared only a single picture for the unpublished Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, and it’s really more of a sketch than a completed illustration. A marvelous sketch, as it happens, showing Kitty in a man’s boots and jodhpurs—plus a tie and a Norfolk jacket—with a gun over her shoulder, returning from one of her hunts. Faced with the lack of other illustrations, Penguin Random House made the curious decision to have Quentin Blake provide the rest of the book’s pictures.
In a way, I suppose, the choice is understandable and even smart. Had the publisher commissioned illustrations in Potter’s original style, too much attention might have been focused on the failures and successes of the imitation. But Blake is so much not a Potter imitator that his work feels wrong from beginning to end. He’s probably best known for the illustrations he did for twenty of Roald Dahl’s books, and if you can picture the images in Matilda, say, or The BFG, you know Blake’s work: quite good, but scratchy and nervous. Cartoonish and exaggerated.
In other words, Blake’s work takes its charm from its sketchiness, while Potter’s drawings charm with their precision. Look, for example, at the illustrations she did for The Tailor of Gloucester—the 1903 book that is, I think, her best work—and you’ll see an astonishing amount of detail in the fabrics the mice embroider for the tailor. Quentin Blake tries hard to render Kitty and her doppelganger Winkiepeeps, but he’s out of his depth.
Even so, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots will seem familiar—as though you know it without ever having actually read it before. To the elderly lady who owns her, the cat who calls herself “Miss Catherine St. Quintin” seems “well-behaved” and “serious.” But Kitty (as she’s nicknamed) likes to slip out from time to time for a bit of adventure and a spot of hunting. So she convinces her friend Winkiepeeps to fool her owner by taking her place—an exchange in which Kitty gets freedom and Winkiepeeps gets to eat the meals Kitty misses.
Sadly, despite her joy in stalking the countryside, Kitty just isn’t much of a hunter, and her adventures usually end badly. Happily, along the way she meets a set of interesting characters, including Mrs. Tiggly-Winkle, Tabitha Twitchit, and Mr. Tod—together with a rabbit who may be Peter Rabbit, all grown up.
These familiar figures, wandering in from Potter’s other books, are a major part of what makes The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots feel like a story you somehow already know. But even more the pacing of Potter’s prose has that effect, taking the reader back to memories of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) or The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930). Potter’s stories were always a little odd. (If you can’t quite remember The Tale of Two Bad Mice, for example, take another look at the book; it might be the most peculiar thing ever put in children’s hands.) Kitty’s hunting adventures have the genuine Potteresque weirdness about them, drawing us off into her sentimental world of those unsentimental animals who behave like humans would behave if they were slightly addled.
Put it all together, and even the newly discovered, newly illustrated, and newly published Tale of Kitty-in-Boots proves the point. We don’t read Beatrix Potter. We only re-read her.