It’s unlikely that Beatrix Potter ever imagined that she would one day be trending. But this week came the astonishing announcement that a wholly unknown manuscript has been discovered among Potter’s papers. Kitty-in-Boots will be published in September, and since Potter only completed one (entirely charming) watercolour of the titular Kitty, veteran illustrator Quentin Blake will supply the shortfall. All of which is rather magnificent. No surprise then that the story is at the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists, months before publication.
Now - I liked Beatrix Potter books as a child, but I came to love them as an adult. In formative years I had several of the tiny, perfectly-formed books - The Tales of the Flopsy Bunnies, and Mrs Tiggywinkle, to name but two. These stories are cute, of course. But as an adult I made discoveries of some of her other, less twee, characters. Such as Ginger and Pickles, a tomcat and a terrier who decide to set up shop where everything is sold on endless credit: “But there is no money in what is called the ‘till’”. Inexplicably they go out of business, driven to despair on receipt of the “rates and taxes”.
Then there is Mr Tod, an anally-retentive fox who almost murders the filthy badger, Tommy Brock, and rhapsodises on all the different soaps that might get rid of the taint: “I could never sleep in that bed again without a spring cleaning of some sort.”
One of my enduring memories is driving through the Lake District - Potter country - when my son was small, listening to an audio CD of June Whitfield describing Mr Tod’s Kim and Aggie-style fantasies (“I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur”). I’m ashamed to admit that the enjoyment was far greater on my side. My son was near-traumatised by Samuel Whiskers, the rat who tried to eat Tom Kitten in a giant sausage roll – but then my son, I believe, had unconsciously identified himself with Tom Kitten. Both preferred to be without clothing; for small boys and kittens, habitual nudity is more acceptable than it is for either adult humans or cats.
Like all the best children’s books, the beauty of the tales inhabits (at least) a double-layer of meaning, one for children, and one for adults. I’m yet to read the whole of Kitty-in-Boots, but according to the publishers it’s a tale of “double identity” and an encounter between Kitty and “the villainous fox Mr Tod”. The available snippet suggests it promises to be a longer, more textually-dense narrative than some of the simpler Potter stories, and with plenty of irony, humour and intrigue that should make it appealing to adults as well as children. And more than a few nods to the world of fairy tale.
Clearly, Potter was referencing the well-known fairy tale Puss in Boots, which originates – at least in literary form – in 17th-century France, from the pen of Charles Perrault. This wouldn’t be the first time Potter’s works have drawn on folktale; some of her earliest illustrations are of American folk heroes Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox. (The Br’er Rabbit stories known to Potter would not have been the oral traditional tales originating in the African-American slave communities of the Deep South, rather they would have been the stories published by Anglo-American folklorist Joel Chandler Harris from 1880 onwards under the “Uncle Remus” moniker.)
And there are references to indigenous British folklore, with which Potter must have been familiar – either locally, via the oral tradition (although this was already significantly diminished by the late 19th century) or via fairy tale collections published by British folklorists such as Joseph Jacobs. For instance, the “sandy-whiskered gentleman” who lures poor Jemima Puddleduck to a shed full of feathers that was “almost suffocating; but it was comfortable and very soft” is a tongue-in-cheek reference that is lost on many of us today – and certainly on a six-year-old version of me. But there is a very old folktale in which a man named Mr Fox lures women to his home in order to rob and murder them, keeping their gory remains in a bloody chamber. (Of course Jemima ought to have known this but, as Potter tells us, she “was a simpleton: not even the mention of sage and onion made her suspicious”.)
As for our new friend Kitty-in-Boots, there is, too, a British story tradition where a domestic cat leads a double-life. The story goes that a sexton and his wife are describing an uncanny encounter at the graveyard with some pall-bearing cats, whereupon their own cat, who had been lying quietly by the fire, jumps up and shouts: “Well I’m the King of the Cats!” and disappears up the chimney. Interestingly, a version of this story features in what’s now designated as the first English novel, Beware the Cat, written by William Baldwin in 1553. And Mr Fox was referenced by a line in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, appearing later in the 16th century.
But not having seen any more of the tantalising Kitty, it’s impossible to conjecture any further. Like everyone else, I shall have to wait until September. Which seems an awfully long way away.