Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. Illus. Quentin Blake. Frederic Warne-Penguin, 2016.
Just before Christmas, our local educational television channel, Knowledge Network telecast the Channel 4 television 2016 documentary Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge. Depending upon where you are, the documentary is available for watching on-line on various platforms. Part of that documentary included the new-to-me information that a previously unknown manuscript of a Potter story would be published in the fall of 2016. Since I have all of Potter’s books, I felt I should complete my collection and ordered a copy of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots from my local bookstore.
For whatever reasons, the tale was not published in 1914 when Potter wrote it. Neither were there any Potter illustrations. Penguin—Potter’s original publisher Frederic Warne is now an imprint in Penguin Young Readers Group—commissioned Quentin Blake to illustrate the newly discovered work, and he writes a note to the book detailing some of the “odd coincidences” between the life of the book and its author and his own. Miss Kitty’s full name, for example, is St. Quintin. He lives “a few minutes’ walk” from where Beatrix Potter grew up in London.
Kitty-in-Boots tells the story of Miss Catherine St. Quintin, a supposedly “serious, well-behaved young black cat” (11), who lives with “a kind old lady” who “lived in constant fear that Kitty might be stolen” (12). While the old lady thinks Kitty is a quiet, home-loving cat, the “very common cats” Cheesebox and Winkipeeps who called Kitty Q (Cheesbox) or Squintums (Winkiepeeps) know better; they have seen “Miss Kitty in a gentleman’s Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots” (14). Miss Kitty is in the habit of going out hunting at night while Winkiepeeps takes her place at home. The story tells us what happens to Miss Kitty on the night when Winkiepeeps insists on accompanying her and when she refuses to lend her air-gun to Slimmy Jimmy and John Stoat-Ferret who are planning on “doing rabbit holes” (21). Suffice it to say, the evening does not end particularly well for Miss Kitty, who for the rest of her life has “an elegant limp” and finds “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” (66).
From this brief outline, you will see that as in most of Potter’s other stories, the main character learns a lesson. I was particularly reminded of Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddle-Duck, and, of course, Peter Rabbit, himself. Some of the characters whom we know from our reading of the other books make brief appearances in this one. We also find that close juxtaposition of anthropomorphism and extreme accuracy that we associate with Potter in her presentation of her animal characters. They may dress in elegant dresses, wear boots, gaiters, or “a blue coat” and carry an umbrella, but they remain animals. In Potter’s books, a frog remains in danger from the pike. Foxes plan menus that include roast duck. A hedgehog fears a cat may eat her. Ferrets hunt rabbits. The fate of most pigs is to become pork. A cat who meets a fox is in as much perhaps more danger as a rabbit who invades a bed of lettuces.
On the whole, humans are somewhat removed from the action in Potter’s stories, or they feature as somewhat ogreish creatures whose worlds impinge on the world of the animals. To a certain extent, there are parallels between Peter Rabbit and “Jack and the Beanstalk, for example. If I remember correctly, only in Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and The Tailor of Gloucester, do we have close interaction between the concerns of the human world and that of the animals. In Kitty-in-Boots, the old lady is described as “kind,” and revealed as anxious about her cat, but she plays little active role in what happens, and is somewhat lacking in insight. It is the omniscient, somewhat ironic narrator who notices “that there were in fact two black cats” (17).
This kind of authorial intrusion reminds one somewhat of Fielding’s gently humorous interpolations about the moral condition of his young heroes. Here, you may accuse me of being too serious. Think again. Consider the narrator’s parenthetical comment “(I ONCE saw a copy-book heading to the effect that Evil Communications Corrupt Good Manners; Miss Catherine’s manners were not improved by association with poaching ferrets . . .” (36). What do we make of the inclusion of the epigram, a paraphrase of I Corinthians 15:33, which itself recalls Menander and possibly Euripides? There is more to Kitty-in-Boots than simple entertainment for children.
In a very Victorian/Edwardian way, the story is an “improving” tale offering children a moral and social lesson. It interested me that at the beginning of the story Potter uses the word “hunting” (19), but later in the book, the narrator “fear[s] Miss Catherine was a born poacher” (42), and later records Miss Kitty’s asserting, “Never again will I poach.” (64). Hunting is what you do when you have the right to hunt, shoot, or fish over land or stream. Poaching refers to “hunting” game that belongs to someone else. In Potter’s time, hunting and shooting rights belonged to landlords. To be caught taking a land owner’s game resulted in fines and imprisonment. The story makes its point very clear: it’s dangerous to fool around with ferrets, guns, and foxes. There is also the underlying class assertion: nice kitties do not fool around with the bad boys who “lived in the woods” (68). Kitty learns to know her role as a middle-class female: pouring tea in the drawing room.
The illustration on the page opposite that describing Miss Kitty’s tea-parties shows her and her guests in ankle-length dresses with ruffles high about the neck. The table, with its white cloth almost to the floor, is almost too small to hold all the tea things (67). There is little freedom here. The only danger might be to the best china tea service if someone were to bump into the table. Miss Kitty is safe but confined. BUT, and it’s a very significant “but,” the story does not end with Kitty having tea parties with Tabitha Twitchet et al; it ends with one line on a page all to itself: “But Winkiepeeps lived in the woods” (68). Quentin Blake’s final full-page illustration opposite that line shows a cat leaping so high as to be almost flying, a cat free in the entrancing and dangerous wildness of the forest (69).
What does one make of this? For the first part of her life, Beatrix Potter was confined by class and gender. By the time she wrote Kitty-in-Boots she was already forty-eight, and most of her books were behind her. Ahead were the years devoted to becoming the defender and saviour of Fell Farming.1 One could say, I suppose, that Beatrix Potter left the drawing-room for the sheep-fold and the life of a working farmer: not quite the woods, perhaps, but at least a life unconfined by the walls of upper-middle class shibboleths. Certainly, the end of Kitty-in-Boots suggests the world of the woods is more authentic than that of the drawing room, but there’s a suggestion that women are denied access to that kind of authenticity.
In many ways, all Potter’s books present in miniature a picture of primarily rural England before the first world war. It is a world where everyone knows his or her place, a world of self-sufficiency, a world where the rag and bone man (in this case “Mr. Worry Ragman, a knowing little terrier) still drives “about the country in a little rattling cart” (24).
Potter captured that world in both text and detailed, realistic water colour pictures. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are more stylised, edgier than Potter’s. Potter’s illustrations often seem as if they could stand alone. In fact, when I was a child and perhaps still, it was the pictures themselves more than the stories that pleased me. Potter’s landscapes gave and continue to give me intense pleasure, drawing the eye up, up, up the fells or following a path deep into the woods. Blake’s drawings are more vigorous than Potter’s and, in many ways, more closely aligned with the mood and action of the text they illustrate. He has the art of all the great cartoonists of conveying so much with just one line, with the placement of one curve. His style underscores Potter’s gentle, satirical tone.
Another difference between Kitty-in-Boots and the original versions of Potter’s other stories is its size. Potter wanted Frederick Warne to print her stories in sizes suitable for small hands. Kitty-in-Boots is larger, being approximately 8 x 10. The print is large, about Times New Roman 14 point, suitable for beginning readers (or elderly readers who need new glasses). The first free end-paper includes a space asserting “THIS BOOK/BELONGS TO:/ A Serious, well-behaved . . .” . Then there are two lines for a name. The previous owner of the book did not claim the book. Perhaps he or she could not claim to be either serious or well-behaved. I am faced with a dilemma. Can I claim the book myself? I think I can in all honesty claim to be well-behaved, but I shall have to think about whether I am serious.
1 You may recall that I reviewed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District in the fall of 2016.