In 1902, a London publisher named Frederick Warne & Co. took a chance with a new author and gave the world a children’s work known internally as “the bunny book.”
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” by the then-unknown Beatrix Potter, became an immediate bestseller. Sized for small hands and, at under 60 airy pages, fitting neatly into a child’s imagination, the book became an enduring morality tale about the perils awaiting a foolish, disobedient and gluttonous personage in the form of a callow bunny.
More than 20 other books followed, and Potter created an animal universe that included the sweetly naive Jemima Puddle-Duck, the rascally Squirrel Nutkin and the lovable hedgehog washerwoman named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
This week, Warne (now an imprint of Penguin Random House) published with aplomb a “rediscovered” Potter story titled “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots.” The manuscript for the book was found by an editor at Penguin in 2013 in the Potter archives at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London .
Potter had put aside the book in 1914, the year the world fell apart. At the time, the author was absorbed by recent marriage, her father’s terminal illness and by trying to make a go of hill farming in England’s Lake District. Her publisher didn’t like the kitty story’s similarities to “Puss in Boots,” or its use of animals traps, according to Potter biographer Linda Lear. Those criticisms further distanced Potter from her muses. The project yielded an illustration and a couple of sketches but not the full suite of paintings that characterize a Beatrix Potter opus.
The Kitty book was known to have been set in type but apparently died on the vine for want of her illustrations. Potter was by then almost 50 and having trouble with her eyesight, but she also groused about the manuscript’s reception by her editors, Harold and Fruing Warne. “I was a good deal damped by neither you nor Fruing seeming to care much for the story,” she wrote in July 1914.
And yet here it is. The completed “Kitty” book features art by Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl’s illustrator, and includes an audio CD narration by Helen Mirren. The publishing event marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth.
Fans who had hoped this book would polish Potter’s artistic reputation are likely to be disappointed. The story, simply put, isn’t very good. In it, Potter summons roles for famous characters such as Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Tod, the fox, but the tale is desultory and rather tedious. The author herself cannot decide what to call her protagonist, referring to her as Kitty, Miss Kitty or Miss Catherine. The cat is also called Miss Catherine St. Quintin, Q and Squintums — how the child reader is supposed to navigate this, one can only imagine.
Nor does the surfeit of names give Kitty her form. The shtick is that she leads a double life, and goes off at night poaching game with a pop gun. There is a certain, and I suppose endearing, Potter formula at work here: The protagonist misbehaves, is exposed to mortal danger, escapes the predicament and is chastened by it. The problem here is that the reader is not emotionally invested in Kitty as in Peter Rabbit, say, who is foolish but endearing. Peter Rabbit cries and we shed a little tear, Kitty loses a claw in a spring trap set by Mr. Tod and we somehow don’t care. Instead, the consuming question for the reader seems to be, is this the first draft? (Apparently, it was one of three in the archives).
The reality is that Potter’s work as a storyteller is uneven and at times dark — “The Tale of Two Bad Mice” is uncomfortably vandalistic, the “Tale of Mr. Tod” is horrific. Potter herself acknowledged this unevenness in the same letter to Warne in 1914 about problems with “Kitty.” “It is very difficult to keep up to a fixed level of success,” she wrote. The correspondence is published in the 1989 book, “Beatrix Potter’s Letters,” by Judy Taylor.
What glues Potter’s tales together is her art. Anthropomorphic but also morphologically rendered, Potter’s animals capture the soul of the Edwardian countryside. It is a natural world that is deeply embedded in the English psyche, which may help account for the instant appeal of Potter’s work, along with “The Wind in the Willows” and, later, “Winnie the Pooh.”
I’m a longtime admirer of Blake’s ability to limn fully formed personas with a few scratches — surely no one could capture the wry malevolence of Dahl’s stories as well. But his style seems at odds with Potter’s, whose gentle art leavened her stories. Mirren, by the way, summons deep wells of talent to bring coherence to the story.
The publisher has said the advanced stage of production of the story indicates Potter’s desire to have it published. But if so, why didn’t she furnish the illustrations to make it happen? Dyed-in-the-wool fans undoubtedly will welcome and celebrate a new Beatrix Potter character. For the rest of us, there’s always the CD.
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Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post’s gardening columnist.
By Beatrix Potter. Illustrations by Quentin Blake.
Warne. 72 pp. $20