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Saturday 14 December 2019

Beatrix Potter and the tale of the cross-dressing cat

Written just before the First World War, 'Kitty-in-Boots' will change the way we think about the much-loved author

Unearthed: Kitty the black cat from Beatrix Potter's 'Kitty-in-Boots', who dresses as a poacher in a gentleman's jacket.
Unearthed: Kitty the black cat from Beatrix Potter's 'Kitty-in-Boots', who dresses as a poacher in a gentleman's jacket.
Beatrix Potter at Hill Top, near Sawrey, 1913. Courtesy National Trust
Quentin Blake’s illustration for 'Kitty-in-Boots'.

Gaby Wood

Doppelgängers and transvestites, guns and gangsters, secret lives: these are not the first things that come to mind with Beatrix Potter. Yet the creator of Peter Rabbit and Hunca-Munca once wrote a story that featured all of them. Kitty-in-Boots was written just before the outbreak of the First World War but was never published in Potter's lifetime. Over 100 years later, Penguin Random House is finally to publish Potter's "24th tale", as A Tale of Kitty in Boots - a book that may turn on its head everything we think we know about the children's author.

"I have not hammered out any name for the next book," Potter wrote to her publisher, Harold Warne, in February 1914, "but will do so as soon as I can."

Her manuscript, handwritten in a one-penny exercise book preserved in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is headed Kitty-in-Boots.

But in hindsight the title she might have reached for is 'The Tale of the Cross-Dressing Cat'.

Because although the story, which Potter finished writing but never fully illustrated, is sure to delight children when published in September (with accompanying drawings by Quentin Blake), feminists and queer theorists will also have every reason to welcome Potter's extraordinary invention.

Fourteen years before Virginia Woolf published Orlando, Potter concocted this story of a prim black cat with a double, genderbending life. By day, Kitty is the self-styled 'Miss Catherine St Quentin', well-behaved pet of a kind old lady; by night, she is 'Squintums', or 'Q', a poacher who dresses in "a gentleman's Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots".

Thanks to Winkiepeeps, a scruffy doppelgänger who takes her place at home, she escapes into the woody underworld armed with a gun, slumming it with "common" cats and standing up to stoats.

When Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, surprised by a bullet shot through her washing, calls Kitty "Sir", she is "rather flattered to be mistaken for a sportsman".

The story is full of Potter's usual succinct alliteration, and her precise realist detail - Kitty takes a bullet from "a 3d mustard tin"; she eats "one mouse (raw)".

But there is a degree of slapstick that's more freewheeling than Potter had previously allowed herself. Though Kitty is full of bravado, her gun goes off accidentally all the time. "Madam," Mr Tod the fox says, archly, "I beg you to put down that most unsafe fire-arm."

Peter Rabbit puts in an appearance - as a portly old boy who taunts Kitty with an umbrella - and, in a wonderful stroke of camp, fashion prevails over violence.

"She did not like to shoot," Potter writes of Kitty, "because he was wearing such an elegant jacket."

Kitty is a match for Potter's worst villains. She scratches the faces of John Stoat-Ferret and his cousin Slimmy Jimmy and spits at them. She has a 24-hour stand-off with Mr Tod worthy of a western.

Eventually, in an unmistakable commentary on the hierarchies of social class, she is released from Mr Tod's trap by her own washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is assured that Kitty won't eat her, because if she did there would be no one left to do her laundry.

Jo Hanks, publisher of Penguin Random House Children's books, stumbled across the story of the cat she describes as a "con artist" in Leslie Linder's history of Potter's writings, now long out of print.

"What struck me was how polished the tale was," she says. "It had all the pace, humour and edginess of her earlier tales."

The discovery of a new Potter story was enough to persuade Patricia Routledge, the actress and patron of the Beatrix Potter Society, to present her first television documentary.

"She told a good story, clearly and simply," says Routledge, who retraced Potter's footsteps around the Lake District for her film, which aired last night on More4. "And as you can see in this new discovery, she had a marvellous sense of humour."

There are many reasons why Potter never finished Kitty, not the least of which was that her publishers had been less than enthusiastic about it.

"I was a good deal damped by neither you nor Fruing [Warne, Harold's brother] seeming to care much for the story," she wrote in July 1914, as she was struggling with her watercolours.

The previous year, at the age of 47, she had married the solicitor who had helped negotiate the land she now owned in the Lake District.

She became much more interested in farming sheep than in producing small books for children. Her eyesight was failing, for one thing, and she had her mother to tend to: work on Kitty-in-Boots had been interrupted by the death of her father. It was so much on her mind, in fact, that she wrote to Warne only hours after her father's end.

"I am sorry I have never been able to attend to business," the letter read, "… He died very peacefully last evening."

Cats were never Potter's favourite animals. That honour went to rabbits and mice. Her journals, written in code from her teenage years until she was 30, contain a number of anecdotes about bad black cats, and the manuscript of Kitty held in the V&A contains a sentence later deleted: "To me all black cats seem much alike." In a letter to Harold Warne, she confessed to having little sympathy for her story's heroine.

Then came the final interruption: the outbreak of war. "Dear Mr Warne," Potter wrote, "I wonder how you are getting on in these bad times? […] I tried a little drawing in winter, but could not stick to it, also could not see, my eyes are gone so long sighted & not clear nearby."

Two years before she sent Kitty to the Warnes, Potter had written her darkest story so far: The Tale of Mr Tod, the first to be explicitly focused on villains. Writing about Potter's work 20 years later, Graham Greene announced that "with the publication of Mr Tod in 1912, Miss Potter's pessimism reached its climax".

"I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people," Potter had originally written in the opening line of Mr Tod. But the Warnes thought better of revealing her exasperation.

They softened the sentence, and Potter got more and more cross with them in the years that followed. After another rejected effort to revive the brutal Mr Tod, Potter wrote furiously that although she'd try and do one or two more stories for the Warnes for old times' sake, she wouldn't "be able to continue these damned little books when I am dead and buried".

Kitty-in-Boots marks Potter's thwarted attempt to continue in a new, more intriguingly sinister vein. "I do not draw cats well," she admitted not long afterwards. But perhaps the drawings weren't really the problem. Perhaps Kitty-in-Boots was always better left for a future generation - an era prepared to see Beatrix Potter as witty, fearless, provocative and perverse.

Sneak peek at Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time there was a serious, well-behaved young black cat.

It belonged to a kind old lady who assured me that no other cat could compare with Kitty.

She lived in constant fear that Kitty might be stolen - "I hear there is a shocking fashion for black cat-skin muffs; wherever is Kitty gone to? Kitty! Kitty!"

She called it "Kitty", but Kitty called herself "Miss Catherine St. Quintin".

Cheesebox called her "Q", and Winkiepeeps called her "Squintums". They were very common cats. The old lady would have been shocked had she known of the acquaintance.

And she would have been painfully surprised had she ever seen Miss Kitty in a gentleman's Norfolk jacket, and little fur-lined boots.

Now most cats love the moonlight and staying out at nights; it was curious how willingly Miss Kitty went to bed. And although the wash-house where she slept - locked in - was always very clean, upon some mornings Kitty was let out with a black chin. And on other mornings her tail seemed thicker, and she scratched.

It puzzled me. It was a long time before I guessed there were in fact two black cats!

Irish Independent

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