Posted by WCPLtn
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Very soon we will get a new Potter story. No one expected it and it has been long hoped for. We can now finally get more information on what happened to our favorite characters. Never again will we have to wonder what happened to Peter and Mrs. Tiggy-winkel…Wait, What?
For those of us born in the last century, our childhoods were gilded with the tales of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddleduck. That number includes the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of today’s children. We’ve read the stories to our children who hear these tales, now in their second century, and fall in love the characters as we did. Most people will find a forgotten stuffed bunny with brown plastic eyes and a little blue Jacket hidden somewhere in their closets, attics or memories. Many of us have never heard a new story from her. There have been a few found works, some as late as 1973, but nothing since then. We’ve never known the anticipation of a new book from Beatrix Potter the way we desperately awaited the books about Harry Potter (including this year’s The Cursed Child). But that will change. In September of this year we will get the first new Beatrix Potter story in a generation. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots is being released on September First to honor the 150th anniversary of her birth (her actual birthday is July 28th hence this particular post).
The Story of the New Story
We have this new gem thanks to the work of Jo Hanks and Quentin Blake. Ms. Hanks, who works for Penguin Random House Children’s Publishing, found a reference to a reference to the Tale of Kitty-in-Boots in an out of print biography of Beatrix Potter from the 1970s. The biography referred to a letter that Potter had sent to her publisher along with the manuscript for kitty in boots. She had sent the story, along with a sketch of the titular character and some layouts for the book to her publisher in 1914 and had meant to finish but kept getting interrupted. The interruptions, a lengthy illness and the First World War, were sufficient to keep Ms. Potter from returning to the work before her death in 1943. Ms. Hanks took what she had learned of this missing tale and scoured the Potter Archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum and found the story, in the form of handwritten school notebooks and a dummy book. Also included were a black and white sketch of the villain Mr. Tod, and a single color drawing of Kitty. The story was complete, but with only two sketches extant, a new illustrator was needed.
Finding an artist willing to take on the work of one of the most beloved children’s authors and illustrators is never going to be easy or quick. This is where Quentin Blake arrives. Blake is no stranger to working with iconic authors. His name may not be known by all, but if you’ve read a book by Roald Dahl, then you are familiar with his work. When presented with the 100 year old manuscript, Mr. Blake jumped at the chance to work on a story that “might have been waiting for [him].” He even went so far as to draw the unnamed owner of Kitty as an elderly Beatrix Potter.
The New Story
The story of Kitty-in-Boots revolves around, as Potter herself put it in the letter to her publisher, “a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life”. Not content to laze and sleep as most cats do, this cat likes to dress as a country squire when no one is looking and go hunting. Without giving too much away Jo Hanks told the BBC that “The tale really is the best of Beatrix Potter. …It has double identities, colourful villains and a number of favourite characters from other tales.” Perhaps best of all is one more glimpse of Peter Rabbit, albeit a slower and portlier one.
The Woman We Never Knew
Beatrix Potter actually was the kind woman who wrote books about small animals that we all believe her to be, but she was also a great deal more. She was a child of privilege, the daughter of a lawyer and granddaughter of one of the wealthiest textile printers and members of parliament. Her cousins are the ancestors of the Duchess of Cambridge, meaning that Beatrix herself is related to the future King George VII.
She was also a well-regarded amateur scientist. After receiving encouragement to make her watercolors of fungi more technically correct, Beatrix began in depth study of mushrooms and other fungi. Due to the limited educational opportunities afforded women of her time, she was primarily self-taught. At one point she even submitted some theories to the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer. Because of her gender and her status as an amateur Thiselton-Dyer rejected her ideas, as they disagreed with the accepted theories of the day. Beatrix was not to be put off lightly, however. After refining her theory with the encouragement of noted Kew Gardens Mycologist, George Massee, she finalized a paper to be presented to the Linnean Society of London. She could not present her work, “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricinea,” but Masse agreed to do so for her. Beatrix removed her paper from consideration because she noted a contaminated sample, and the work was never published. The paper is still reviewed as a respected work by today’s mycologists and her watercolors continue to be used for fungi identification.
On top of being an author and illustrator, and a respected amateur mycologist she was also a pioneering conservationist and business woman. She was very passionate about Herdwicke sheep and became a prize winning breeder. Her employees loved her because she was not afraid to try the latest methods and always hired the best personnel. The Business acumen that worked well on her farm also carried over into her writing. It was Beatrix who began the merchandising of her characters when she registered an idea for a plush peter rabbit with the patent office in 1903, making Peter the first licensed character.
Ms. Potter was a follower of Canton Hardwicke Rawnsley, the founder of the National Trust for Places of Historical Interest or Natural Beauty. She acted as a patron for the Girl Guides, the British version of the Girl Scouts. When she died, she left 15 farms and most of her total property to the National Trust. Because of this donation and her work in conservation of land, flora and fauna she is credited with preserving much of what is today’s Lake District National Park.
For More on Potter, her Characters and Studies see:
- The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter (J E POT)
- Beatrix Potter’s Art by Anne Stevenson Hobbs (709.2 HOB)
- Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman by Judy Taylor (92 POT)
- At Home With Beatrix Potter: The Creator of Peter Rabbit by Susan Denyer (823.912 DEN)
- Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales by Marta McDowell (823.912 MCD)