One hundred and two years after a distracted Beatrix Potter set down her pen and paintbrush, an unfinished story by the British author is set to be released by Frederick Warne and Company in September of 2016. Warne and Company, the original publisher of Potter’s books, is now owned by Penguin Books.
Potter began the story late in her career. She was already an established children’s author when she sat down to write and illustrate Kitty-In-Boots. According to British publisher Jo Hanks, life got in the way of art. In a letter, Hanks discovered during her search through the Victoria and Albert Archive, Potter wrote about her desire to finish the story, but her time and attention were taken up with family matters at home and grassroots volunteerism during the First World War.
Kitty-In-Boots is in some ways very typical of Potter’s other stories with its gentle timbre and cast of friendly farm animals and their humans. Where it diverges from the rest of her catalog is the complexity of the tale. Kitty is a well-behaved cat who leads a double life. In an interview with the BBC, Hanks says she is convinced this posthumous entry into the canon of Potter’s works will have something to offer old and new fans.
“The tale really is the best of Beatrix Potter.
“It has double identities, colourful villains and a number of favourite characters from other tales including Mr Tod, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Ribby and Tabitha Twitchit.
“And, most excitingly, our treasured, mischievous Peter Rabbit makes an appearance – albeit older, slower and portlier!”
Unfortunately for fans of Beatrix Potter’s sensitive artwork, she created only one illustration for the book. It was discovered in one of three versions of the manuscript Hanks found in the archive. After some consideration, the task of illustrating one of England’s most influential voices in children’s literature was offered to another icon of that genre, Quentin Blake.
Blake, who is best known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books, has his own distinctive style. Unlike the delicate, detailed washes of Potter’s menagerie, Blake’s drawings employ bold, free-flowing lines. He is the master of the illustrative sketch, conveying emotion, atmosphere, and wry wit with a few swipes of pen and ink.
What would Beatrix Potter think of such a creative pairing? The simplicity and what some might call twee quality of Potter’s books was only one facet of her life and work. A self-taught naturalist, she impressed those who encountered her with the breadth of her knowledge of flora and fauna in Great Britain. She was also a pioneer in the legal processes of conservatory land trust, creating administrative devices that would serve as models for programs on both sides of the Atlantic devoted to the preservation of farms and natural habitat sanctuaries. All of this came about because Beatrix Potter was, as her contacts at Warne and Company would learn, an astute, fair-minded businesswoman who helped foster an environment where creative professionals were given a voice and fair compensation for their work. Given Beatrix Potter’s restless, creative mind, she would most likely be delighted at the prospect of seeing her work illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Still, with the release of the book almost nine months away, it remains to be seen if Blake’s style is indeed a fit for Potter’s words. The edgy artist, whose pictures so perfectly worked with Dahl’s tongue-in-cheek tales full of rambunctious wordplay, is an odds-on fit for Potter’s cross-dressing tabby.
Blake, who was sent the manuscript in 2015, is enthusiastic about collaboration.
“It seemed almost incredible when, early in 2015, I was sent the manuscript of a story by Beatrix Potter; one which had lain unpublished for 100 years and which, with the exception of a single drawing, she had never illustrated.
“I liked the story immediately — it’s full of incident and mischief and character -and I was fascinated to think that I was being asked to draw pictures for it.
“I have a strange feeling that it might have been waiting for me.”
Whether it’s a match made by destiny or a confluence of kiddie lit commerce, Beatrix Potter’s rediscovered story might be one of the most welcomed post-career finds in recent publishing history.
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]