January 28, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Earlier this week, many of us were electrified by the announcement that an unpublished Beatrix Potter book, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, would come out this September. The story was discovered in a cache of papers by the editor Jo Hanks. And Penguin has already released a tantalizing teaser:
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!
In case it’s not clear from the muff-fear, “Cheesebox and Winkiepeeps,” the locked door, and the class anxiety, this late Potter is not one of her cozier stories; in fact, it was downright controversial. As Potter told her publisher in a 1914 letter, Kitty-in-Boots is about ”a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life.” It seems the eponymous kitty is not only a cross-dresser—Potter did one illustration of a feline in the aforementioned masculine shooting attire—but an animal-on-animal hunter who marches around with a rifle looking for rabbits. (Of course, cats are animal-on-animal hunters, but they also generally don’t wear tweeds and plus fours, so.) Peter Rabbit makes a cameo, too, but to emphasize that sic transit gloria mundi, he’s old and fat. In the end, Potter ended up getting caught up in other things, and the publishers may have been alarmed at the genre-bending content. In any event, the book was shelved—although one feels a post–World War I England might in fact have been ready for it.
As if to emphasize that we’re not in Hunca Munca land anymore, Quentin Blake has illustrated the story. And while he may lack Potter’s nature artistry, no one can question his sinister bona fides. Which brings us to the question: What kind of fur does an animal wear? Especially one who’s scared of being hunted for fur? These are matters we have not pondered since the philosophical maelstrom that is The Little Fur Family.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.