The Tale of Kitty in Boots is quite the find – a previously undiscovered story by Beatrix Potter – and I was lucky enough to have the lovely people at Audible send me a free copy of the audiobook, read by the glorious Helen Mirren. It did occur to me that a more natural choice might have been Emma Thompson, who has been appointed chief Beatrix Potter stand-in of late, writing several new Peter Rabbit stories. Indeed, somewhat like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Tale of Kitty in Boots has been feted for offering a view of Peter Rabbit himself in later life. Did he grow up to be a wiser rabbit after his terrifying encounter in Mr McGregor’s garden? What fresh insights can be found? (Spoiler alert: Peter’s reappearance is brief.) Written in 1914 and the abandoned and rediscovered more than a century later via a reference in an out of print biography, can this new addition to the Potter clan measure up to the likes of Jemima Puddle Duck and Miss Tiggy-Winkle?
The story centres around the titular Kitty, a prim and well-behaved cat from a good home – she calls herself Miss Catherine St Quintin – but by night, she leads a double life as a prowling hunter, donning a Norfolk jacket and fur-lined boots. Indeed, she goes bouncing round the countryside with an air-gun, having convinced a local stray cat to impersonate her to her mistress as an alibi. So complete is the transformation that Mrs Tiggy-Winkle – employed by Miss Catherine as a washerwoman – mistakes Kitty for a sportsman and addresses her as ‘sir’ when they meet during the course of one of Kitty’s nocturnal rampages.
The confrontation which Kitty gets into over her gun felt strange to me – but yet, it was this fate which Peter Rabbit’s father had met at the hands of Mr McGregor and which Peter fled in the original story, so I have a feeling that I have added a nostalgic glow to my memories of the original stories. Jemima Puddleduck’s suffering at the hands of Mr Tod was significant. For all that these were tales written for an Edwardian audience, Potter did not shy away from the truths of the animal kingdom. Something about the gender-bending of this story though does make it feel strangely racy – Kitty is certainly a cat determined to get what she wants.
For me, Beatrix Potter has a particular place in my heart – I was a huge fan as a youngster and had a Peter Rabbit plate on my shelf which I took great pride in dusting every Saturday. My mother was in the habit of buying my grandmother Beatrix Potter ornaments for Mothers’ Day and having lost my Grandma a little over a year ago, I now have these on my bookshelf and it makes me smile whenever I see them. But this is part of the issue with this story – with Beatrix Potter, a big part of the appeal was in the aesthetic. Her delicate and rather refined artwork contrasts sharply with the far looser style of Quentin Blake, which suited perfectly the anarchic qualities of Roald Dahl’s stories but feels out of place here. Even the lay-out of the cover feels wrong when the format of the Beatrix Potter books are so well-known.
In truth, Helen Mirren does well in her role as voice for the story and as an additional bonus, the Audible recording also features Anna Friel reading various of the older and more well-known stories so I would imagine that this is an audiobook that could come in very useful to parents with a long car journey ahead of them. I might even say that Anna Friel’s reading perhaps has the edge over Helen Mirren who does veer slightly towards the twee at times. It was lovely to revisit the old stories – I remember the literature teacher in Ballet Shoes referring to Peter Rabbit as an ‘old friend’ but when I first read it aged seven, I did not understand how a children’s character could remain such into adulthood. Being a scant few weeks from the end of my twenties, I understand it far better now and am grateful that Kitty in Boots prompted me to revisit characters that I am so very fond of. Alas, I feel that Kitty herself will never quite be a part of the accepted canon – while the words are as wicked and clever and quick as in all the sibling books, Blake is unable to catch the Potter’s elegance and precision and so Kitty will always be a little cat lost.
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Published by Penguin UK on September 1st 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Animals, Cats, Classics, General
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