NEW YORK • "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!'"
Beatrix Potter wrote those words in a notebook more than 100 years ago, when she began work on The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots, about a well-mannered cat who leads a double life. Though she went on to write at least three drafts of the story, she never got around to illustrating it fully.
The 1914 manuscript will be released in September by Penguin Random House.
The discovery of an unpublished 72-page story by Potter, well known for her classic children's book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, adds a surprising footnote to her body of work, which remains popular more than 70 years after her death.
The search for the manuscript started two years ago when Ms Jo Hanks, the publisher of Penguin Random House Children's in Britain, became intrigued by a reference in a literary history of Potter to "a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads a rather double life."
The book referred to an unedited manuscript of the story. Ms Hanks visited the Potter archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and, with the help of archivists, found three drafts of the story, handwritten in children's school notebooks, along with a colour sketch of Kitty-In-Boots.
Though the story was not unknown to Potter scholars, Potter's publisher apparently did not realise there was a complete story stashed among her papers.
"No one who was aware of it thought of it as a piece of publishing in its own right ," Ms Hanks said.
The story centres on a rebellious cat with a protective owner. It sneaks out at night, at one point stalking an older, wiser and chubbier Peter Rabbit.
"The tale 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)," Ms Hanks said. "Most excitingly, our treasured, mischievous Peter Rabbit makes an appearance, albeit older, slower and portlier."
Finding an illustrator with the right sensibility to finish the book was critical.
Ms Hanks immediately thought of Quentin Blake, who illustrated Roald Dahl's books. Though Blake's cartoonish, wild drawings bear little resemblance to Potter's gentle, naturalistic illustrations, he was drawn to the project.
Publication plans for The Tale Of Kitty-In-Boots were kept secret, for the announcement to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Potter's birth this year. "It's a happy birthday present for her," Ms Hanks said.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES