The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter

Tom Kitten cover

The Tale of Tom Kitten was created soon after Beatrix Potter had moved into her farm in the Lake District, which she’d bought with the proceeds earned from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations are recognisably of Hill Top and of the farmstead’s surrounding village. The cats of the illustrations were real cats who lived there.

It was Beatrix’s publisher Harold Warne who thought cats would make good characters for one of her picture books. His own daughter had a pet cat. It seems fluffy mammals are an easier sell. In contrast, Beatrix had a hard time selling the concept of Jeremy Fisher. She made the background illustrations particularly beguiling to compensate for the ick factor of the frog. Contemporary picture books are full of all sorts of lovable animals from every classification, but Beatrix Potter was paving the way and her publisher was testing the waters.

Although Potter succeeded in creating lovable frogs, and hedgehogs, her publisher was right about cats. Consumers do love cats. After the success of Tom Kitten, Warne was approached by a company who wanted to make a musical version.

Beatrix dismissed this idea as “considerable twaddle”.

Tourists to the Lake District can visit Hill Top, Potter’s seventeenth century farm house, known to fans as “Tom Kitten’s house”.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF “TOM KITTEN”

The story starts off with the child characters constricted by the requirements of polite society, then evolves into an unsupervised carnivalesque adventure. the child characters end up back inside the home, though their freedom has not been fully curtailed — they will find a way to have fun.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The Tale of Tom Kitten is equally the tale of Tom’s sisters, Mittens and Moppet. But Beatrix Potter did not subvert the stereotype that girl children are well-behaved while boy children are mischievous and interesting. It is Peter Rabbit who goes out on his adventure rather than one of his better-behaved sisters.

In a misogynistic pecking order where boys are at the top, Tom is affronted by his mother’s requirement to dress up for guests because dressing up and looking pretty is a girly thing to do. In different circumstances, Mittens and Moppet may be equally rebellious.

Indeed they are, though they appear docile while under the watchful eye of Mother. Beatrix Potter does eventually afford the sisters a little freedom at the end, where we see their true, playful natures. We might consider this a minor gender subversion.

DESIRE

In common with the childlike heroes of any carnivalesque tale, these kittens want to have fun. Their deeper psychologies remain unexplored, though we do get an insight into the insecurities of their mother.

OPPONENT

The Opponent is the adult character who wants to make the kittens behave like well-behaved little grown-ups — in this case the mother, Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit. Tabitha is overly-concerned about appearance. When her friends arrive for their fancy party she lies that the kittens have got measles and that’s why they’re in bed.

But for the adventure part of this story, Tabitha is out of the picture. She has turfed her children out of the house.

PLAN CARNIVALESQUE ADVENTURES

The kittens want to play without impediment so their clothes become dirty and dishevelled, then come completely off.

Beatrix Potter would have been familiar with the constricting nature of clothing. She lived in an era where women’s clothing was highly impractical, yet she’d just moved to a farm. It’s one thing to sit inside and paint while wearing Edwardian women’s clothing; it’s another to be doing farm work in it.

beatrix potter dressed in edwardian clothing
by Charles King, circa 1913

BATTLE

The climax of these adventures involve ducks. Potter makes the most of the natural comedy of ducks. who are graceful on water but comical on land.

The ducks put on the kittens’ discarded clothes — hat on a dog humour. This sort of gag appeals to preschoolers in particular.

Why is it so funny that the ducks are wearing clothes, when we probably didn’t laugh at kittens wearing clothes?

Beatrix Potter anthropomorphised all of her animal characters, but they don’t all sit at the same place on an animal–human continuum. The cats are more human than the ducks are. Therefore it is more funny to see the ducks wearing human clothes.

SELF-REVELATION

In a carnivalesque tale there doesn’t tend to be a Self-revelation at the end. The revelation comes earlier and it is always this: Having fun is fun!

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In many carnivalesque tales, the story ends with the child back to constricted normality but in this case Beatrix Potter affords the kittens some freedom to continue their fun.

Potter also tells us about the ducks — who she must consider an integral part of the cast. They lose the clothes in the pond and have been looking for them ever since. This is no doubt an etiological tale explaining why ducks are constantly putting their heads under the water.

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse cover

Which house are you? Fight, flight, freeze or appease? Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) is inclined to appease, as perhaps you must, if you are small and vulnerable.

Except every mouse I have ever met are bolshy, ‘sit on this and swivel’ types. In winter they hang out behind the dishwasher and will hurtle their brown little bodies across the kitchen, even with me, the rightful inhabitant, standing right there. Contrary to literary depictions, mice are definitely not the appeasing type. A realistic personification of mice would render them stunt doubles and heist criminals.

But what of Mrs. Tittlemouse? Mrs. Tittlemouse is the 1910 epitome of the perfect, uncomplaining housewife. She is also the epitome of a partner violence victim.

“Just as rapport-building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.”
― Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

So do I approach this story like it’s 1910 or like it’s 2019? Well, let’s not be boring. Let’s see how this story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature has fared. Continue reading “The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter was originally called The Roly-Poly Pudding and written as a Christmas present to a child. Potter’s image of the cat rolled up in dough is one of those resonant illustrations which, once seen, can never be unseen. Perhaps this image scarred you, too, as a child.

Perhaps it scars you now.

What makes an image resonant? I’ve explored that question elsewhere. In any case, I’m not surprised Potter originally used the story’s most scarring imagery as the original title, and I’m also not surprised that the title was changed. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the rest of the Beatrix Potter books. Continue reading “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter”

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse cover

Leading up to 1918, Beatrix Potter’s publishers were asking her for a new story. This was wartime. Austerity all around. Frederick Warne and Co. were affected alongside everyone else and required something new from their bestselling children’s author. But Beatrix had moved to the country and the country was keeping her very busy. Rather than come up with something wholly original, she chose to rewrite an Aesop fable: The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse. Potter personalised the mouse by giving him a name: The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse.

Is it ironic that Beatrix Potter glorified the country even while country life made her so busy she barely had time to write and illustrate anymore? Probably not ironic, given how post-purchase rationalisation works. Beatrix had moved the country and she’d enjoy every minute, dammit. And if she couldn’t convince herself on a daily basis, she’d write a book about it. Continue reading “The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse by Beatrix Potter”