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First edition cover
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Story of Miss Moppet is a children’s story about teasing, featuring a kitten and a mouse. Written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, it was published by Frederick Warne & Sons for the 1906 Christmas season. Beatrix was born in London in 1866, and between 1902 and 1905 she published a series of small-format children’s books with Frederick Warne & Sons.

Although The Story of Miss Moppet is considered by critics to be one of Beatrix’s lesser efforts, for young children it is valued as an introduction to books in general, and to the world of Peter Rabbit. The character of Miss Moppet was released as a porcelain figurine in 1954, and as a plush toy in 1973.

Development and publication


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Wallet interior shows (left to right) the flap, title page, and first illustration
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1906, as Potter was finishing The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, she considered developing books for a younger audience. Three stories were the result: The Story of Miss Moppet, The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit and The Sly Old Cat. Inspired by George Cruikshank’s illustrations, she intended to have the stories published in “panoramic format in the style of Cruikshank’s Comic Alphabet“.[1] The panorama format consisted of “long strips of paper, on which the individual pages of pictures and text were arranged in order from left to right.”[2]

Beatrix wrote Miss Moppet in 1906 while she was living at Hill Top, her recently purchased farm in the English Lake District. She borrowed the kitten that was the model for Miss Moppet from a local mason, but it proved to be an “exasperating model”. Beatrix wrote “I have borrowed a Kitten and I am rather glad of the opportunity of working at the drawings. It is very young and pretty and a most fearful pickle.”[3] Beatrix used the same kitten as a model for her next book, The Tale of Tom Kitten,[4] which she dedicated in 1907 “to all Pickles – especially those that get upon my garden wall”.[5] Miss Moppet is one of Tom Kitten’s sisters,[6] and appears as a character in both books featuring him: The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908).

Ten thousand copies of The Story of Miss Moppet were released in a panorama format priced at a shilling[a]Five new pence in decimal currency in November 1906, and another 10,000 copies in December 1906.[7] The strip folded accordion-fashion into a grey cloth wallet measuring 108 by 89 millimetres (4.3 in × 3.5 in). When opened, the panorama strip measured 108 by 2,492 millimetres (4.3 in × 98.1 in).[7] As Beatrix Potter biographer Lear writes, Potter “experimented with a panorama format of fourteen pictures on one long strip of paper which folded into a wallet tied with a ribbon”. But although the format was popular with readers it did not endear itself to booksellers , who found it difficult to keep them folded.[8] Later in her life Beatrix admitted that the panorama format had been a bad idea: “Bad Rabbit and Moppet were originally printed on long strips – The shops sensibly refused to stock them because they got unrolled and so bad to fold up again”.[9]

Plot


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Miss Moppet discovers that the mouse has escaped
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The tale opens with an illustration of a wide-eyed kitten: “This is a Pussy called Miss Moppet, she thinks she has heard a mouse!” The following illustration depicts a mouse wearing a pink bowtie and green jacket “peeping out behind the cupboard, and making fun of Miss Moppet. He is not afraid of a kitten.” Miss Moppet darts at him, but misses and bumps her head on the cupboard. She hits the cupboard very hard and rubs her nose. The mouse scurries to the top of the cupboard and watches her.

Miss Moppet ties a duster about her head and sits before the fire on a red hassock. The mouse’s curiosity is piqued; he thinks she looks very ill and comes sliding down the bell-pull; “Miss Moppet looks worse and worse.” The mouse creeps nearer. Miss Moppet holds her head in her paws and peeks at the mouse through a hole in the duster. “The Mouse comes very close.” Miss Moppet jumps and snags him by the tail.

“And because the Mouse has teased Miss Moppet – Miss Moppet thinks she will tease the Mouse; which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” The kitten ties the mouse up in the duster then tosses him about like a ball. The mouse peeks from the hole in the duster. In the last illustration but one, Miss Moppet is seated upright on her rump and staring at the reader. The duster lies opened and empty in her paws. “She forgot about that hole in the duster”, and the mouse has escaped. He dances a jig safely out of Miss Moppet’s reach on top of the cupboard.

Critical reception


James M. Redfield, a classics professor at the University of Chicago, in his article “An Aristotelian Analysis of Miss Moppet” finds the story follows the tenets of Aristotle’s Poetics, with a definite beginning (the unsuccessful attempt to catch the mouse), middle (Miss Moppet pretending to be hurt and catching the mouse), and end (Miss Moppet teasing the mouse and his escape). Redfield notes that Beatrix makes the outcome of the plot uncertain and creates parity between the characters, which are naturally predator and prey; Beatrix makes Miss Moppet “young, inexperienced, female, and a pet”, while the mouse is “mature, courageous, male, and independent”.[10] Redfield praises Beatrix’s skill as an author; she uses the hole in the duster twice – to allow Miss Moppet to catch the mouse, but then for him to escape her – and uses phrases particularly suited for a parent to read aloud to a child (“This is the mouse …”). Redfield concludes that while teasing is bad in the story – dangerous for the mouse, and cruel for the cat – Beatrix herself teases the reader in a good way, showing “us that teasing is a kind of loving when it is a kind of teaching. The poet plays with us, and by taking us through an unreal experience, teaches us what it is to live in the real world.”[11]

In her essay “Thoroughly Post-Victorian, Pre-Modern Beatrix” professor of English Katherine Chandler points out that Beatrix, unlike most Victorian writers of children’s books, wrote original stories based on the realism of animal behaviour. Chandler notes that she avoids moralising in her tales, making Miss Moppet nothing more than a story describing the natural behaviour of kittens. Beatrix’s anthropomorphised animals are in fact slightly naughty, yet in their naughtiness the punishment is never the moral of the tale. At the end of Miss Moppet, the kitten is not punished and the mouse dances on the cupboard. This leads Chandler to quote literary scholar of modernism Humphrey Carpenter, “there is nothing in [Potter’s] work that resembles the moral tale. In fact if might be argued that she is writing something pretty close to a series of immoral tales”. In addition Chandler notes that Beatrix’s economic use of prose presages modernism, comparing her writing to that of Ernest Hemingway.[12]

Ruth K. MacDonald, English and children’s literature professor at New Mexico State University, agrees, writing in Beatrix Potter that Miss Moppet demonstrates Potter’s ability to pare text and illustrations to essentials noting that she worked best with more complicated plots, more complicated characters, and stories with specific settings rather than generalized backgrounds. Miss Moppet is a vignette, she indicates, rather than the typical Beatrix tale of causality, extended plot, and variety of character, and depends upon the archetypal animosity between cat and mouse with the cat being the dominant character.[13]

Miss Moppet was more successful than its companion piece The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit according to M. Daphne Kutzer, an English professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and author of Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code (2003). Kutzer writes: “the illustrations are more fluid and the storyline more humorous and less moralistic”.Beatrix was never at her best when writing for a clearly defined audience, Kutzer observes, and in writing a Victorian moral tale about teasing, she failed to completely engage the reader’s imagination in either the story or the illustrations.[14] Though, as MacDonald notes, Miss Moppet remains in the Beatrix Potter canon, and serves as a good entry to her literature.[13]

Citations



Bibliography


Chandler, K. (2007). Thoroughly Post-Victorian, Pre-Modern Beatrix. Children’s Literature Quarterly, 32(4), 287–307. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1353%2Fchq.2007.0052
Dubay, D., & Sewall, K. (2006). Beatrix Potter Collectibles: The Peter Rabbit Story Characters. Schiffer Publishing.
Kutzer, D. M. (2003). Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code. Routledge.
Lear, L. (2007). Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. St. Martin’s Griffin.
Linder, L., & Herring, W. (1985). The Art of Beatrix Potter. Warne.
MacDonald, R. K. (1987). Beatrix Potter. Twayne Publishers.
Redfield, J. (1985). An Aristotelian Analysis of Miss Moppet. Chicago Review, 34(4), 32–41. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/25305287
Taylor, J. (1996). Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman (Reprint of 1986 edition). Frederick Warne.

Notes

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a. Five new pence in decimal currency