Cats in history: 3 curious tributes
They say a dog is a man's best friend, but through history cats have often proven themselves to be the dearest companions of many writers: authors often pay tribute to their cats in prose and verse, and more than a few moggies have made their way onto book jacket photographs, too...
But there are some surprising examples of famous writers' felines being immortalised in less literary ways, as George Dobbs reveals...
The 14th-century poet, philosopher and so-called father of the Renaissance has attracted many relic hunters. But one object of worship in particular stands out, linked to Arquà Petrarca near Padua [where Petrarch lived during the final four years of his life, 1370–74]. Lord Byron's lover, Contessa Guiccioli, describes how, in 1819: “Lord Byron was delighted to catch sight of Petrarch's cat, which had been embalmed and was kept in a nook above a doorway”.
The story goes that these ancient, bald remains were those of Petrarch's faithful feline. An inscription in Latin states that the cat was a rival for Petrarch's one true love, Laura, and that it kept his work safe from the destructive intentions of the local mice. Byron declared that “the qualities of an animal's heart put humans completely to shame, and that Petrarch's love for his cat, which no doubt was mutual, must have shown up Laura's coolness”.
Touching as this may be, perhaps not all is as it seems with the famous mouser. The blogger Senseshaper makes a compelling argument for the story being a 16th-century hoax intended to parody the Petrarch cult.
A more recent example of devotional cat preservation features none other than Charles Dickens. Dickens was a well-known animal lover, and despite associating cats with some of his less-likeable characters – such as the snarling creature belonging to Krook in Bleak House – he seems to have had a soft spot for kitties in real life.
In her book, The Secret Museum, Molly Oldfield describes a strange object in the Dickens collection at the New York Public Library: a bone letter-opener, with the inscription “C. D. In Memory of Bob. 1862”, and a curiously furry handle.
Closer inspection shows the handle is actually Bob's paw, preserved as a keepsake by Dickens' sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth. Dickens kept it on his writing desk at home and carried it with him on his travels.
Dickens' daughter Mamie gives a touching account of his affection for felines in her book My Father as I Recall Him. This passage describes what happened after their cat had kittens: “One of these kittens was kept, who, as he was quite deaf, was left unnamed, and became known by the servants as ‘the master’s cat’, because of his devotion to my father. He was always with him, and used to follow him about the garden like a dog, and sit with him while he wrote.
“One evening we were all, except father, going to a ball, and when we started, left ‘the master’ and his cat in the drawing-room together. ‘The master’ was reading at a small table, on which a lighted candle was placed. Suddenly the candle went out.
More like this
“My father, who was much interested in his book, relighted the candle, stroked the cat, who was looking at him pathetically he noticed, and continued his reading. A few minutes later, as the light became dim, he looked up just in time to see puss deliberately put out the candle with his paw, and then look appealingly toward him.
“This second and unmistakable hint was not disregarded, and puss was given the petting he craved. Father was full of this anecdote when all met at breakfast the next morning.”
In Gough Square in London there stands a bronze statue of Hodge, perhaps the most famous historical cat in England. He belonged to writer Dr Samuel Johnson, and today his statue stands on a plinth at shoulder height outside the house in Gough Square he shared with his owner, with the inscription: “A very fine cat indeed”.
Hodge was the much-indulged pet of Johnson during the 1770s, as recorded in James Boswell's Life of Johnson: “I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.
“Dr Johnson bought oysters for Hodge himself, so as not to put his servants through any trouble, and when hearing the news that a mad man was shooting cats in London, ‘he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot’.”
The name Hodge may sound strange today, but at the time it was a common countryside nickname for 'Rodger', leading some to suspect that Hodge may have been born in greener pastures.
The London statue, erected in 1997, is one of many tributes to Hodge. The abolitionist Percival Stockdale also wrote An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson's Favourite Cat in 1778, which includes the lines: “Who by his manner when caressed , Warmly his gratitude expressed; And never failed his thanks to purr, Whene'er he stroaked his sable furr.”
Perhaps the best person to sum up these elaborate tributes to writers' cats is American author Raymond Chandler. Unlikely as it may seem for a writer of hard boiled detective fiction, he filled his letters with news of his cat Taki, sometimes even writing to his friends' cats under her name.
“I've never liked anyone who disliked cats,” he states. “Admittedly, a cat doesn't give you the kind of affection a dog gives you. A cat never behaves as if you were the only bright spot in an otherwise clouded existence. But this is only another way of saying that a cat is not a sentimentalist.”
This article was first published in September 2014.
If you enjoyed this article, why not subscribe to the print edition of BBC History Magazine? Alternatively, subscribe to the magazine digitally – on iPad and iPhone, Kindle and Kindle Fire, Google Play and Zinio.