"A very fine cat indeed..."
Are writers attracted to cats? Or cats to writers?
In a Zoom interview last year Maggie O'Farrell spoke of retreating to the solitude of her children's Wendy House in order to tackle a poignant passage needed for her book, Hamnet. Accompanied by her cat. The previous summer, I attended a talk by Tracy Chevalier during which she admitted that much of her writing was done, not at her computer, but curled up with a pen and notebook on her sofa. Accompanied by her cat. A handful of years before that, Margaret Atwood regaled a writing masterclass in London with the story of a stranger knocking on her door with a gift of prawns for her cat, which he had befriended on his walks to the station. He did not know she was a famous author, only that she was someone who would be happy to deliver his gift to her feline friend.
Authors who have relationships with their cats are nothing new. Dr. Johnson, author of one of the most influential English dictionaries in history, is known for considering his cats as more than useful rodent operators. His most famous feline companion was called Hodge, about whom James Boswell wrote:
"I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge...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 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.' "
Hodge lived with Johnson at 17 Gough Street in London, their home from 1748 to 1749. Both Boswell and Hester Thrale mention how Johnson would go out himself to buy oysters for Hodge because he did not want his servants to feel demeaned by doing errands for a cat. Which shows not only Johnson's consideration for his servants, but how much he wanted Hodge to enjoy a favourite treat.
Hodge's importance in his life was further demonstrated by Johnson inviting his acquaintance, the writer Percival Stockdale, to write the cat's epitaph:
"Who by his manner when
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene'er he stroaked his sable fur?"
It is surely fitting that outside 17 Gough Square, now a museum to Dr Johnson, stands a statue of the black cat, with oyster shells at his feet. This was sculpted in 1997 by John Bickly, modelled on Bickly's own pet, and stands at "about shoulder height for the average adult, which is just right for putting an arm around."
Writers, like cats, need their own space. So what better companion can they have than a feline presence, perhaps curled up on the corner of their desk? My own establishment houses Gizzie, who will happily allow me to read passages of my own work-in-progress out loud to her when I am struggling with a piece of difficult prose. Doing that to my husband would put him in a difficult position: might criticism land him in the spare room? Reading aloud to oneself feels awkward: will the men in white coats turn up at any moment? But a pair of considering and intelligent golden eyes concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Gizzie had been put out by not being mentioned on this blog, while a neighbour's dog has featured, complete with photograph. My excuse that Woody, an English Bull Terrier, was used as a character in The Servant was considered unacceptable. I hope that this goes some way to placate my own "very fine cat indeed".