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Written by Paw

Wellcome Collection

Louis Wain: Three Cats Singing, 1925/1939

Cats were not, historically, great talkers (unless you counted Siamese). For much of their existence they had not needed to be. Consigned to barns, kitchens and alleyways for centuries, their main communication remained mostly among themselves. Apart from the unearthly wailing of queens during heat, or the involuntary screech of a tom scratched during a fight, cats conveyed their feelings by a twitch of the tail, a flattened ear, a crouch to the ground.

Only in the nineteenth century, once cats moved to the city and started to bump into humans more regularly, did direct communication become necessary with greater frequency. Often, sadly, this involved raising a cry of pain or protest. Since cats “walked alone,” in Kipling’s phrase, and belonged to no one in particular, those who had not been incorporated into a loving family were considered common property. This made them catnip to young men (“boys” were famous for torturing cats) and attractive to those who sought to snag them for their fur or to sell them to a vivisectionist. No wonder they yelled. But there were other, more benign, reasons why a cat might need to speak its mind. To request the opening of the kitchen door, perhaps, or alert an owner to the approach of the cat’s meat man, an itinerant vendor with a cart of cheap offal and horsemeat from which householders and domestics could buy their pet’s food.

For the more suggestible owner, though, it was possible to imagine a darker side to this newfound articulation. For if the modern cat knew its name and could ask for food when hungry, who was to say that, when your back was turned, it wasn’t gossiping about you? If you added the cat’s well-known fondness for sitting on tops of piles of paper and books, it was quite possible to believe that it was reading your diary or browsing your letters. Worse still, perhaps it was at this very moment jotting in its own journal or cogitating a literary masterpiece—and, again, it might be all about you.

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The anonymous narrator of Sōseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat (1906) is a tortoiseshell who lives in the home of Mr. Sneaze, a schoolmaster with artistic pretensions. Japanese society in the late-nineteenth-century Meiji period was increasingly attentive to European culture, and Sneaze embarks on writing poetry, practices singing in the lavatory, and tries his hand at painting. Having been told by a friend that the Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto maintained that painters should make a point of drawing from nature, Sneaze dutifully starts sketching his sleeping cat, who is appalled at the results: “very oddly, my face lacks eyes.… Secretly I thought to myself that this would never do, even for Andrea del Sarto.”

I Am a Cat remains a classic of Japanese literature. One of its legacies has been Sōseki Natsume’s inventive way with pronouns. He makes his nameless narrator use the noble “wagahai,” which comically contrasts the cat’s high-falutin aspirations with his actual position as a pet in the house of a schoolmaster. The easiest analogy might be to think of the narrator as using the royal “We,” so that the title of the book becomes “We Are Cat.” This adoption of a mock-heroic pronoun proved so effective that it has subsequently been adopted by Japanese writers whenever they want to characterize an animal narrator with ideas above its station.

You see that same snootiness in Saki’s “Tobermory,” a short story published five years after Sōseki Natsume’s novel. Saki was the pen name of the British author Hector Hugh Munro. “Tobermory” is set in an English country house, at the far end of summer, when the shooting and hunting has yet to start and there is little to do beyond play croquet. A group of listless guests gathers for a weekend party at Sir Wilfrid and Lady Blemleys’. Amongst the company of bores and chancers is a man with the unlikely name of Cornelius Appin. He is supposed to be “clever,” although no one is quite sure what form this cleverness takes until, after probing, Appin reveals that he has spent the last seventeen years training animals to speak.

Even more remarkably, Appin announces that over the preceding few days he has managed to teach the Blemleys’ own pet cat, Tobermory, to hold a conversation. No one believes him, until Tobermory is ushered into the drawing room for a viva voce. The cat graciously accepts the offer of a saucer of milk but is unmoved when shaky Lady Blemley spills some on the carpet: “after all, it’s not my Axminster.” When patronizing Miss Resker asks Tobermory whether it has been difficult learning to speak, he ignores her and stares contemptuously into the middle distance. To Mavis Pellington, who asks brightly whether he thinks she is intelligent, the cat answers coldly that he has overheard Lady Blemley saying that the only reason Mavis has been invited to this house party is that she might be stupid enough to buy her hosts’ old car, the one that is always breaking down.

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When another guest, Major Barfield, tries to create a diversion by asking archly about Tobermory’s “carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables,” Tobermory responds frigidly: “I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs.” This is enough to send several other men, including one who is training for the priesthood, into a panic.

This ability to speak truth to power effectively signs Tobermory’s death warrant. Lady Blemley arranges for his fish supper to be laced with strychnine. Yet the cunning cat fails to take the bait, much to the perturbation of the company, who are now terrified that he is busy spreading gossip about them. Instead, the following morning the gardener reports that he has discovered Tobermory’s corpse in the shrubbery. From the tufts of fur caught in the cat’s claws there has clearly been a fatal fight with the orange tom from the rectory. A few months later, a newspaper reports the death of an Englishman following an attack by an elephant in Dresden’s Zoological Gardens. One of the Blemleys’ guests remarks that it would serve Cornelius Appin right if his demise were the result of pestering a pachyderm to learn irregular German verbs.

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Not all talking cats were as intellectually cocksure as Tobermory or the narrator of I Am a Cat, although plenty displayed an overweening sense of moral superiority. From the middle of the nineteenth century you could find animals lining up to recount their tragic life stories as a way of exposing the brutal conditions of their existence. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is the fons et origo here. Published in 1877, the book “translated from the original equine” purports to be the autobiography of a high-born stallion who, as his strength and good looks start to go, is handed over to a series of rougher owners until he is put to work pulling a hackney cab in central London.

Black Beauty was a huge success and inspired a hundred copycats from writers and activists who were part of the growing swell of the animal welfare movement. In 1893 Jerome K. Jerome included a piece in Novel Notes in which an experienced cat tells a younger one how to audition various homes before deciding where to settle permanently. Louis Wain, the commercial artist who had become a household name with his comical drawings of anthropomorphic cats, did the pictures. The weekly magazine Our Cats and the small-mammal publication Fur and Feather are likewise stuffed with pieces apparently written by paw. A typical story might involve a senior cat, secure in cozy middle age, recounting the carelessness and cruelty it has encountered in its long journey from gutter to drawing room. By the time Pussy Meow, a plodding version of Black Beauty, appeared in 1901, it was hard to get cats to shut up.

Other pieces exploited the feline first person for laughs. In August 1902 Our Cats ran a piece in which a journalist interviews the inmates at the Mayhew cat rescue home in north London. These include a rough cockney tom who sounds like Bill Sikes and a Persian lady who declines to be interviewed because she thinks newspapermen are common. She does let it be known, though, that she would prefer the Mayhew to be described as a “Cat Hydro” rather than a “Home.” Another furry interviewee, a literary type, confides that he feels as if he is a character in a Dickens novel who has ended up in debtors’ prison.

Finally, and most outlandish of all, were the occasional attempts to teach actual cats to speak. The most sustained account appears in a curious American publication of 1895, Pussy and Her Language, which includes a “Paper on the Wonderful Discovery of the Cat Language” by Professor Alphonse Leon Grimaldi FRS. Prefiguring Professor Higgins and Dr. Dolittle by at least a decade, Grimaldi details the technicalities of forming labial and explosive consonants when you have a teeny tiny cat mouth. Vowels, unsurprisingly, make up most of “the feline language,” which consists of six hundred words, many of them onomatopoeic, among them:

Aeilio ……………………… Food.
Lae ……………………… Milk.
Parriere ……………………… Open.
Aliloo ……………………… Water.
Bl ……………………… Meat.
Ptlee-bl ……………………… Mouse meat.
Bleeme-bl ……………………… Cooked meat.
Pad ……………………… Foot.
Leo ……………………… Head.
Pro ……………………… Nail or claw.
Tut ……………………… Limb.
Papoo ……………………… Body.
Oolie ……………………… Fur.
Mi-ouw ……………………… Beware.
Purrieu ……………………… Satisfaction or content.
Yow ……………………… Extermination.
Mieouw ……………………… Here.

In addition to this, cats have distinct words for numbers from one to a hundred and are not afraid to talk big: “a millionaire in the Cat language is a ‘zuluaim.’”

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Grimaldi doesn’t stop here. He maintains that cats are also capable of forming simple sentences, although the word order is somewhat different from the usual English (but shouldn’t that really be French, since Grimaldi purports to be from Paris and this paper is supposed to be translated?). “According to the primal order of speech and the manner of the construction of sentences in the Cat language, you will hear such utterances as these: ‘Milk give me,’ ‘Meat I want,’ ‘Mary I love,’ ‘Going out, my mistress?’ ‘Sick I am,’ ‘Happy are my babies.’”

Might the whole thing be an elaborate prank? Consider Grimaldi’s own name. It sounds remarkably like “Grimalkin,” the folkloric name for a cat, while Leon is of course very close to Leo, a lion or big cat. And what are we to make of the fact that the book is illustrated by C. E. Connard? Connard, translated from the French, means, at its politest, “idiot.” At its rudest it means “pussy.”


This essay is adapted from Catland: Louis Wain and the Great Cat Mania (©2024 Kathryn Hughes), published today by Johns Hopkins University Press

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