Cats in the 19th Century (Part 11-Cats in Literature-Charles Dickens)

Even though loved by artists and musicians, cats in literature and poetry found their optimum medium of influence.  Almost all of the great writers and poets from all over the world referred to the feline in their writings.  From Dickens to Kafka, cats were at the sides of the century’s writers and poets.

When one of Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) cats originally named William gave birth to kittens in his study, she was appropriately renamed Willamena. Dickens was quite fond of one of her female kittens and named her “Master’s Cat”.  While he wrote, she kept him company sometimes annoyingly extinguishing the candle on his desk.  It stands to reason that Dickens is quoted as saying, “What greater gift than the love of a cat.”  In 1862, Dickens was so distressed by the loss of his cat, Bob, that he had the cat’s paw stuffed and mounted on an ivory letter opener engraved with “C.D., In memory of Bob, 1862”  


Dicken's Cat Paw Letter opener cats in literature


The great writer also made sure to include the cat in his literary works.  In Bleak House and The Uncommercial Traveler he used the cat as a metaphor for a cruel usurious society.  The cat, Lady Jane,(originally bought for her skin) is loved by Krook who carries her around on his shoulder. “Krook is deeply disturbed by the fact that the cat constantly follows and clings to him, slinks reluctantly from a dead man’s room ‘winding her lithe tail and licking her lips’, and stares avidly at Miss Flite’s cage of birds.  Together with Krook, she embodies the predacity that Dickens saw throughout his society.  Their evil is accentuated by their resemblance to the witch and familiar of tradition.  Krook’s mysteriously obtained knowledge, air of generalized malignity and final exit by spontaneous combustion strongly suggest a witch; and Lady Jane is well qualified to be the animal who facilitates his contact with the powers of evil. “ (Rogers, pg 66)

In The Uncommercial Traveller (1860) he called the cats sluttish housewives—women were viewed as feral cats. 

…so the cats of shy neighborhoods exhibit a strong tendency to relapse into barbarism.  Not only are they made selfishly ferocious by ruminating on the surplus population around them, and on the densely crowded state of all the avenues to cat’s meat; not only is there a moral and politico-economical haggardness in the, traceable to these reflections; but they evince a physical deterioration.  Their linen is not clan, and is wretchedly got up; their black turns rusty, like old mourning; they wear very indifferent fur; and take to the shabbiest cotton velvet, instead of silk velvet.  I’m on terms of recognition with several small streets of cats, about the Obelisk in St. George’s Fields,…..In appearance they are very like the women among whom they live.  They seem to turn out of their unwholesome beds into the street, without any preparation.  They leave their young families to stagger about the gutters, unassisted, while they fouzily quarrel and swear and scratch and spit, at street corners….I remark that when they are about to increase their families (an event of frequent recurrence) the resemblance is strongly expressed in a certain dusty dowdiness, down-at-heel self-neglect, and general giving up of things.”(Dickens, pg.103 The Uncommercial Traveler) 




The letter opener is on display at the New York Public Library in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature.   

Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats


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