Among the Antimacassars

Alison Light

According to Baudelaire, fervent lovers and austere scholars have one thing in common, especially in their riper years. They share a love of household cats, who, like them, are ‘sédentaires’ and ‘frileux’ – sensitive to draughts. Baudelaire wrote many hymns to the friend of sensuality and learning, but it was another hundred years before cats reached their current popularity as pets. They have always had their followers but their association with paganism, with heresy and sorcery, made them a constant object of suspicion in Christian Europe. Condemned as the devil’s agents at witchcraft trials, burnt alongside Protestants by Mary Tudor and alongside Catholics by Elizabeth I, roasted at country fairs and persecuted for sport, cats were often given short shrift in Britain. Ancient symbols of fertility, they were commonly deemed lascivious (the female cat was especially lecherous), but feline stand-offishness was the real problem. The cat was of limited worth to humans since it only looked out for itself: ‘a useful but deceitful domestic’ possessed of ‘an innate malice’, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it in 1787.

It was as protomodernists, ideal familiars of the self-conscious urban individual, that cats came into their own. To the avant-garde their aloofness seemed introspective; their sphinx-like calm and hieratic inscrutability (that capacity to shutter their vision which had struck others as sinister) was at one with the Symbolist sense of the hermeneutic. Cats were nocturnal, reclusive, and much given to reverie. They were natural dandies, fond of grooming and preening themselves; aesthetes rather than philistines; cosmopolitan rather than alien. Avatars of Orientalism (breeds like the Abyssinian and Blue Persian made their way into European homes in the late 19th century), they could conjure the exotic or luxurious. The cat’s reputation for libertinism was championed by bohemians and artists as anti-bourgeois (a small black cat completes the erotic display alongside the prostitute and the negro maid in Manet’s Olympia). Decadents relished the feline: Swinburne, for instance, recognised ‘a friend of loftier mind’ in his cat’s lordly condescension. With their flat planes and sinuous curves, cats’ bodies were perfect formal subjects for the new graphic arts (Steinlen, who used them continually in posters advertising tea and milk, was obsessed with them; his Paris house, with its colony of strays, was known as ‘Cats’ Corner’). Smooth-contoured cats were discovered in Japanese watercolours, where the cat is an emblem of nobility, and their sculptural possibilities, as well as their gravitas, were further enhanced by the excavation of cat-deities in Egypt. Cats were suddenly stylish, as the sleek bronze creature who patronises the stairwell at Heal’s reminds us. They became the darlings of Art Deco. As pets they shared their owners’ passion for the comforts of a more private domesticity; and were, at last, valued, rather than vilified, for their independence.

If cats were modern, the past, especially in England, was canine. Dogs were the Victorians’ top domestic animal because – unlike cats – they were deeply attached to their masters. From the late 18th century the new benevolence towards animals, and commiseration with their sufferings, favoured the dog as an emotional creature. Feelings created affinities between animal and human; their lack of reason, formerly the sign of their difference, counted for less. ‘The perfection of an animal’, Buffon wrote in his hugely popular Histoire naturelle (1762), depends on ‘the perfection of sentiment’, and he judged the dog’s ‘interior qualities’ closest to mankind’s (Pliny’s Natural History had preferred the elephant for its intelligence). Dogs expressed themselves sympathetically; caterwauling was diabolical by comparison. They responded to their keepers, pining at absences, welcoming returns, growling at strangers, even howling at deaths. Not just symbols of human virtue, but superior sensibilities (as the young Byron insisted in his epitaph to Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog and ‘one friend’), dogs became fit matter for poetry.

Although these new ways of anthropomorphising animals were evidence of a more sceptical or secular mentality – ‘anthropomorphism’ had shifted from its original meaning of attributing human qualities to the Deity – they were nevertheless compatible with faith: a loving dog might exemplify a loving God whose ‘strength of feeling’, as Wordsworth wrote in ‘Fidelity’ of 1805, was equally beyond human estimate. Dogs were a tie. That was their point. They encouraged and anchored the affections; they set a limit to self-centredness, prompting reflection on the need, in an increasingly materialist culture, for social and personal bonds which put others first.

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