Catland: Feline Enchantment and the Making of the Modern World by Kathryn Hughes - review by Oliver Soden

Oliver Soden

Pussies Galore

Catland: Feline Enchantment and the Making of the Modern World


Fourth Estate 416pp £22

Louis Wain lost his mind and Thomas Hardy lost his heart. It was the cats’ fault. Wain, an artist famous for his drawings of cats and kittens, was committed to an asylum in 1925 suffering from schizophrenia, or autism, or even a brain parasite picked up from cat faeces. Hardy, also cat-besotted, died in 1928. After a row over his final resting place, his heart was removed from his body for separate burial and, according to legend, eaten by a cat. Alternatively, it may simply have been stored in a tin decorated with a picture of a cat. Either way, in matters of the heart, cats are at the heart of the matter.

So Kathryn Hughes proves in Catland, which, like the swarm of felines who slink through its pages, is witty and protean. Across the even-numbered chapters unfolds a biography, the first in half a century, of Louis Wain (1860–1939). The other chapters comprise a motley collection of essays on the Victorian and Edwardian mania for cats that Wain helped to instigate. The continual interruption of the main narrative is a daring strategy and risks submerging Wain’s life beneath a fur fall of feline facts (we are never told the precise date of his birth). But through humour, elegance and sheer knowledge, Hughes builds something remarkable.

Hughes’s wider aim is to show that cats, and Wain himself, were at the centre of the shift after the First World War from imperial certainty to modernist experimentation. Wain, born with no silver spoon beneath his cleft lip, became a phenomenon in his lifetime. Hughes estimates that he published around two hundred books, each containing his characteristic drawings of Victorian and Edwardian society, populated by cats pretending to be people or vice versa. I have always been resistant to their charms: there is something off-putting about their savagely twee anthropomorphism, their horribly adult nursery world. But Hughes’s revelatory survey will make the allergic think again. She embraces the discomfort they induce, their depiction of ‘a broken world where humankind appears extinct’. Wain, a committed patriot and anti-socialist, was capable of sharp political satire and was influenced by Futurism, the Post-Impressionists and Japanese art. In 1914 he embarked upon a series of ‘Futurist’ cat sculptures that, a century on, still look shockingly new.

Wain’s was a life defined by cats and catastrophe. Like many a Victorian, he married the governess, but she died of cancer three years later, leaving him to his sisters, whom he feared and later attacked owing to mental illness. His finances and popularity fluctuated and in 1924 he was certified insane. He spent the last years of his life in various mental hospitals. His work took an astonishing turn to near-abstraction, cat faces becoming barely discernible amid kaleidoscopic patterns of light and colour. It seemed to indicate artistic and mental disintegration. Hughes thinks otherwise. ‘Far from suggesting a malfunctioning brain,’ she argues, these images ‘show a confident, versatile painter responding to the main artistic currents of the first half of the twentieth century’.

There was modernism in his madness, in other words. The world was throbbing with invisible forces, from radio waves to electricity. The air rang with disembodied voices, which echoed from the wireless and, given the obsession with spiritualism, from the afterlife too. Wain, fixated on the unseen and the electric, was convinced that a cat washed itself ‘to complete an electrical circuit’. Two centuries earlier, the poet Christopher Smart had survived an 18th-century asylum with the companionship of a cat called Jeoffry, in whose fur he had ‘found out electricity’. Smart’s asylum poetry is now acclaimed as an early form of free verse, just as Wain’s late drawings now seem to pre-empt 1960s psychedelia.

Jeoffry appears in one of Hughes’s background essays, each one of which is a Wunderkammer of curiosities. There are cat shows, cat contests, cat killers, cat lovers, cat books, cat burglars, pantomime cats, royal cats, cats against women’s suffrage and cats in frilly knickers. We find Dickens using a letter knife made from the stuffed paw of his deceased tabby and Hardy padding around his house in stockinged feet so as not to disturb his kittens (Snowdove, Kitsy, Marky, Comfy and, yes, Kiddlewinkpoops-Trot). One riotous chapter, ‘Pussies Galore’, addresses the many meanings of the word ‘pussy’ (Hughes dates its sexual connotations back to the mid-19th century, although the Oxford English Dictionary offers licentious examples from well before). The most extraordinary chapter is titled ‘Cats Under Canvas’. It discusses the half-million cats that were to be found in the Flanders trenches, and the five hundred specifically employed by the British Army for the purpose of detecting poison gas. One was mentioned in dispatches for saving a Belgian officer. Another was tried for espionage by the French and shot.

Here and there, Hughes overplays her hand. Cats are a brilliant means through which to chart epochal shifts, but it’s going a bit too far to argue, as she does, that they were the instigators of change: ‘cats hadn’t just become modern, they made everything around them modern too’. There are some large leaps. Wain’s cat Peter becomes the embodiment ‘of a cosmos in disarray’. A chapter entitled ‘Queer Lives in Catland’ may strike some as strained (‘to love a cat was very like being in love with a straight man’). Hughes’s thesis is dependent on the conviction that prior to the mid-19th century most cats were undomesticated savages that ‘resembled nothing so much as a weasel’. But there’s nothing underfed or mustelid about the family pets in portraits by Hogarth and Gainsborough, and what of Smart’s Jeoffry, or Dr Johnson’s Hodge, or Horace Walpole’s Zara and Selima? Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language describes the cat as ‘domestick’ and in Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random a moggie thought to prove its owner a witch turns out to be a ‘tabby cat with the collar about her neck’.

But on Victorian and Edwardian terrain, Hughes is near-omniscient. She knows that the best Victorian cat litter came from Japan and could be purchased at a shop in Holborn, that Siamese cats were first introduced to Britain at the 1871 Crystal Palace cat show, that six billion postcards were sent between 1902 and 1910 and that one, featuring a Wain cat, found its way to Winston Churchill. 

‘Cats’, Hughes writes when discussing her sources, ‘are very good at covering their tracks and do not, in general, leave traces. They certainly don’t write their memoirs.’ One did: Tomcat Murr, whose autobiography makes up part of a satirical novel by E T A Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819–21). In a strikingly modern flourish, the cat’s memoirs, thanks to a ‘printer’s error’, are spliced with fragments of a (fictional) musician’s biography. The novel was read by George Eliot and its structure has been said to lie behind Middlemarch, in which Murr makes a cameo appearance. Cats, you see, get absolutely everywhere.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter