The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

December 21, 2014

December 21, 1964



Carl Van Vechten died in his sleep at his home, December 21, 1964. After a life spent flacking for modern art. Not enough attention has been paid to this American life, typical in its midwestern origins, atypical in its unerring sense of the incoming tide of art. Well, mainly unerring-- the first person to write about Richard Strauss in America, the executor of Gertrude Stein's estate, the photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, this man--- did participate in a strange 1920s literary current that is today pretty unreadable. Comedies, like Elinor Wylie's The Venetian Glass Nephew(1925), were matched by Van Vechten's Peter Whiffle (1922). Successful in their time, today I cannot reconstruct their appeal as sympathetic as I may be.

I may be out of date. Suddenly there's a flurry of talk about Van Vechten. Like
Edward White's The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (2014).

And there's an article at Bookforum by Clive Fisher, who treats Van Vechten's love for cats as worth an essay on the occasion of his cat books being reissued:

For the first twenty-odd years of his metropolitan career, however, cats—whether anonymous street stalkers or his own beloved Ariel, Feathers, and Scheherazade—were a rival claimant on his affections, their eccentricities catalogued with a fond precision rarely accorded the human beings permitted his proximity. Van Vechten stopped owning cats in his forties, not because he tired of them but because he could no longer bear the pain of losing them. By then, however, The Tiger in the House had established him as their apologist, and the trope was developing, as his career pursued its various reinventions, that he, too, had nine proverbial lives.


The Tiger in the House
(1920) and Lords of the Housetops (1921): if Google has not made them available, they are to be found for free at Hathitrust. These books are not dated. They helped secure Van Vechten a comfortable and steady income.

In regards to The Tiger in the House, the colophon Van Vechten designed for it, of a cat licking it's crotch, was rejected by the publisher. In his bookplate below,  we see Carl Van Vechten did not stop pushing the borders in his choices. 



December 20, 2014

December 20, 1875

T. F. or Theodore Francis, Powys (December 20, 1875 to November 27, 1953),  was a British writer of exceptional talent. One of eleven children who were all creative, T. F. Powys was related on his mother's side to William Cowper, a great genius himself. John Cowper Powys and Llewelyn Powys were two of his brothers.

Here is a lovely evocation from his story, "The Sixpenny Strumpet:"

No virgin need, that day, remain disconsolate ; the holy Sun would lie with her. John Chew joyfully climbed the downs above Pennybarrow. There he saw the village, curled up below his feet, like a sleeping cat.

I can't tell when the source for this was originally published. Like others in his family T. F. Powys took an original approach to religion. The father was a vicar. But his stories, unlike  modern Christian fantasy, do not betray that mean spirit which delights in the suffering of sinners.

December 19, 2014

December 19, 1861

Constance Garnett (December 19, 1861 to December 17, 1946) was not the first to translate famous Russian writers into English. Frederick Whishaw, for example, translated Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, with a publication date of 1887. But she is the translator we remember, and many of the 70 volumes of Russian classics she provided are still in print.

Her father-in-law, Richard Garnett was Keeper of Printed Material at the British Museum, and she worked as a librarian elsewhere before her marriage. So it is not surprising that what today is an obscure English drama was part of the literary world she inhabited. I am thinking of a play by the Irish dramatist, Charles Macklin: "The Man of the World". It was already 100 years old late in the century.

A drama critic contemporary with Garnett wrote of the play in Sixty Years of the Theater: An Old Critic's Memories (1916).   John Ranken Towse said:

The comedy itself possesses no extraordinary merit, but the central figure is a vital bit of satirical writing, which makes very exacting demands upon the comic and tragic powers of the interpreting actor. Briefly, Sir Pertinax is an unscrupulous, heartless, miserly hypocrite, who has achieved wealth and station by his mean subserviency and his disregard of every decent and honorable instinct. Finally, all his schemes fail, his self-degradation recoils upon him, and his end is as tragic as that of Sir Giles Overreach. The fact that the part is in the Scotch dialect increases its difficulty.

Now, the comic character, Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, needs a bit of introduction. At the end of the 19th century, Constance and Edward Garnett could name their cat, 'Sir Pertinax," and know their friends would get the witty joke.

December 18, 2014

December 18, 1946

It is almost twenty years since Steven Spielberg's animation studio, Amblimation, closed and plans for an animated version of Webber's Cats were abandoned. Here are some graphics sketched for the planning---- I got these from Io9. However the artist, Luc Desmarchelier, has a lot more on his website.

Stunning Concept Art For Spielberg's Animated Cats Movie That Never Was


I never got how people could consider Steven Spielberg (December 18, 1946) a lightweight artist before he starting making movies about "serious" subjects. I haven't read anyone else criticize that kind of superficial categorization. 


December 17, 2014

December 17, 1916

The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (December 17, 1916 to April 28, 2000) uses fresh and telling feline details in her stories.  The accurately observed will of course, be original. For example we have The Gate of Angels (1990) where children on their stomachs are "close to the bitter-smelling roots of the laurel hedge where the cat left the remains of her mice."

Fitzgerald used her observational talents in more than fiction. She wrote biographies including ones of a poet (Charlotte Mew),  and Ronald Knox, (a leading Anglican theologian) and his family. Her work won awards like National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, for Blue Flower, and The Booker (1979) for Offshore. 

There is a biography, published by Hermione Lee, in 2013: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. A review of this book allows a useful summary of Fitzgerald's milieu.


Booker Prize–winning novelist Fitzgerald.... once observed, “I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.” In this illuminating biography, critic and scholar Lee (The Novels of Virginia Woolf) shows how Fitzgerald’s characters were drawn not just from real life but from her own life. Fitzgerald was born into a remarkably accomplished and well-connected family of clerics and writers: her father was the editor of the humor magazine Punch; an aunt (Winifred Peck) and uncle (Ronald Knox) were well-known authors; and their circle of acquaintances included Evelyn Waugh, Lytton Strachey, A.A. Milne, and other literary celebrities. “Mops” studied at Oxford and wrote radio plays for the BBC during WWII, but lived mostly in the shadow of her accomplished relatives. She got her chance to shine co-editing the cultural magazine World Review with her husband in 1950, but when the magazine folded in 1953, their lives fell apart and the couple and their three children spent years living in poverty aboard decrepit houseboats in London. Fitzgerald began publishing novels in 1977, at age 61, and Lee does an exceptional job of drawing lines of association between the author’s life and fiction. She mines details from Fitzgerald’s journals and notes to fill in the blanks of her famously self-effacing subject. ...

Can it be entirely an accident that her first published work was a biography of a cat lover? The close observation of cats we see, makes me wonder if a fellow feeling for cats was not part of her choice of subject in Edward Burne-Jones (1975).

December 16, 2014

December 16, 1959

Nancy Mitford (November 18, 1904 to June 30, 1973) was one of the reasons the Mitford sisters are famous. Her last sibling, The Duchess of Devonshire died in 2014. Their background of privilege and talented but diverse contributions to 20th century culture resulted in footnotes to fascism, literature, history and anthropology, and other books still fun to read.

Nancy was the novelist. Here is how the New York Times marked her passing.

Nancy Mitford, the prolific essayist, novelist and historian whose writing was enlivened by satire and a firm British aristocratic perspective, died yesterday at her home in Versailles, France. She was 68 years old.

Unabashedly snobbish and devastatingly witty, Miss Mitford achieved enormous success and popularity as one of Britain's most piercing observers of social manners.
....In one of her most recent books, "The Sun King," which is a portrait of Louis XIV's life at Versailles, Miss Mitford unhesitatingly compared the plumbing at Versailles with what she had known on her own visits to Buckingham Palace in 1923.

Indeed, one of Miss Mitford's pet concerns entered the history of obscure literary debates when, in 1955, she published perhaps her most famous essay on upper-class and non-upper- class forms of speech.

The essay sparked such a controversy in Britain, with responses from many major literary figures, that Miss Mitford was compelled a year later to bring out a thin book, "Noblesse Oblige," with her disquisition on the subject as its centerpiece.

Her argument, a set-piece even today among literary parlor games, was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word is usually the non-upperclass thing
[non-U] to say...

Thus: It is very non-U to say "dentures"; "false teeth" will do. Ill is non-U; sick is U. The non-U person resides at his home. The U person lives in his house. And so forth.

...She was the oldest of six daughters of Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale, who lived with Lady Redesdale at Swinbrook, the family estate in Oxfordshire.

The girls called their father "Old Subhuman." "My father and mother, illiterate themselves, were against education, and we girls had none though we were taught to ride and to speak French," Miss Mitford wrote in "Twentieth Century Authors." ....

Miss Mitford was not the only family member to win fame. In America, her most well- known sibling is her younger sister, Jessica, the author, who wrote of the girls' childhood in her own memoirs, "Daughters and Rebels."

Miss Mitford's first novel, "Highland Fling," in 1931, was--like many that followed--a "comedy of manners" based on her own experiences.....

Better received
[than her early efforts] were "Pursuit of Love," 1945; "Love in a Cold Climate," 1949, and "The Blessing," 1951. These were sometimes frankly sentimental but possessed of a wit that Phyllis McGinley, the poet, found "quite funny and rather frightening." Among the victims of her humor were Americans of any kind.

Eventually Miss Mitford moved to history--"by way of fiction," as Louis Auchincloss put it. In 1954 she wrote a biography of Madame de Pompadour and in 1966 her study of Louis XIV. Her most recent book, "Frederick the Great," was published three years ago.

"She seems to have brought a new talent to the study of history," Mr. Auchincloss wrote in 1969, "that of the sophisticated, worldly wise observer, who is able to penetrate old archives with a fresh eye for qualities in the dead that she is specially qualified to recognize."...


We see Nancy Mitford's fresh eye on the subject of cats.  Everybody loves kittens, to read the literature. Mitford wrote to her mother on December 16, 1959: "
Alas old animals are so much nicer. I love my cat now but it took about eight years."

This from the Oxford Book of Humorous Quotations (1995).


December 15, 2014

December 15, 1930

Edna O'Brien in the title of  her memoir Country Girl: A Memoir, (2012) references her first novel, The Country Girls (1960) which scandalized her Irish parish. and led, fifty years after Joyce, to her leaving Ireland. Now of course she is lauded for her novels, plays, biographies. A president of Ireland has praised her creativity.

We learn from her memoirs that, there were cats in her first children's book, and signs about cats in the woods near the villa she rents to write a book in solitude. But no cats in her household that she mentions, in looking back. I run into this a lot, of course, in researching for these notes, but usually, and I am not sure why, when someone's prose really impresses, they turn out to also like cats.  


And O'Brien's article about Constance Garnett (in the Guardian) is lovely prose:

There is a postcard on my desk of an Édouard Vuillard painting called Two Women Under the Lamp. The room has a warm, welcoming glow, and I sometimes think which of the sympathetic, scholarly women I would like to sit with there. Invariably, I choose Constance Garnett.

Garnett translated 73 volumes of Russian literature, which included Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Herzen and many others, .... Chance put her on the life-long path for which she was suited. In 1892, with her fiancé Edward Garnett, she went to Bedford Park to meet Volkhovsky, a revolutionary who had escaped from Russia and was editing an émigré journal called Free Russia. His pen name was Stepniak – a man of the steppe. Constance fell "not a little in love with him" ....
[H]e suggested she translate "those splendid Russians". It was a prodigious undertaking for a Victorian Englishwoman who had been a librarian in the East End of London. Her husband helped her with publication, ensuring that the editions be both inexpensive and available to young people. In time they lived separately; but as might a Russian heroine, she wrote to Edward: "Keep a warm heart to me – independence doesn't go very far."

In his life of her, her grandson Richard Garnett describes her, alone in her stone house in Kent, translating and tending her garden; she loved plants almost as much as she loved language. Her life was frugal, her dresses "unambitious", her one seeming luxury a Valor stove with two paraffin wicks, which her adored son, David Garnett, had bought for her. ....


We learn about both authors in O'Brien's comments.