The Regency Cat

Joanna here, talking about the cats of Regency England.   Julie_manet

What kind of cats can our characters expect to encounter as they go about their adventures?

Lots of cats, for one thing.
While Englishmen may love their dogs, the English householder hated his mice and depended on cats to get rid of them.  Defoe talks of forty thousand cats in London in the mid-1600s.  "Few Houses being without a Cat, and some having several, and sometimes five or six in a House."

 These London cats were working cats —
Willen van mieris rangy, businesslike mousers and ratters.  I see them dozing the day away in the kitchen, then rising in the night, roaming the house to do battle with vermin, meeting the enemy behind the plush curtains of the drawing room and down behind the sofas in the parlor.  All the while, the gentlefolk snored in their beds. 

But there were pampered, plump cats as well.  We find them in paintings, batting at a soap bubble, peering into a fishbowl. 

"Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose."
Garrison Keillor

Samuel Johnson was one of many authors who owned cats.  Hodge kept him company as he worked on his dictionary.   Said Johnson, "He is a very fine cat; a very fine cat indeed."

Hodge was fond of oysters, which were then a plentiful, cheap food, eaten by the poor.  Johnson was the one to buy Hodge's oysters, saying his servant Francis might feel humiliated by the task and Hodge the Cat 2take a "dislike to the poor creature."  Today, a bronze statue of Hodge, seated on a dictionary, with a helping of oysters at his feet, stands in front of the house he and Johnson shared.

Hodge with his coal black fur would have been pretty typical of the cats of 1800.  Native English cats were shorthairs.  They came in in the same familiar shades of solid and stripe we see today. 

Two native cat kinds are of note . . . the Manx and the Tortoiseshell.

The tailless Manx cat was known to naturalists.  Our hero and heroine in London would probably never have seen one.  As late as 1820, visitors to Manx speak of them as an exotic curiosity found in the huts of the peasantry.   The burning question of the day — for naturalists — was whether this peculiar cat was a freak of nature, or the offspring of a female cat and a buck rabbit.  Opinion was divided.

Tortoise_shell_cat wiki Tortoiseshell cats were recognized as a distinct type.  They looked like their modern counterparts, with markings of mottled orange, white and chocolate.  It was widely known that this sort of cat was almost always female.     

William Cowper, the poet, writes to his cousin, "I have a kitten, my dear, the drollest of all creatures . . .  She is dressed in a tortoise-shell suit, and I know that you will delight in her."
Tortoiseshells were called 'Spanish Cats', and there was a general belief they came originally from Spain.   Why folks held this notion, I cannot say.

"Time spent with cats is never wasted."

So your 1800 folks would have mostly encountered the perfectly ordinary 'native' cats of the British Isles.
Which begs the question –  How did the housecat get to England anyway, and when?

Genetic evidence tells us that the domestic cat as breed started out in the 'Fertile Crescent' of the Middle East and spread out from there across the world.  Talking genes, housecats from Kentucky to Kyoto are indistinguishable from Felis silvestris lybica, the wildcat of the Middle East. 

So the Fertile Crescent is where man tamed the cat.  Or vice versa. 

Cats and humans have been together a good long time.  A nine-thousand-year-old grave in Cyrus contains a human skeleton, buried with stone tools and a handful of seashells.  In its own tiny grave, a foot and a half away, lies an eight-month-old cat, its body oriented in the same westward direction as its human companion.

The housecat spread out from the Middle East to the rest of the world.  Not just overnight.  The domestic cat took seven thousand years to reach China and another eight hundred years to make the jump to Japan.
Cats didn't spread in Europe much faster.  The first representation of cats in Mainland Greece is on a marble block from 500 BCE. 
Cat mosaic
Then Romans grain ships from Alexandria in Egypt introduced cats to Roman ports around the  Mediterranean.  Cats followed Romans into northern Europe with their conquests.  Perhaps they perched on top of a knapsack.  Maybe they hitched a ride in the commissary wagons.

A novel must be exceptionally good to live as long as the average cat.

Oddly, domestic cats seem to have reached the British Isles before the Romans.  Did the Celts, who had kin on both side of the Channel, take their cat with the luggage when they visited? 

Archeologists, delightfully, have found little Fourth Century cat footprints baked into Roman tiles at Silchester in England.  One imagines some brindled tabby named Gaius or Decimus stalking birds across the tile yard, setting his feet down softly in the still-wet clay. 

King Six hundred years later, cats found a protector in Hywel the Good, Welsh king and lawgiver.  When he codified Welsh law, he made particular provision for them.  A later version of his law reads:

"The value of a cat is fourpence. The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, a legal penny; and from then until it kills mice, two legal pence; and after it kills mice, four legal pence, and at that it remains forever. Her properties are to see and hear and kill mice, and that her claws are not broken, and to rear kittens; and if she is bought, and any of those are wanting, a third of her value is to be returned."

I'm not so much talking about dogs here, but I have to add that Hywel's law said a guard dog, if killed more than nine paces from the door, is not paid for.  If it's killed within the nine paces, it's worth twenty-four pence.

They didn't try telling a cat where he had to report to duty, Welsh lawmen not being fools about cats, apparently.

Let a man get up and say, Behold, this is the truth, and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say.
Virginia Woolf

Our Regency hero, running down an alley to get away from the bad guys, is going to pass cats who are descendants of cats the Romans knew.  Cats with more than a thousand-year history in England.  They will be largely unremarkable in color and type because cat breeding and the importation of exotic cats from abroad comes later.  It's a Victorian phenomenon.

Cats are not really thought of as 'breeds' at this time. 
With three exceptions.

Marguerite_Gerard nursing mother First off, you got yer Persians. 

Persians go way back as a distinct breed, both in and out of Europe.  This is the Persian cat story: An Italian nobleman, Pietro della Valle, left Venice in 1614 and wandered around the Middle East for a dozen years.  He was inspired to do this, apparently, by an unfortunate love affair.  His loss.  Cathood's gain.

When he was in Persia he wrotes, "There are cats of a species which properly belong to the province of Charazan. Their size and form are like those of the common cat; their beauty consists in their colour, which is grey, spotless, and uniform . . .  their hair is shining, soft and delicate as silk, and so long, that, though more smooth than rough, yet it is curled, particularly under the neck. . . . The most beautiful part of their body is the tail, which is very long and covered with hair of five or six inches in length, and which they turn up over their backs like the squirrel."

Pietro brought home 'four couple' of these cats in 1620.  From Italy, the breed eventually made its way to England.  Interestingly, the Persian cat does not seem to have traveled to England by way of France.  The French naturalist Buffon who wrote in the mid 1700s had never seen a Persian cat.

In England, however, the Persian flourished and multiplies.  They interbred with the English shorthairs, passing their long coat to some of their offspring, who now appeared in a variety of colors.  The cats became so common in England that, by the 1820s, any housekeeper or village spinster would be likely to have one.

A Persian cat would thus be a wholly suitable pet for our Regency heroine, or even our Blofeld-like Regency villain.

A cat is never vulgar.
Carl Van Vechten

The Angora is the second of the exotic breeds that would be familiar to our 1800 folks.  Jean-jacques bachelier 1761 Angora-cat-12
They were described as "possessed of singular beauty, as it is clothed with long hair of a silvery white appearance, and silky texture; on the neck, from its superior length, it forms a kind of ruff; and the tail, by being thickly clothed with hair of a very fine quality and length, has the semblance of a brush."
The Lady's Magazine, 1800

The Angora was sometimes called the 'lion cat' because that ruff gave it the appearance of a lion.  They were called 'the French cat' till the middle of the Nineteenth Century because they were largely imported from Paris.

Angoras arrived in France in the Sixteenth Century when Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc imported several from Angora, that is, Ankara Province in Turkey.  The gentle, even indolent, good-natured white cats became favorites at the French Court.  Marie Antoinette kept a small herd of them.  They were said to roam about the table during court functions.

The difference between the Angora and Persian was the Angora had only the slightest undercoat beneath the long, silky outercoat.  Lacking a wooly layer, the hair followed the lines of its body.  The Persian, with coarser hair and a thick undercoat, was . . . well . . . Fluffier.
"A fine Angola Cat is as handsome an animal as can be imagined, and seems quite conscious of its own magnificence. It is a very dignified animal, and moves about with a grave solemnity that bears a great resemblance to the stately march of a full-plumed peacock conscious of admiring spectators."
Rev JG Wood

The final distinct and foreign breed our character might encounter in 1800 London is the Chartreux cat — Magdaleine princeloup  cropped the 'blue cat'.  It's so called because the fur is "gray ash, blackish brown at the base, the coat is very dense of the sort which, when one sees the gray of the tips and the brown underlaying, the mixed colors make the appearance of the cat to be blue."
 Josephus Flavius Martinet 1778
Chartreux  cats were well known in France and the Netherlands.  Rarer in England, but seeing one would not be at all impossible.

The breed, as a distinct type, dates back to at least the Seventeenth Century.  Legend has it they were the "chats des Chartreux" — the cats kept by the Carthusian monks.
The Carthusians reluctantly point out they have no records of this . . .

So . . .  Those are the cats of 1800 London.  All our favorite and accustomed British shorthairs.  No Siamese, no Burmese, no Japanese Bobtail, no Maine Coon Cats,  But Chartreux, Persian and Angora of a proper 1800s type that does not exactly resemble their modern breed standard.

"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?"
Death thought about it.  "Cats," he said eventually. "Cats are nice."
Terry Pratchett


Adrian Hawkhurst, who will get his own book, Black Hawk, in November, has a small gray tabby cat at British Service Headquarters in London.  It's named 'Cat'.  We don't see much of it, but I know it's there. Aaajapanese fb  


What's your favorite literary cat — either appearing in a book or enlivening the life of an author.  One lucky poster, chosen at random, will win a copy of Forbidden Rose.