In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Alex Johnson’s new compendium of writers’ loyal furry and feathered friends
When Percy Shelley visited Byron in Ravenna, he found the Don Juan author at home with ‘ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it.’ Shelley goes on to note that on Byron’s staircase he encountered five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. Byron, of course, is the poet who kept a pet bear, Bruin, in his rooms at Cambridge while he was a student there (because the college authorities forbade the keeping of a dog). When Byron arrived with the bear at Cambridge, and ‘they asked me what to do with him … my reply was he should sit for a fellowship.’
Such stories abound in Alex Johnson’s fascinating and entertaining new book, Edward Lear and the Pussycat: Famous Writers and their Pets. In a previous Secret Library column, I reviewed another of Johnson’s books full of interesting writer-related trivia. With Edward Lear and the Pussycat he’s managed it again: a book packed with curious literary facts and anecdotes from which I learnt quite a few new things. For instance, when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister for the second time in the 1950s, he adopted a stray black kitten found outside 10 Downing Street, and named it Margate after the seaside town where he’d given a speech earlier that day. And the writer whom Johnson’s title namechecks, Edward Lear, had a cat named Foss – as any real Lear devotee will know – but who knew that ‘Foss’ was short for Aderphos, ultimately from the Greek for ‘brother’? When Foss died in 1887, Lear buried him in the garden of his Italian villa with an epitaph (which claimed Foss was 31 years old – as Johnson points out, something of an exaggeration of the semi-tailed tabby’s actual age!).
Some of the stories Johnson has uncovered surrounding authors and their little friends are bizarre and remarkable. Victor Hugo gave his poodle, Baron, to his great-great-grandfather, the Marquis de Faletans, in 1877; the Marquis promptly lost the dog somewhere in Russia, and Baron was presumed dead. On Christmas Day, Hugo was surprised to learn that his poodle had turned up at his front door, hungry and barking loudly, having made the 2,000-mile trip back from Russia somehow. Elsewhere, Johnson does a bit of digging surrounding the famous quotation attributed to Sigmund Freud (‘Time spent with cats is never wasted’); the line is not found anywhere in Freud’s writings, but we do find him writing to his friend Arnold Zweig that ‘I, as is well known, do not like cats.’ Which makes Freud an unlikely utterer of that much-repeated axiom.
And when writers’ pets die, their owners (but with cats, just who owns whom?) have often mourned them and paid tribute to them. V. S. Naipaul was devastated when his cat Augustus was killed from a kick to the head from a cow; Naipaul even put a notice in The Times announcing poor Augustus’ demise. He’d been sure his beloved cat would outlive him, and had even mentioned Augustus in his will. And pet cemeteries are not just the stuff of Stephen King novels. Thomas Hardy even carved the headstones to mark the final resting places of many family pets at his home, Max Gate; among the dead were his dog Wessex (immortalised in a poem Hardy wrote) and numerous Hardy cats, including Snowdrop and Kitsy. Jilly Cooper, Edith Wharton, and Agatha Christie also had pet cemeteries for beloved furry friends.
Then there are the memorable and sometimes baffling names writers have given to their pets: Thomas Hardy’s cat Kiddleywinkempoops (or ‘Trot’ for short), or Angela Carter’s cats Cocker and Ponce, or Jacques Derrida’s cat Logos. Jorge Luis Borges had a white cat named Beppo after the protagonist of Lord Byron’s poem of that name. And when a young Louis MacNeice was at boarding school, he sent home a list of possible names for some new kittens, including Rodillardus (from Rabelais), Dobbin, Barocco, Parthenon, and Perhaps. Oh, and Quangle Wangle. Of course.
Now Christmas is starting to loom over the horizon, and with it, the business of Christmas gift-buying, Edward Lear and the Pussycat: Famous Writers and their Pets is the perfect stocking filler for people who love books and pets. And trivia. It’s a light read, informative and amusing, with some delightful illustrations and photographs of cats and dogs (but especially cats). It’s published by the British Library, and would make a smart gift – for a friend or family member, or perhaps even a furry friend?
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.