Somewhat inspired by Zoe Burton’s post from a couple of weeks ago about the therapy dog in her new JAFF (which sounds great, by the way) I started thinking about cats in Jane Austen. Wait, are there any? There are not, as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t cats around in Jane Austen’s day because, of course, they were very much depended upon to keep houses of all kinds free of mice. However, they tended to be outdoor cats – sometimes given kitchen scraps or milk, but generally expected to fend for themselves and catch their own food. As I once found out, living in a New York apartment with my sweet kitty, Mercutio, if you feed a cat too much, it won’t be interested in mice. I actually took him to the vet to find out why he wasn’t keeping the apartment mouse-free as he had once done, and the vet very clearly stated, “You’re feeding him too much.” He was, indeed, quite fat.
One of my favorite literary references that touches on Austen relates to a cat and is found in Harry Potter. The caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Argus Filch, has a cranky cat named Mrs. Norris,which I always felt was Rowling’s little homage to Austen – naming an unpleasant cat after the mean and conniving aunt from Mansfield Park.
I recently read, though cats were not exactly common as house pets in Regency times in the same way that dogs were, later in the 19th century their popularity grew among people who valued a quieter, more serene pet. (Anyone who’s met my little fireball of a cat, Lupita, however, knows cats aren’t always serene!) Writers, apparently, began to have cats as pets to keep a solitary soul company, while not demanding a lot of attention. Dogs, of course, generally need outdoor exercise, lots of play, and a fair amount of one on one time. Cats can usually get along just fine without much attention from us, thank you very much, except to be petted when they want to be, played with when they’re bored, and otherwise left to do exactly what they want to do, which is to sit on your computer keyboard when you want to work, or take up your lap when you need it for your laptop.
I find that most humans are either cat people or dog people though I grew up with both. I chose not to have a dog in New York City when I lived there again in later years because I didn’t relish the thought of taking the dog out for a walk at least twice a day in inclement weather, which NYC has a lot of. We opted for cats because they don’t require that kind of commitment though my son was always bringing home stray kittens, which I then needed to find a home for. As a result, we did, at one point, have three permanent feline residents. And even though I live in Portland, OR now, with a lot more space (and just the one cat), a dog still seems like too much work. Portland is certainly a dog town though, so I get to enjoy other people’s dogs – sort of like a loving aunt who has fun with her nieces and nephews but then gets to send them home with their parents.
All this makes me wonder – was Jane a dog person, a cat person, or neither? Maybe, when she was young, she was a dog person, since she liked to roughhouse with her brothers and a dog would have fit right in. I’m sure the Austens had a dog or two since so many people of their class did. When she was older, finally settled at Chawton, would she have had a small dog? I don’t see that. I think she would have loved to have a little companion around the house though, so maybe she was among the first of the nineteenth century writers to keep a cat inside. I think she would have liked to have a kitty to keep her lap warm as she wrote at her desk.
So, let the debate begin! Jane as dog person or cat person? What do you think?