Are writers attracted to cats? Or cats to writers?
In a Zoom interview last year, Maggie O’Farrell spoke of retreating to the solitude of her children’s Wendy House to tackle a poignant passage needed for her book Hamnet. Accompanied by her cat. The previous summer, I attended a talk by Tracy Chevalier during which she admitted that much of her writing was done, not at her computer, but curled up with a pen and notebook on her sofa. Accompanied by her cat. A handful of years before that, Margaret Atwood regaled a masterclass in central London with the story of a stranger knocking on her door with a gift of prawns for her cat, which he had befriended on his walks to the station. He did not know she was a famous author, only someone who would be happy to deliver his gift to her feline friend.
Authors who have complex relations with their cats are not new. Dr Johnson, author of one of the most influential English dictionaries in history, is known for considering his cats as more than useful rodent operators. His most famous feline companion was called Hodge, of whom James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer wrote:
“I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge… I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, sir, but I had cats whom I liked better than this, and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.'”
Hodge lived with Johnson at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street in London, his home from 1748 to 1759. Both Boswell and the writer Hester Thrale mention how Johnson would go out himself to buy oysters for Hodge because he did not want his servants to feel demeaned by doing errands for a cat. Which shows not only Johnson’s consideration for his servants, but how much he wanted Hodge to enjoy a favourite treat.
Johnson further demonstrated the Hodge’s importance in his life by inviting his acquaintance, the writer Percival Stockdale, to write the cat’s epitaph:
“Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable fur?”
It is surely fitting that outside 17 Gough Square, now a museum to Dr Johnson, stands a statue of Hodge with oyster shells at his feet which was sculpted in 1997 by John Bickly. The animal, modelled on Bickly’s own pet, stands at “about shoulder height for the average adult, which is just right for putting an arm around.”
A writer, like a cat, often needs their own space. And what better companion can there be than a feline presence, perhaps curled on the corner of their desk? In my own establishment, Gizzie will happily allow me to read passages of my work-in-progress out loud to her when I struggle with a piece of difficult prose. Doing that to my husband would put him in an difficult position: might criticism land him in the spare room? Reading aloud to oneself feels awkward: one expects the men in white coats to turn up at any moment. But a pair of considering and intelligent golden eyes will concentrate the mind wonderfully.