Women and Cats in Art

There is a strong link between women, girls and cats. In fiction, for instance, women are frequently described as cats (and also as birds).

Then there’s the witch link between women and cats, who are thought to be witches’ familiars. During the witch craze, a small proportion of men were also tried for witchcraft, but the modern witch archetype is an old woman who sometimes transmogrifies into a beautiful young woman in order to trick men or to test them.

Then there’s the modern dismissive archetype of the ‘crazy cat lady’, for which there is no male counterpart.

Below are some artworks celebrating the relationship between women, girls and their cats.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)
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The Fairytale Importance of the Literary Salon and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy

“Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann

First, what is a salon?

1. A RECEPTION ROOM IN A LARGE HOUSE

The common feature of a salon: It is set up for social interaction.

Madeleine Lemaire - Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre 1891
Madeleine Lemaire – Le Gouter au Salon du Peintre, 1891.

As shown in the header illustration, “Grand Salon” Hôtel du Collectioneur, Paris 1925. Arch. Emile Jaques Ruhlmann, a salon is also a feature of a grand hotel.

2. WHERE A HAIRDRESSER / BEAUTICIAN / COURTIER CONDUCTS TRADE

(A courtier is often in attendance at the court of a monarch or other royal personage. They’re not all noble, because courtiers include the clergy, soldiers, secretaries and so on.)

Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)
Fiep Westendorp, Dutch illustrator (1916-2004)

3. THE LITERARY SALON WHICH STARTED IN FRANCE

Innovation is driven by the recombination of ideas. So the larger a population you have and the more interconnected it is, the more ideas can flow among diverse minds and create baby ideas. … Jeffrey West … in his book Scale tries to make this case that just getting a bunch of people together in the same place, talking to each other is a huge accelerant to new ideas

Sean Carroll and Joe Henrich in conversation

The literary salon originated in seventeen-century France and was the birthplace of conte de fées: fairy tales, in which the ‘fairies’ are magical creatures.

Charles Perrault, along with other men, is remembered today as a significant figure in establishing this genre of story but, as often happens in historical accounts of important figures, it was actually women who mostly hung out in these French salons, interacting, swapping stories and talking about literature. The fairy stories functioned as commentary on power structures and wealth.

In the 1630s, the Marquise de Ramboillet owned a salon in Paris called Chamber bleue. Highly educated women from aristocratic families gathered there. They were called the précieuses. In contemporary English, this loanword now refers to a pretentious woman who puts on airs, which should tell us a lot about how we feel, as a culture, about women who are genuinely smart: Fakers.

Later that century, one of the woman authors of these new fairy tales started to make a splash. Her name was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. In 1690 she released “The Island of Happiness”. (It was novel-length.) Seven years later she released four volumes of conte de fées, Tales of the Fairies (1697), establishing her for centuries as a significant figure in European fairytale history. It was actually D’Aulnoy who coined the term conte de fée.

D’Aulnoy had reason to be interested in fairytales as a vehicle to express emotions around gender injustice. She had been married off at 15 to an abusive man three decades older. Like all women of her time, she could not inherit, and could not work to earn money.

Seventeenth century France is known for its ‘gender wars’. During this century a number of all-male academies were being founded. Women quite rightly felt marginalised and saw the need for a revolution.

Today, fairytales which all end with the heroine marrying the man she loves seem retrograde, but marrying for love was itself a radical idea in the context of a culture which married its girls off and gave them no autonomy whatsoever to marry who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns begaun in 1687. The ‘ancients’ were all about Greco-Roman literary archetypes. In oppsition, the ‘moderns’ praised archetypes from French folklore and from medieval, courtly tradition. In case you’re wondering, Charles Perrault was on the side of the Moderns. His fairy tale “Griselda” (1691) was written to exemplify his modern views. Perrault was publishing fairy tales at the same time as Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy.

Excluded from The Establishment, aristocratic french women decided to start their own private space for recitations, performance and general storytelling. Fairy tales are perfect for this kind of storytelling because they sit between the oral tradition, can easily incorporate aspects of pop culture and also classical literary traditions of the so-called elite. A fairytale can be anything the storyteller wants it to be, because the backbone of plot is so robust. The form is also very welcoming; you don’t even have to know how to read and write to have a solid appreciation of fairytale.

I don’t want to make these aristocratic women seem too liberal. I mean, they were still wealthy white women practising wealthy white feminism in their private salons. The stories they used as base were from ‘the common folk’, but they weren’t interested in inviting the actual common folk to these salons. They didn’t want to be associated with the nursemaids and peasant women of the world. Charles Perrault was happy to write about such women because he didn’t need to worry about being taken for one. In contrast, the female salonnieres preferred reciting fairytales starring sibyls and fairies. These ladies were fans of Giambattista Basile (1566 – 1632) and Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Basile was an Italian fairytale collector remembered today for the earliest known European versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella. Straparola (1485?-1558) was also Italian. He published a collection of stories in two volumes called The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights. This collection includes some of the first known printed versions of fairy tales in Europe, as they are known today. We don’t know much about him, partly because Strapola is unlikely to have been his real name.

Fast forward to the time of the Grimms, who today catch a disproportionate amount of the credit for tales they collected (largely from women), and who dismissed the fairy tales of D’Aulnoy for being sentimental, feminine and domestic in nature. Before the Grimms came along, D’Aulnoy’s work was hugely popular, and distributed in translation all across Europe in The Fairies Cabinet (1785-89). Andrew Lang was happy to include a number of her stories in his Fairy Books. In contrast, renowned misogynists the Grimm Brothers actively sought to minimise the importance of D’Aulnoy in fairy story tradition, and they were successful in their mission. How many readers know of the Grimm brothers (and Charles Perrault) but not the name of Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy today?

When she is mentioned, she is often positioned as secondary to the male actors in the history of fairy tale. Note the wording of the following sentence from Britannica online:

Her best-remembered works are Contes de fées (1697; “Fairy Tales”) and Les Contes nouveaux ou les fées à la mode (1698; “New Tales, or the Fancy of the Fairies”), written in the manner of the great fairy tales of Charles Perrault but laced with her own sardonic touch. 

Britannica

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden cover Graham Rust

The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in serialised form in America between 1910-11, the end of the Edwardian era in England. We now consider this a story for children, probably because the main characters are children. Surprising to me: this story was originally aimed at an adult readership.

When I think a little harder though, it makes sense that The Secret Garden was aimed at adult readers. If there’s a moral in this story, it’s aimed at parents. At times it sounds like a parenting manual:

Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.

The Secret Garden

If we’re going to call it children’s literature,The Secret Garden is an example from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first World War. In some ways it’s typical of its time, in other ways ahead of its time.

The Secret Garden utilises a madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a boy, not a madwoman. The haunted house and grounds are also straight out of a Gothic horror. The Secret Garden is a very clear example of the Gothic in literature. It is also clearly Christian.

I’m reading an abridged version, which is still plenty long. Though some child readers absolutely stan this novel, I don’t persoanally consider it children’s literature. In fact, I didn’t plan on ever digging deep into this novel because it gave me the absolute creeps when I was a kid myself. I was gifted a few copies and they’re still on the shelf. I started reading a few times and never finished. Then, in the year of our Lord 2020, when my own kid was in Year 6 and refused to study White Fang along with everyone else due to the animal cruelty contained within, they were handed a copy of The Secret Garden instead (because child cruelty is more palatable than animal cruelty…) Hodgson Burnett’s classic has clearly found resonance if you can still find copies hanging around in Australian schools.

Notably, my own kid also despised The Secret Garden and, like me, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Without whole class guidance from the teacher (who had actually prepped for a unit on White Fang), it was impossible to understand.

As an adult, I have since read a completely different kind of book with a similar name: Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which puts a whole different spin on things.

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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

Jessie MacGregor - In the Reign of Terror 1891 baby cradle

The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.

This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)

Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.

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On Rhyming Picturebooks

Examine the work of rhyming masters like Jane Yolen, Jack Prelutsky, Karma Wilson, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Corey Rosen Schwartz.

Tara Lazar, How To Write Children’s Picturebooks

“If it’s going to rhyme, it’s just terribly important that there’s some repeated phrase, some sort of chorus-y bit.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview

In 1991 an editor in the children’s department at Methuen contacted Donaldson to ask if she would be interested in turning one of her BBC songs into a book. A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.

“It was a rule we held to be self-evident that you couldn’t afford to do rhyming books,” [Kate] Wilson, who then worked in Methuen’s rights department, told me, somewhat sheepishly. (The book has since sold more than 1.5m copies, and Donaldson’s work has been translated into more than 50 languages.) Today, a significant proportion of picture books are written in verse, somewhat to Donaldson’s bemusement. “I think there’s far too many rhyming books. And a lot of them – I don’t want to sound vain or anything – a lot of them make me cringe.”

Julia Donaldson, The Guardian interview

Header illustration: Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969), “Farmer in the Dell”.

The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

I didn’t have a well growing up because I didn’t live on a farm. Our water came out of the tap and that’s all I knew about the matter. But I did have a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes illustrated by Hilda Boswell, and I also had a cat, so I knew wells were deep, dark, dangerous places.

Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Thin.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who never did him any harm,
But chased all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

by William Shakespeare, maybe
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The Colour Purple Symbolism

Before the concept for ‘blue’ existed, Homer wrote famously in The Odyssey of the “wine-dark sea.” Sure, it might’ve looked purple even to a contemporary audience, but we know from other writings around the world that the concept of ‘blue’ was late to enter human consciousness. “The Odyssey” suggests that blue was included the concept of purple.

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Symbolism of Blue

Henry Scott Tuke - August Blue 1894

In the “Odyssey”, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” Well, that’s poetic, isn’t it? But there’s a reason he didn’t just call the ocean blue. There was no term for ‘blue’ in Ancient Greece. People from antiquity didn’t consider blue a separate colour significant enough to name. It’s difficult to find a word that meant ‘blue’ way back in time. Black and white are mentioned a lot. Red, a little, next green and yellow. But no blue! Blue is one of the primary colours. In Japan there’s ‘midori’, which today means green (think of the liquor) but which is traditionally a sort of bluish-green colour, somewhere in the middle. Midori is traditionally ‘the colour of nature’, and describes the color of shoots, young leaves, or whole plants. There is a Japanese word for blue (ao). But educational materials distinguishing green and blue only came into use after World War II.

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The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Wind in the Willows cover David Petersen

The Wind In The Willows is an Edwardian (1908) novel by Scottish born British writer Kenneth Grahame. This book is an example of a story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Idyllic settings were popular at the time. Idylls remained popular up to and including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books (written 1924-1928).

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The Annotated Night Before Christmas

“The Night Before Christmas” is an alternative title of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (controversially) by a guy called Clement Clarke Moore. The poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and only later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed authorship in 1837, the start of the Victorian era. A Dutch migrant called Henry Livingston might be the true author. We don’t know.

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