Eerie and Savage: Cats in Smith and Grandville

‘…now I think Grandville stands first for me for cat-fancies, certainly for cat-fancies in pictures, he is so mad.’ – Stevie Smith, introduction to Cats in Colour

Image from J. J. Grandville's Adventures of a French Cat: a cat couple on a rooftop, looking in through a window as other cats move around them
Image from J. J. Grandville’s Adventures of a French Cat

J. J. Grandville’s short story ‘Adventures of a French Cat‘, from his The Public and Private Life of Animals (1840-1), was published in English translation in 1877.

It’s a weird little story, told via an exchange of letters between two cat-sisters, Minette and Bébé. Minette elopes with a faithless tom, leaving Bébé to look after their mother. But Minette’s husband quickly abandons her. She becomes the pet of a wealthy ambassador’s wife: pampered but unhappy.

The last letter is from Minette to Bébé, in pencil.

'my maid is making a linen bag; I will be thrust into it and thrown into the river.'
Poor Minette.

It’s a credible twist for someone like Smith, who – though she liked cats – insisted that one shouldn’t be sentimental about them. ‘Really to look in an animal’s eyes is to be aware of stupidity, so blank and shining these eyes are, so cold.’ (Cats in Colour)

But not to worry! Minette is saved, in an epilogue which flaunts its own absurdity.

Minette is saved 'as if by a miracle'! 'Both mistress and maid died suddenly'.
Hurrah! 

I’m not surprised Smith liked Grandville. This sort of ridiculous, ‘everything’s suddenly all right!’ ending pops up all the time in her writing. Here, for instance, is the conclusion to her 1939 short story ‘The Herriots’. Poor Coke is unemployed; his poor wife Peg (with her baby) must act as companion to eccentric old Mrs Barlow. But suddenly…

At this moment Coke came through the cemetery gates. His face was lit up like a flame. He came straight towards them and pulled Peg to her feet. ‘How do you do, Mrs Barlow?’ he said. ‘Darling Peg, it is all right, I have got the job of travelling plumber, father is going to retire at the end of the month.’ Mrs Barlow began to cry, ‘I am so happy,’ she said. Peg and Coke sat down on each side of her, and Coke gave her some chocolate he had brought for the baby.

‘It is all right’. Boom. Smith called Grandville ‘eerie and savage’ – there’s a lot of the eerie and savage in her own work, as well as the same deus ex machina instinct which abruptly tidies everything up.

But Smith especially likes Grandville’s cats. She dwells at length on one of his illustrations:

…in this picture a young girl-cat stands in front of some very peculiar cowled chimney-pots (one of them has a human face, all might have). This girl-cat is too gaily dressed, in cheap frills and cheap satin. On one side of her stands a nightgown-clad angel cat with wings. But she does not have an angel face, rather sly she looks, this angel, with a grin and a double chin a madam might have. Yes, there is the debased bridal theme about this cat-picture, as well as the angel theme. I think it is truly depraved. On the other side of the girl cat, and pulling her by one arm, as Madam pulls the other, stands the devil-cat, her dark angel, and I fear it is to him she looks. The devil-cat’s eyes stare, his body looks hard beneath his harsh fur, but it is a very tough muscular body, you can see how strong he is. And unfurled for flight against the belching chimney cowls of the dark chimneys are his great bats’ wings, leathery and clawed.

Devil and angel, J. J. Grandville's Adventures of a French Cat
Image from the English translation of J. J. Grandville’s Adventures of a French Cat

Trust Smith to notice the face in the chimney-pot, as well as the slyness of the angel-cat’s face. She dwells on the ‘depravity’ of that madam-ish angel face, and I think she rather likes the devil-cat with his ‘tough muscular body’. No sweet ‘catsy-watsies’ for Smith. Her cats are indifferent, cold, hungry. ‘Eerie and savage’.

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