A few years ago I was lucky enough to come across what must have been the collection of a devoted admirer of Sylvia Townsend Warner in a secondhand bookshop. There was a long line of books on a shelf, and I picked up a biographies, letters and several collections of short story. The most intriguing of all those books was ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’.
It had that interesting title, a very lengthy introduction, and then a generous helping of short pieces with enticing titles.
The introduction is the author’s account of her visit to a lovely house in the country, occupied by a handsome young man and a great many cats. She spoke to the cats that she encountered, and she was scolded by the young man when she had to admit that she understood cat rather better than she spoke it.
He told her that she should learn it properly, that there was no reason why she shouldn’t be fluent. And then he told her his own story, how he came to the house, how his relationship with the many cats who lived there had blossomed, and how he had decided to devote his life to studying and understanding the cultural history of cats.
His greatest discovery was that cats were storytellers; that stories were passed down through the generations, shared between fellow travellers, and might be told to anyone who might care to listen.
“Good heavens, what trouble people will put themselves to in order to avoid a simple conclusion! Do try to be reasonable! For ages the languages of men have kept them apart. For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”
He hoped that the stories would be published, that his work would be not an end but a beginning of a whole new academic field. The stories would be published, but he would not live to see it, because the lives of all those who lived at that lovely house in the country were lost in a terrible tragedy.
It was so lucky that he had given copies of some of the stories to his visitor, and that she was able to have then published with her introduction and a simple explanatory note.
“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editior’s.”
Those stories are everything you might expect from cats who have travelled, cats who have observed the world around them and other more foolish creatures. The perspective is wonderfully feline, and though it took me a little while to adjust to a very different worldview I am so glad that I did.
I saw that cats must have walked alongside mediaeval troubadors, that at least one cat must have been looking over Aesop’s shoulder, and that Perrault and other great tellers of fairy tales much have had feline companions.
They are also everything you might hope for from Sylvia Townsend Warner. There is lovely use of language, there is wit, and there is usually more than a simple story. You could skate over the surface of most of these stories, reading them as simple fables or as clever tales, but if you stop and think there is often much more to mull over. A clever allegory, an echo of bigger story, a lesson that humans – and other species – would do well to learn.
I’m sure that her cats must have been very proud of her.
It’s difficult to pick favourites, each tale had its own merits, but I must pick out a few.
‘The Fox Pope’ is a lovely fable that tells of a fox who tries to learn from other animals, who tries to retire and live as a hermit, but who finds he cannot escape from the world expectations of what a fox should be. And that maybe he cannot escape from his own nature.
‘The Magpie Charity’ is a clever account of crows who become trustees of a magpie’s estate and must decide which starving cats are deserving of their charity.
‘The Phoenix Nest’ is a story with a moral that sees the rarest of birds fall into the hands of the proprietor of a ‘Wizard Wonderland’ who failed to appreciate him because he would rather sleep than show off, and who would learn that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing..
‘The Two Mothers’ is a short and moving account of how bereaved mothers of two very different species see that role; and if this story isn’t a very fine allegory I don’t know what is.
If you were to ask me of these are Sylvia Townsend Warner’s best short stories I would have to say no, and note that none of them made it into the thick Virago volume of selected short stories.
But I would also say that is because her best stories are quite extraordinary, and here her hands are a little tied by the very nature of what she set out to do.
There could be no finer tribute to William Farthing and the cats of Spain Hall.
This is a collection of short stories like no other, I loved it, and I suspect that those who live with cats and love fine writing might love it even more.