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Beware the Cat: The First English Novel by…

Beware the Cat: The First English Novel

by William Baldwin

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Is this the the oldest Novel? Published in 1561, but written in 1553 by William Baldwin it is probably the first book in the genre of horror fiction and is a fascinating document of Tudor Times.

Cats as creatures of terror. Grimmalkin the cat with an insatiable appetite whose death is avenged by another cat who rips out the throat of the man who told the story of the murder. The cats that gather around the quartered remains of traitors hung on poles at the gates of the city of London. The cats that see and hear all of the “goings on” behind respectable closed doors and can take their revenge accordingly. Tudor readers of William Baldwins book may never have looked at cats in quite the same way again after reading his book.

The book is in three parts each of which features cats and the stories are told by one Master Streamer who claims that he can understand the secret language of the feline population. Baldwin has the idea of unsettling his readers by dressing up the stories as semi-factual, he has notes beside the text and uses real names of courtiers serving Edward VI. He attempts to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality: choosing as his setting the night before the Christmas revels when the Master of Misrule (a tudor court appointment) is entertaining his friends at the palace. Ferrers, Willot and Ricard Sherry who would have been names familiar to readers are all present and they are being entertained by Streamer who tells his stories in the first person with interjections and other snippets from those present.

In Ferrers’ bed chamber the participants in the revels are rehearsing their lines, as was customary they all take to a large bed for the night bundled together and Streamer sets the scene for his first story, taking care to anchor it in the present reality, conjuring a scene with which many city dwellers would find very familiar:

Chamber hard by the Printing houfe, which had a faire bay window open­ing in the Garden, the earth wherof is almoft as high as S. Annes Church top which ftadeth therby. At the other end of the Printing houfe as you en­ter in, is a fide doore and iij. or iiij. fteps which go vp to the Leads of the Gate, wheras time quarters of men (which is a lothely & abhominable fight) doo ftand vp vpon Poles. I call it abhomi­nable becaue it is not only againft na­ture : but againft Scripture.

The first story about the cat Grimmalkin is pure horror fantasy with shape changers and witches, but there is a point to all this that will not have escaped contemporary readers. Baldwin likens the whichcraft in the story to the catholic ideas on transubstantiation. The underlying theme to the stories is a fierce anti-catholic stance, but although it is fierce it is not all intrusive and may escape the attention of the modern reader. ( the modern readers attention would probably be mostly spent in untangling the spelling). This first part has the most interjections from Streamers friends who chip in with their own anecdotes and finishes with a ghastly concotion of animal parts which was said to cure the gout.

The second story ends in high farce as Streamer describes how a potion that he takes enables him to hear and understand the language of all animals and birds as well as enhanced hearing of human activities and conversations. The effect on him is to send him mad, the final straw being the onerous sounds of the church bells.

The third story takes us back to the cats that congregate beneath the human remains displayed just within the city walls. Streamer is able to understand their language and he listens in on a mock trial of the female cat mouseslayer who has been charged by ratcatch of uncatlike behaviour, ie she wont let him copulate with her. Mouslayer tells how her life has bee affected by what she has seen in human households. Cats witness everything from the catholic priests trying to co-erce their flock to their abject fear in the face of real or imagined danger. These are stories that would not have been out of place in The Decameron.

Throughout the novel there is a curious mix of the popular and the academic, of reality with fantasy, but the ideas and thoughts that concerned Tudor England swirl around this text to give an authentic and first person account of the life of the period. Baldwin achieves subtlety in delivering his themes and messages and there is also entertainment to be had. I read a transcription free on the internet with original spelling largely intact. This would make it a difficult read if you are not used to seeing s as f or v as u (see the example quoted above). However I don’t think you could wish for a more authentic picture (partial though it maybe) of Tudor England and so five stars. ( )
5 vote baswood | Oct 24, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0873281543, Paperback)

Beware the Cat (1533) is the earliest original piece of long prose fiction in English. It has the distinction of being the first English "novel," far surpassing in narrative sophistication such immediate predecessors as Elyot's Image of Governance or Borde's Scoggin's Jests. This edition, besides providing a modernized text of the novel, also identifies the pseudonymous author of Beware the Cat as William Baldwin, better known as editor and principal author of the enormously popular Mirror for Magistrates (1559). The development of early English prose fiction is thoroughly documented in two informative and wide-ranging appendices. William Baldwin's place in this tradition, as well as his innovative narrative art, is discussed in the introduction, which also provides biographical information on the author, historical background to his novel, and insight into the political and religious turmoil of the middle years of the sixteenth century.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:11 -0400)

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