Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Beware the Cat by William Baldwin

 Source of book: I own this


This book comes with a whole story, so let me give some background. 

First, this book is considered by many to be the first English language novel, although the borderline between a novel and a story is a bit blurry here. Also blurry is the question of what precisely constitutes a novel. Morte d’Arthur predates Beware the Cat, but is considered to be a legend, and a retelling of previous material, rather than a work with a novel - completely new - plot. 


The text is pretty short, particularly compared with the longer novels which would come out in subsequent decades. It does have, however, have sophisticated dialogue for its time - it was written in 1553, before Shakespeare’s works - and also has a complex framing story. 


The book is in large part a satire of Catholic ritual, although it also has ribald sections, and some of-their-time jokes at the expense of women. This was, of course, the time in which England was still undetermined as to its religion. Henry VIII broke with Rome and established his own church, with him at the head, naturally. But it was still very Catholic-ish, just with a different pope. After his death, the nation went through a series of reversals, with the brief reign of Edward VI giving way to the Catholic Mary, then the Protestant Elizabeth. 


In fact, these changes played a significant role in the history of the book itself. It was written during Edward’s reign, but could not be published once Mary took the throne. It is believed to have first been published in 1570, and then again in 1584. 


The basic framing story is a discussion among certain persons, most academics, about whether beasts can talk in their own language. This leads to a tale of the death of Grimalkin, an Irish cat that may or may not have been a witch in feline form. Then, Master Streamer asserts that he has heard cats talk, through the aid of a magic brew which enables him to understand their language. His account of how he found the recipe and what he heard constitutes most of the book. 


In the last part, the cats have a sort of a trial of one of their number for alleged violation of promiscuity laws, and this allows for a good bit of satire of Catholic rituals. Here is one delicious line in that vein:


“[A]lthough the Pope, by exactions and other baggigical trumpery, have spoiled all people of mighty spoils, yet (as touching his own person) he eateth and weareth as little as any other man, though peradventure more sumptuous and costly, and in greater abundance provided.”


“Baggigical trumpery” is so fun to say.


The book is a bit weird, in that sense, as it seems to be less of a narrative arc and more a series of complex frames used to hold the satirical bits together. But it also is pretty imaginative. 


The work ends with an “exhortation” from the author, warning of cats. Specifically, they are a threat because they see sins committed in secret, and share them around to their fellow felines. This may in fact be true, for all we know…


I would counsel all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, lest, to their shame, all the world at length know thereof. But if any man, for doubt hereof, do put away his cat, then shall his so doing testify his secret naughty living, which he is more ashamed his cat should see than God and His angels, which see, mark, and behold all men’s doings. 


So that is the book itself. 


The story behind it and how I found it is interesting as well. Regular readers of the blog will know that my wife has been a huge fan of the Utah Shakespeare Festival for years. She attended it with friends for a while, and occasionally with the kids and me, although a job change meant she didn’t get there this year. (Cross fingers for next year…) 


So, in 2021, we all went together. Between the afternoon and the evening plays, we often have a bit of time to kill, and at least once per trip, we hang out at Main Street Books to read, and usually end up with a pile of used books to bring home. 


Indeed, that is precisely what happened. One of the books that I noticed on the classics shelf was this slim hardback entitled Beware the Cat. Since I had never heard of it, I took a look. 


Well, it turns out that the book was a modern-spelling update of Baldwin’s original, put together by William Ringler and Michael Flachmann. 


Flachmann - that’s a name familiar to any theater lover from Bakersfield. He was a beloved professor at California State University Bakersfield for decades. He also served as dramaturge for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. He was one of those guys that everyone loved, and it was a huge shock when he passed suddenly in 2013. I myself remember his post-play discussions, and I know many who took classes from him at CSUB. 


Apparently, in the 1980s, he worked with William Ringler on this book, and he completed it after Ringer’s death. 


So, obviously, I had to buy this book. In addition to the text, there is a tremendous amount of background information - the story of Baldwin’s life and his writing of the book, an analysis of the themes, a history of early English fiction, and summaries of the plots of contemporary books. It’s quite a lot packed into one volume, and a literary history lesson in itself. 


This particular copy appears to have been a gift from Dr. Flachmann in 1989, to what I believe is “Professor S. S. Mooty.” (I was unable to find anything about him or her online.) I assume that 32 years later, the recipient had passed on, and the library sold or donated, which is how it ended up in a used book store. In any case, it does appear to have been read at least once, which makes me happy. Now I have read it, along with one of my kids. 


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