In 1943, the publisher Michael Joseph brought out a book he had written about his cat. Charles: The Story of a Friendship reflects on the relationship between the two of them, and shows us how the lives of owner and pet could become deeply entwined.
One of the things we are interested in finding out about for our project is the role that pets played in past family lives, how individual family members built up relationships with them and how they fitted into everyday rituals and routines.
While cats were generally less popular as pets in the nineteenth century than they are today, by 1930, when Joseph acquired Charles, they were considered acceptable members of the household. At this time, according to Joseph, Siamese cats like Charles were still a relatively unfamiliar sight in Britain.
There were many pets in the Joseph household: his wife Edna preferred dogs, there were various birds, and also other cats. But Charles, named Charles O’Malley after the fictional Irish dragoon, was Joseph’s firm favourite and during the thirteen years that the two spent together, a close relationship emerged between human and animal.
Charles was closely involved in Joseph’s everyday routines and spent a lot of time in his personal space. The Siamese usually woke up with Joseph in the mornings, and it was his special privilege to be offered a saucer of milk from the breakfast tray.
In the years before the war, while Joseph worked as a publisher in London, Charles did not accompany him to the office but was a frequent inmate of his private room, a dressing room combined with a study. Here, he enjoyed settling down on the desk.
In British culture, an association was often made between cats, women and femininity. But Joseph’s description of his cat shows us how he imagined his pet as an embodiment of masculine values. Charles, when he arrived, immediately enjoyed rough and tumble and Joseph’s mother-in-law referred to him as ‘the Bull’. Apparently, he greatly took to boisterous play with Joseph and especially enjoyed having the lower part of his back smacked repeatedly.
Yet Charles, who was later neutered after an illness, was not simply a model of masculine bullishness. He was timid around other cats and avoiding fighting as much as possible. According to Joseph: ‘To be truthful – as I must in writing about him – he was a gentle cat.’
During the war, when Joseph was posted to a battalion on the south coast, Charles temporarily joined him there. The military life, with its drills and night-time manoeuvres, was rather disruptive for the cat.
Joseph was invalided out of the army relatively early on, and advised to take a complete rest to recover. The family moved to the country and it was here that the convalescent Joseph formed an even closer relationship with Charles, with the cat spending much of the day on Joseph’s knee as he rested.
In the autumn of 1942 Joseph noticed that Charles was becoming increasingly weak, and in December he developed bronchitis and began to refuse food. A few days later ‘the little cat’ gave one final turn in his basket and lay down and died.
Shortly afterwards, Joseph wrote his account of his relationship with Charles. It is a moving memorial to the pet: ‘He was a faithful and gentle cat. For kindness and respect he returned an abundant love. I count myself well rewarded for any gentleness he had at my hands.’
But there may be another aspect of this story. During the Second World War, British men were surrounded by conflicting images of masculinity – the martial and military, but also the domestic. It is hard not to conclude that the story of the bullish yet gentle cat, written during a period of convalescence and reflection, may have been Joseph’s way of reconciling some of these ideas and building a new sense of self.
This blog was written by Dr Jane Hamlett.