A Death in the Family

In her memoir of growing up in the village of Moss Side, near Manchester, at the start of the twentieth century, Margaret Penn focused on everyday life: the tittle tattle of neighbours, the interiors of working people’s homes and, of course, the drama of family ties. Penn wrote Manchester Fourteen Miles (1950) at a distance (1). She composed the story of her late Victorian and Edwardian youth from the vantage point of early old age. She also wrote in the third person, giving her family the fictional name of ‘Winstanley’ and calling herself ‘Hilda’. Penn enjoyed social mobility too, moving from her childhood home with a labourer father in the semi-rural north to the more genteel suburbs of middle-class London in young adulthood. The memoir is typical of the commemorative genre in autobiography: a light-hearted, conversational tone that, nevertheless, resists sinking entirely into mawkish nostalgia.

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Victorian and Edwardian pet graves in the grounds of Ford Hall, High Peak, Derbyshire.

Among the family dramas Penn recreated was the death of the family cat, Mick, a ginger and white feline that lived with Penn’s family for thirteen years. Penn dedicates three pages of her memoir to the death of Mick, even transcribing the inscription on his grave marker, a small, homemade wooden cross. She informs her reader that Mick was a ‘handsome’ cat with ‘superior intelligence’. If such characteristics are in the gift of all authors writing of their pets, Penn’s review of Mick’s personality also identified distinctive traits that set him apart. Penn endowed him with being the best ratter in the village (even the local terriers could not compete) and has her mother remark ‘He knowed everything, our Mick did.’

Penn’s account of the cat’s demise fuses the gossipy tone of memoir with tragedy. Having related Mick’s artfulness as a rat catcher, Penn moves on to cast his death as a whodunit. Claiming that Mick ‘had never ailed in his life’, Penn’s mother accuses a neighbour who ‘had no love for man or beast’ of putting poison down deliberately. Yet running alongside the vaguely sensational, Penn urges readers that her family were ‘terribly upset’ when their efforts to save the cat’s life failed. Penn and her siblings wear black; their father digs ‘a proper tidy grave’ in the family garden; all the family attend. Penn’s father Joe dominates proceedings as he digs Mick’s grave and lines it with rhubarb leaves. This is detailed narrative.

The pet grave was hardly novel. Affluent Victorian households had, as Lucinda Lambton has catalogued, long buried their beloved pets in private land with obsequies and obelisks only marginally less grand than those for human family members. The public pet cemetery was, by the end of the nineteenth century, an established feature of urban life. A pet cemetery in Hyde Park, London held around 300 graves by the turn of the twentieth century; dog cemeteries opened in New York in 1896 and in Paris, 1899. Overwhelmingly, these early burial spaces reflected the popular traits associated with canine friends: loyalty and faithfulness. By 1948, pet burial was sufficiently commercial that Evelyn Waugh could satirise the animal and human funeral industry in concert in his novella, The Loved One.

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Penn’s memoir indicates that trends in pet interment extended beyond canine companionship and the well to do. By the end of the nineteenth century, as child (if not infant) mortality declined, the death of a pet provided a vehicle for learning about bereavement practices and grief for many children. For Penn, her family’s trauma at the sudden and unexplained death of the cat also identified the status of Mick within family life. The extraordinary attributes of Mick (his good looks and intelligence) justify this status and legitimate the family’s grief; he was, at once, ‘a rare ’un is our Mick’ and ‘like one of us’. It also suggests Penn’s awareness that grief for a cat, an animal still perceived by many as primarily utilitarian at the end of the nineteenth century, potentially needed explanation. For all the family’s affection he is, after all, an animal and his animal traits are writ large in his vermin catching prowess. To a point, Penn’s memoir makes explicit that he is loved ‘like one of us’ in spite of being a cat.

The deaths of pets, and families’ tender disposal of their corpses, indicated something of the flavour and feel of family life, particularly in the context of memoir. The death of Mick demonstrates the Winstanleys’ status as a feeling family. In particular, it highlights Hilda’s big boned, illiterate father as a tender man.

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Penn is also on the margins. Her memoir recounts the story of her illegitimacy and adoption by the Winstanleys, and the revelation in childhood that she is not really ‘one of them’. Penn’s story of Mick is remarkably similar to the story she tells of ‘Hilda’; an outsider with special gifts (Penn also boasts ‘superior intelligence’). The key protagonist in Mick’s funeral scene is Penn’s adopted father, Joe. As the head of the household, he oversees the cat’s funeral ceremony. That he has to ‘gulp’ back his emotion in doing so highlights his tenderness and authenticity. It is no accident that Penn draws on the same language and imagery in describing Joe’s revelation of her illegitimate status. As head of the household, Joe authorises ‘Hilda’ being told her true birth story. He also reassures the girl that, despite being adopted, she is ‘like one of us’: ‘We never made no difference. What our own ’ad you’ve ’ad and allus will.’

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Penn’s memoir concludes with her departure from the Winstanleys to move in with her genteel biological relations in the metropolis. Penn the adult narrator is clear eyed: she was excited and, with all the arrogance of youth, pleased to be leaving the unsophisticated north and her uneducated adoptive parents. But her departure reinforces one of the principal themes of her story: that her adopted family had accepted her as ‘one of us’. It also reiterates Joe’s status as a feeling father. He takes Hilda to the railway station. Poor Joe. He stands bewildered and dazed, ‘nearly choking in his effort to speak steadily’ as he reiterates the refrain: ‘Dunna forget as you’ve allus got us, our ’Ilda.’

Penn wrote her memoir over fifty years after the death of Mick and her subsequent departure to London. Her decision to align her story with that of Mick indicated the complex emotive relations between those connected by blood and those who were not, and the paradox that the refrain ‘like one of us’ embedded the very difference between ‘us’.

(1) Margaret Penn, Manchester Fourteen Miles (Cambridge University Press, 1947).

This blog was written by Professor Julie-Marie Strange.

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