'Your cat is watching you!' The fearless felines hidden by their author

William Baldwin concealed his 16th-century book Beware the Cat because of its satirical swipes at the Catholic church. Now, it’s celebrated on stageWhat was the first novel in the English language? This seemingly benign question is the source of centuries of literary squabbles. Some claim the title for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; others insist it is Robinson Crusoe , but there are also camps for Moll Flanders and Pamela. Now there is one more to add to the mix: a little-known contender about a coterie of talking cats and an alchemist that dates back to the 16th century. As cute as it sounds today, this book was so potentially inflammatory at the time, with its themes of sexual violence and religious satire tucked beneath its fuzzy feline plot, that its author, William Baldwin, hid the manuscript away at the height of the Reformation. Its title alone, Beware the Cat – thought to be a shortening of “Beware the Catholic” – might have got him killed.

He finally published it in 1561, but the book fell out of fashion and lay forgotten for centuries. In the 1990s, academics began to read it with fresh eyes and found all the signs of an early novel – a central linear narrative, character and motivation, as well as a beginning, middle and end.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot.

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Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot. Photograph: Getty Images
Now, a group of English Literature scholars are adapting Baldwin’s story into a theatrical experience to spread the word and convince the wider world of its novelistic properties. Rachel Stenner, a lecturer in the English department at Sussex University, says the aim is “for as many people as possible to know about Baldwin. He is an important figure that many have never heard of.”

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Stenner conceived the project with Frances Babbage, professor of theatre at Sheffield University, as well as Terry O’Connor, an honorary professor at Sheffield University and one part of the experimental theatre ensemble Forced Entertainment. Penny McCarthy, a reader in fine art at Sheffield Hallam University, produced all the artwork for the adaptation, basing her cat drawings on her own pet cat. Together, they have performed the play at Sheffield and as part of the Brighton Fringe. Now they are taking it to the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford. They describe Baldwin as a formidable, if forgotten, figure of 16th-century literature. His influence may in fact have reached William Shakespeare, who might have named the witches’ cat in Macbeth – Grimalkin – after one of Baldwin’s cats who appears decades earlier.
In Baldwin’s story the cats are good, bad and dastardly, but mostly heroic and more morally upstanding than humans. Alongside them is a Catholic priest dabbling in alchemy. After drinking a potion, he learns to understands the cats caterwauling on his central London rooftop and a wacky plot follows, including a testimony from a ravished female cat who is seeking justice in a nocturnal cat court. For cat-lovers, a story about talking cats is nothing new. There have been innumerable fictive felines, from TS Eliot’s slinky poems to JK Rowling’s shapeshifting Minerva McGonagall, but also on Robinson Crusoe’s island and in James Joyce’s Ulysses when Mr Bloom buys liver from the butcher’s to fry up and feed the cat.

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In Baldwin’s book, the story is positioned at cat’s eye level, a little like the perspective in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Philosophically, Baldwin was asking the kind of questions with which 20th-century philosophers have since grappled, says Bob McKay, a senior lecturer in English Literature at Sheffield whose research has focused on animals living beside humans in literature. A seminal essay by Jacques Derrida, entitled “The Animal That Therefore I Am”, is a perfect example. The point Derrida makes in it, he says, is that throughout the history of philosophy we have looked at animals and made pronouncements about them but the animals are looking back at us. Baldwin’s text was asking some of the same questions as Derrida centuries ago, adds McKay: “Do animals have reason? Is there an insurmountable boundary between you and the gaze of the cat or is there some way you can get across that divide? Can we bridge this gap between us and the animal Other?”
Cats are an alternative moral guardian in Baldwin’s story as well, says O’Connor, wiser and more moral than the humans. “You are reminded that your cat is watching you and has access to all your secrets.”
One of artist Penny McCarthy’s illustrations for Beware the Cat.

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One of artist Penny McCarthy’s illustrations for Beware the Cat. Photograph: Penny McCarthy
“Yes,” says McCarthy: “I always suspect my cat knows more than I can tell.” In the adaptation, chapters are read out from behind a table by various performers while an array of McCarthy’s cat drawings appear on an overhead projector. There are also dramatic asides, not spoken, but written on boards, and held up to the audience.

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The team of academics wanted to push the boundaries of what can and should be classed as theatre. The production is informed by performance art, fine art, cinema and song, says O’Connor. “We wanted the audience to love the performance for all its linguistic qualities. The idea was to create a listening space and reflect on what it meant to be read to in our times.”

  • Beware the Cat is at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 6 July and the Workshop Theatre in Leeds on 23 November.

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