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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Discursive Cats, 21 May 2014
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This review is from: Horace Walpole's Cat (Hardcover)
This larger-than-A4-sized book takes the death of Horace Walpole’s cat as the starting point for an exploration of the man, the cat, and cultural reactions to the poetic death of the feline. I suppose the best way to enlighten the potential purchaser of this volume is to summarise the contents of each of its nine chapters.

The first explores the relationship between Dr Johnson and his cat, Hodge; the second does the same with Horace Walpole and his Florentine dog, Patapan. It is not until the third chapter that Selima appears, the book’s eponymous heroine. And it is here, perhaps, that an idea of the discursive nature of Christopher Frayling’s text might be demonstrated. His chapter starts with Walpole’s house in St James’s, before then going on to discuss the cat but via a popular play of the time, Scottish Jacobitism, chinoiserie, goldfish, porcelain, and Oliver Goldsmith. As one would expect of someone with his wide interests and art-historical background, Frayling’s writing is sophisticated but he wears that sophistication lightly. His is the very opposite of a dry and heavy text.

Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on the Death of Selima’ is the subject of chapter four; chapter five looks at Richard Bentley’s drawings to accompany the published poem; whilst the sixth returns to Johnson and his unflattering critique of both poem and poet.

Chapter seven contrasts Gray’s poem with those of Christopher Smart’s celebration of Jeffry the cat in his 1760 ‘Jubilate Agno’: “For he is of the tribe of Tiger”. William Blake’s watercolours are reproduced in colour in chapter eight. Frayling tells us that Blake used Gray’s ode “as a springboard for his own individual interpretation.”

Finally, Kathleen Hale’s 1944 illustrations of the ‘Orlando, the Marmalade Cat’ books are used as a contrast. One graces the book’s cover.

Frayling is never the bore. Who would have thought that my attention could be kept focussed on what appears at first sight to be a recondite and otiose topic. Yet his wide-ranging scope charms the reader, and his words cajole the reader’s concentration. The only problem is where to file the book in the library: under ‘Walpole’, under ‘Gray’, under ‘literature’ – or under ‘cats’?
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Location: Plymouth, Devon, UK

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