The Character of Cats: Depictions in Georgian and Regency Literature

Un Chat Angora by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, (1724–1806).
Un Chat Angora by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, (1724–1806).

As popular a pet as cats are in modern day households, it was the dog that dominated the home and hearth of the 18th and early 19th century.  Cats had their admirers, of course, amongst whom were such literary luminaries as Samuel Johnson and Lord Byron, but in general, their primary value lay in their ability to keep the premises free from vermin.

It would be some time before cats were viewed as favorably as dogs.  Part of this can be blamed on the literature of the day.  In stories featuring animals, courage and loyalty were traits frequently assigned as canine virtues, while cats were often portrayed as sly, self-serving opportunists.  Just think of Puss in Boots (16th century), wherein the title character achieves his ends through trickery and deceit.

Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, 1746.
Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, 1746.

A 1712 poem titled A Fable of the Widow and her Cat details the downfall of an unprincipled feline who has exploited the widow who owns him.  Largely attributed to poet Jonathan Swift, the poem is, in fact, a satirical commentary on the conduct of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough.  Marlborough was formally accused of embezzlement in 1711.  As a result, Queen Anne (represented by the widow of the piece) dismissed him from all of his appointments.  I have included the poem in its entirety for your perusal.




A Widow kept a favourite cat,

At first a gentle creature;

But when he was grown sleek and fat,

With many a mouse, and many a rat,

He soon disclos’d his nature.


The fox and he were friends of old,

Nor could they now be parted;

They nightly slunk to rob the fold,

Devour’d the lambs, the fleeces sold

And Puss grew lion-hearted.


He scratch’d her maid, he stole the cream,

He tore her best lac’d pinner;

Nor Chanticleer upon the beam,

Nor chick, nor duckling, ‘scapes, when Grim

Invites the fox to dinner.


The dame full wisely did decree,

For fear he would dispatch more,

That the false wretch should worried be;

But in a saucy manner he

Thus speech’d it, like a Lechmere:


“Must I, against all right and law,

“Like pole-cat vile be treated?

 “I! who so long with tooth and claw

 “Have kept domestic mice in awe,

“And foreign foes defeated!


 “Your golden-pippins, and your pies,

“How oft’ have I defended!

“Tis true, the pinner which you prize

“I tore in frolick; to your eyes


“I am a cat of honour.” — “Stay!”

Quoth she, “no longer parley;

“Whate’er you did in battle flay,

“By law of arms became your prey:

“I hope you won it fairly.


 “Of this we’ll grant you stand acquit,

“But not of your outrages:

“Tell me, Perfidious was it fit

“To make my cream a perquisite,

“And steal, to mend your wages?


“So flagrant is thy insolence,

“So vile thy breach of trust is;

“That longer with thee to dispense,

“Were want of power, or want of sense —

“Here, Towzer! — do him justice.”

Girl Playing with a Dog and a Cat by Jean Auguste Fragonard, (1732-1805).
Girl Playing with a Dog and a Cat by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, (1732-1806).

The housecat was not always a literary synonym for unprincipled villainy.  In the following excerpt of a short story featured in the March 1784 edition of The Wit’s Magazine, the heroine – a luckless young lady named Phebe – is assisted by her cat when no one else (not even a dog!) will come to her aid.

“As she looked down the lawn, she saw, with surprise, her favourite cat, to which she had always been very kind, coming trotting after her…She burst into tears when she beheld the faithful animal come purring by her side, and looking up, as if in pity of her fate.  The cat seemed to be guided by a superior instinct: there were three paths led from where her mistress sat, and she took one of them, and looked back as if inviting Phebe to follow; which action she repeated several times…”

You will note that the cat in this story is not only capable of sympathy, she is also possessed of a “superior instinct” and intelligence, guiding her young mistress safely through the dark.  As if this is not proof enough of the cat’s value, the cat next leads her mistress to a sumptuous dinner.

“The cat had not gone far, before she turned a little from the way to a bush, and stopped, then went back to meet her mistress and returned to the same spot: this incited Phebe’s curiosity, and she followed to the bush.  Here she found a clean white napkin, and in it a part of a very fine capon with some good wheaten bread.  Phebe’s feelings may easily be imagined; she sat herself upon the bank and divided her treasure with her friend.”

The author goes on to paint the cat in an even more heroic light by having her save her mistress from a fearsome bull.

“[Phebe] presently rose from her repast, and her cat still ran before, as if to conduct her.  They came presently to a place where the stile had been hedged up, to prevent passengers from coming any more that road; the cat turned down the side of the hedge, and found a clear gap.  When they came into the next field, a fierce bull ran bellowing, as soon as he saw Phebe, to attack her; but the cat placed herself between them, and seemed to spit fire in his eyes; at which he was so terrified and pained, that he ran roaring away…”

The Wool Winder by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, (1725-1805).
The Wool Winder by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, (1725-1805).

Of course, it was still the 1780s and, as remarkable as the cat was, she was still just a cat – as illustrated when the valiant little feline is disposed of rather grimly only pages before our heroine reaches her happy ending.

“To add to the terrors that surrounded her, the generous animal that went before her, scarcely at more than a yard’s distance, and that every moment kept turning it’s luminous eyes, as if to light and guide it’s mistress, suddenly tumbled down a precipice, and, by its cries, gave Phebe, whose feet were upon the very brink, warning of her danger, and its own apparent destruction.”

An unfortunate accident, to be sure, but almost worth it in order to read the heartfelt reaction of one of the characters upon hearing of the cat’s demise:

“The Lord of heavenly mercy bless me,” cried John Audley, “and save the soul of that poor cat, who, I warrant, was a better Christian than some of us.”

Le Chat Angora by Jean-Auguste Fragonard, (1732-1805).
Le Chat Angora by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, (1732-1806).

An article in the 1811 edition of The Reflector, titled Inquiries Concerning Instinct, goes one step further in rehabilitating the reputation of the cat.  The Reflector was a quarterly magazine edited by Leigh Hunt (founder of the Cockney School and good friend to both John Keats and Percy Shelley).  Instead of satire or fictional tales, the author of the piece examines the nature of animals from a scientific and philosophical standpoint.

“That some animals not only display wonderful sagacity and docility, but also reason on several occasions, is, I think, clear from the most satisfactory evidence.  And, having already shewn that some of their actions are instinctive, I shall now endeavour to shew, as the contrary supposition has crept into the writings of philosophers, that several of them are undoubtedly rational also…

“One of my friends, on whose judgment and veracity I can rely with the utmost confidence, had a tame bird which she was in the habit of letting out of its cage about her room every day.  One morning after breakfast, as the bird was picking some crumbs of bread off the carpet, her cat, who always before shewed great kindness for the bird, and was then near her, seized it on a sudden, and jumped with it in her mouth upon a table.  The lady, perfectly astonished and alarmed for the fate of her favourite, on turning about observed that the door had been left open, and that a strange cat had just come into the room.  After turning it out and shutting the door, her own cat came down from its place of safety, and dropped the bird without injuring, if I may so express myself, a hair of its head.”

A Reclining Beauty with her Cat by Fritz Zuber-Bühler, (1822-1896).
A Reclining Beauty with her Cat by Fritz Zuber-Bühler, (1822-1896).

The cat has come a very long way since its early depictions in literature.  Today, cats in novels are cast as loving companions, courageous sidekicks, comic foils, and even, occasionally, as the main character.  And yes, every so often there is still a cat depicted in a negative light or, even worse, portrayed merely as a means of illustrating a human character’s cruelty and depravity.

How are cats portrayed in your favorite novels?  How would you like to see them portrayed?  Leave your answers in the comments section below!

Fond of Jewelry by Henriette Ronner-Knip, (1821-1909).
Fond of Jewelry by Henriette Ronner-Knip, (1821-1909).

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  I did not focus on a particular breed this week, but here are a few hard facts:

More than 3.6 million cats enter shelters each year.

More than 1.4 million of those cats are euthanized.

We can all help to decrease these numbers by having our companion pets spayed or neutered.  If you would like to do more, even a small donation of your time or money to a local shelter or rescue organization can have a profound impact on the lives of cats in need.  I encourage you to utilize the below links as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


Delaney, et al.  A Supplement to Dr. Swift’s Works: Containing Miscellanies in Prose and Verse.  Volume 3.  London: J. Nichols, 1779.

Holcroft, Thomas, ed.  “The Story of Phebe the Good; or, The Glorious Hand.”  The Wit’s Magazine; Or, Library of Momus: Being a Compleat Repository of Mirth, Humour, and Entertainment.  Volumes 1-2.  1784.

Hunt, Leigh, ed.  “Inquiries concerning Instinct: exhibiting a Brief View of the Mental Faculties of the Lower Animals compared with those of Man; and also the State of Opinions on this Subject.”  The Reflector: A Quarterly Magazine on Subjects of Philosophy, Politics, and the Liberal Arts.  Volume 1.  October 1810 to March 1811.

One of BookBub’s “25 of the Best Books Arriving in 2021”

John Eyre
A Tale of Darkness and Shadow

From USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews comes a supernatural Victorian gothic retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s timeless classic.

Yorkshire, 1843. When disgraced former schoolmaster John Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to take up a position as tutor to two peculiar young boys, he enters a world unlike any he’s ever known. Darkness abounds, punctuated by odd bumps in the night, strange creatures on the moor, and a sinister silver mist that never seems to dissipate. And at the center of it all, John’s new employer–a widow as alluring as she is mysterious.

Sixteen months earlier, heiress Bertha Mason embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Marriage wasn’t on her itinerary, but on meeting the enigmatic Edward Rochester, she’s powerless to resist his preternatural charm. In letters and journal entries, she records the story of their rapidly-disintegrating life together, and of her gradual realization that Mr. Rochester isn’t quite the man he appears to be. In fact, he may not be a man at all.

From a cliff-top fortress on the Black Sea coast to an isolated estate in rural England, John and Bertha contend with secrets, danger, and the eternal struggle between light and darkness. Can they help each other vanquish the demons of the past? Or are some evils simply too powerful to conquer?

Find out more or Read an Excerpt

Pre-Order Today

ebook: $3.99 $4,99

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple | Google

Advance Praise for John Eyre

“In this thrilling remix of Charlotte Brontë’s work, Matthews skillfully transforms a well-known story into a truly original tale.” -Kirkus Reviews

“Bertha Mason Rochester shines, dominating her scenes with vitality and strength.” -Publishers Weekly

“[Matthews] retells Charlotte Bronte’s classic story in a way that will keep fans of the original novel totally gripped from cover to cover… Fresh and dynamic… Fast-paced and spellbinding…a book you will have a hard time putting down.” -Readers Favorite

“One of the most moving, suspenseful, innovative and remarkable retellings of a classic in the history of, well, ever… Every page is sheer rapture as [Matthews] moulds popular source material into a spell-binding creation so wholly her own.” -Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration

“A wonderful sinister atmosphere, deliciously creepy characters, and a female character who is a powerful force… A true homage to the gothic genre without being derivative… Highly, highly recommended!” -Clarissa Harwood, author of Impossible Saints

© 2015-2021 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.

You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.

Notify of
Privacy Policy Consent
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
6 years ago

A wonderfully informative post, cats have come a long way from being associated with the devil as they were in the middle ages, but even in the age of enlightenment, they still had a bit of distance to catch up on dogs! and even our favourite Regency author, Georgette Heyer demonstrates what a rotter Francis Cheviot is as he prefers cats to dogs. May I add that spaying and neutering also help to protect your pet from breast and testicular cancer. Spaying was invented by the Cat Protection League in 1946 when this invasive operation was first successfully performed. If… Read more »

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago

I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Sarah, and thank you for adding the important information about spaying & neutering. I know some believe that it is cruel to prevent their pet from “being a mother just once,” but spaying & neutering is really the most healthy and humane option for pets. And no apology needed for the soap-box!

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
6 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

I’ve worked in a shelter and seen too many juvenile kitten-cats heavily pregnant, abandoned by people who can’t take responsibility either to spay or to care for the consequences not to get very hot under the collar about the issue….and in feral conditions, the average lifespan of unneutered cats is 7 years, worn out by kittens for females, dying of infectious diseases through fighting for males, and kittens born infected, and often dying because the endemic herpes virus leaves them blind, and that’s not the worst disease. I support trap-neuter-release programs in feral communities, which in Britain just about eradicated… Read more »

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

It is a serious problem. I don’t blame you for getting hot under the collar! I have heard of the gelding by local blacksmiths during the Regency – which sounds brutal! I wish there were more examples of house cats as pets in 18th & 19th century literature so we could see how they dealt with all the day to day cat issues (toms fighting, unwanted pregnancies, claw sharpening, spraying, etc). Unfortunately, the most we get is the occasional scene (like in Venetia) where someone talks about drowning a basket of kittens…

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
6 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

I use someone who is prepared to drown kittens to include them in a list of viable regency murder suspects… look for cat action in the Charity School series [Elinor’s Endowment, no 1, to be released after my proof arrives and i’ve gone through it] with Corinthian Tom, the king of the kitchen, and Columbine the one-eyed kitten. Blatant self-publicism here…. [also Allan-a-dale the robin and Arbuthnot the rat and a little girl called Philippa who collects animal foundlings]

6 years ago

Thank you for the stories and portraits of cats. Quite elegant creatures. They do have personalities, if I might term it such, and are not all alike. Cats can be very affectionate
I was reading reviews of a book the other day and was interested to note that the number one criticism of the story was the injury to a cat. Of course the man was a villain but the readers didn’t like it at all. Heroes can’t go around saying they dislike cats, either.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  nmayer2015

Thanks for commenting, Nancy. So glad you enjoyed the article. Cats absolutely have personalities. And I know what you mean about injury to cats or anti-cat sentiment in books. I like to think it isn’t as acceptable now as it once was – and anyway, who wants a hero who hate cats?

6 years ago

Mimi – thank you so much for giving us a cat article and as always the paintings are beautiful!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Vickie

I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for commenting!

6 years ago

Mimi, what a wonderful post.I am a bonafide cat adorer, and before I moved, I was on the board of a shelter in Connecticut. My cats have been my best friends.
My sister currently runs a make-shift shelter in Malaysia called Cat Beach.
Talk about a desperate situation–most of the population in Malaysia is too poor to support feral cats, or even their own pets when they get sick. Cats are dumped at my sister’s property all the time. Breaks my heart.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  elfahearn

I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Elf. It is heartbreaking to think about the cat (and dog!) situations in other, poorer, countries. As bad as it can be for them in the United States or the UK, there are still many here who pamper and adore them. Thanks for commenting and for the link. It is great to see what your sister is doing in Malaysia!

Roger Pocock
Roger Pocock
6 years ago

Reblogged this on Windows into History (Reblogging and Links) and commented:
Suggested reading – an interesting article that has obviously been very well researched – well worth a look. Reblogged on Windows into History.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
6 years ago
Reply to  Roger Pocock

Thanks for reblogging, Roger! Glad you enjoyed my article.

Merkwaardig (week 23) |
6 years ago

[…] Katten in de Engelse literatuur. […]

Our website uses cookies which may collect information about your visit to improve our website (anonymous analytics), to show you media (video and audio), targeted advertising, and social media feeds. Please see our Cookie Policy page for further details or agree by clicking the 'Accept' button.

Cookie settings

Below you can choose which kind of cookies you allow on this website. Click on the "Save cookie settings" button to apply your choice.

FunctionalOur website uses functional cookies. These cookies are necessary to let our website work.

AnalyticalOur website uses analytical cookies to make it possible to analyze our website and optimize for the purpose of a.o. the usability.

Social mediaOur website places social media cookies to show you 3rd party content like YouTube and FaceBook. These cookies may track your personal data.

AdvertisingOur website places advertising cookies to show you 3rd party advertisements based on your interests. These cookies may track your personal data.

OtherOur website places 3rd party cookies from other 3rd party services which aren't Analytical, Social media or Advertising.