A dense work of early English prose, strewn throughout with serious and teasing marginalia from its author, might not be the most likely candidate for stage adaptation – but this project has just been undertaken by a team of artists and academics in Sheffield. William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553, will be performed in September as part of the university’s 2018 Festival of the Mind.
As a literary form, the novel is usually thought to have developed in the 18th century with the mighty classics Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. But researchers believe we should be looking back to the relatively neglected prose fictions of the Tudor era to find the earliest English examples. Beware the Cat, an ecclesiastical satire about talking cats, is a prime candidate and is now thought to be the earliest example of the novel form in the English language.
Baldwin is barely known outside the circles of Renaissance literature, but he was highly celebrated and widely read in Tudor England. In the mid-16th century, he was earning an inky-fingered living as a printer’s assistant in and around the central London bookmaking and bookselling area of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as writing fiction, he produced A Mirror for Magistrates, the co-written collection of gruesome historical poetry that was highly influential on Shakespeare’s history plays. He also compiled a bestselling handbook of philosophy, and translated the controversial Song of Songs, the sexy book of the Bible.
Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.
And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?
But rights and wrongs of a different order coloured Baldwin’s book release. He self-censored for several years before making the work public. Beware the Cat was written in 1553, months before the untimely death of the young Protestant king, Edward VI. Next on the throne (if you disregard the turbulent nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey) was the first Tudor queen, Mary I. Her Catholicism was fervent and these were terrifying days. By the mid-1550s, Mary was burning Protestant martyrs. One of her less alarming, but still consequential, decisions was to reverse the freedoms accorded the press under her brother Edward.
At the height of his power during the 1540s, the Lord Protector during the young Edward’s reign, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had relied on particular printers to spread the regime’s reformist message. Men such as John Day (printer of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and Edward Whitchurch – Baldwin’s employer – printed and circulated anti-Catholic polemic on behalf of the state. Not content to persecute these men by denying them the pardon she accorded other Protestant printers, Mary I banned the discussion of religion in print unless it was specifically authorised by her officials.
As a print trade insider, Baldwin was intimately connected with the close community of this radical Protestant printing milieu – and Beware the Cat is deliberately set at John Day’s printing shop. Having written a book that parodies the Mass, depicts priests in some very undignified positions and points the finger at Catholic idolatry, Baldwin thought better of releasing it in the oppressive religious climate of Mary’s reign. But by 1561, Elizabeth I was on the throne and constraints on the press were less severe – despite the infamous case of John Stubbs, the writer who in 1579 lost his hand for criticising her marriage plans.
Baldwin, now in his 30s, had become a church deacon. He was still active as a writer and public figure, working on his second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates and preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, a venue that could attract a 6,000-strong congregation.
Once it was released, Beware the Cat went through several editions. It was not recognised for the comic gem that it is until scholars such as Evelyn Feasey started studying Baldwin in the early 20th century and the novel was later championed by American scholars William A. Ringler and Michael Flachmann.
Now, it has been adapted for performance for the first time and is being presented as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. This stage version of Beware the Cat has been created by the authors with Terry O’Connor (member of renowned performance ensemble Forced Entertainment) and the artist Penny McCarthy.
Baldwin’s techniques of embedded storytelling, argument and satirical marginalia are all features that have been incorporated into this interpretation of the text. The production also includes an array of original drawings (which the cast of four display by using an onstage camera connected to a projector), but none of the cast pretends to be a cat. Instead, it is left to the audience to imagine the world Baldwin’s novel describes, in which cats can talk and – even if just for one night – humans can understand them.
Apparently, I am BAME. This places me as a contender for The Guardian’s BAME awards or the Jhalak prize, both aimed at BAME writers like myself. Ah, BAME – this acronym, which means black, asian and minority ethnic, joins many other appellations offered over the decades (not all of them very nice), painstakingly attempts to address the complexities of a multicultural society. But isn’t it, despite its best intentions, rather limiting?
As a child in Zambia, I was a mwenye, if the speaker wished to be disparaging (it’s an unflattering term that I won’t translate). In most contexts my family was “Indian”, while we regarded ourselves as Keralites (being Indian was secondary). Back in Kerala, if denoted by religion, we were proud to be “Syrian Christians”, members of a Catholic congregation pre-dating the arrival of Islam in India, formed by the disciple Doubting Thomas. Of course this meant we were a cut above those “Latin Christians” who had converted centuries after to curry favour with their Portuguese colonisers.
Later, as a teenager in a new Zimbabwe, I was once again “Indian” and, in a Harare which had been segregated under the Rhodesians, my family should thus have lived in the suburb of Belvedere, which was the Indian zone, rather than as we did on the edge of the “coloured” (mixed-race) Braeside. I resisted these tortuous preoccupations with skin tones and bloodlines – and by my late teens, inspired by the rising tide which was turning against apartheid in South Africa, I was resolutely, in my eyes, “black”.
But when I arrived in the UK, I was suddenly “Asian” – defined by a great continent, of which my home state in India was a mere slender slip of a thing. I was properly foreign, with a student visa stamped in my Indian passport, but my proficiency in English led many to believe I was “British Asian”, alongside an assumption that I was second-generation British, well versed in both Withnail and I and the career of reggae DJ Apache Indian, and full of fond memories of that incredible summer of 1976. I have done my homework since, as you can see.
I returned to Africa as a young woman, and when living and working in Mozambique, I was a monye – another disparaging term, not dissimilar to mwenye, but this sobriquet was seasoned with the erroneous assumptions of being Muslim and wealthy. Then, on to the tiny island of Bioko, part of Equatorial Guinea, where I was memorably known as la chica blanca – the white girl. Oh yes, and in Spain some years later, I was declared a hindou, the religious divisions that beset my homeland refreshingly ignored. Reader, an identity crisis in the making.
The journey so far
But, actually not. For, observers often overlook the id and the ego: your own innate understanding of yourself. Are we swayed so much by what others call us? Probably not. Despite my nomadic childhood, my peripatetic young adulthood, my membership of a wider diaspora, angst over love affairs and migrations and appearance and employment, if I’m honest, I’ve always known myself: as impulsive, restless, often inept, but well-intentioned. Despite all the assumptions made in the geographical/religious/social “names” I have been given, these qualities best define who I am.
The journey I have taken to arrive at the roles I currently have – wife, mother, writer, teacher – baffles many people. My first novel (roundly rejected, then published independently) juxtaposes a young woman’s passionate love affair in Mozambique with her arranged marriage in the US. My second, published as my debut by Polygon, follows a widower’s return to India after 30 years in London. My most recent, The Inheritance, features an affair between a young student and an older lecturer, the latter born in Zimbabwe-then-Rhodesia.
As a writer, if I tap into my experiences of geographical dislocations and multilingual communities, the literary industry and reviewers often locate the story as one of identity crises, of a quest to belong, in which I give “a compelling insight into what it means to be rootless, with characters torn between the culture of their parents and that of the society in which they grew up”. All true. But not the whole story and not a unique story by any means – instead, one that is shared by millions over a shifting, transient world, including readers of fiction. To a lot of us, the mobility and code-switching and reinvention are rather normal. What informs my sense of self? Whom I love, my children, the opinions and advice of the people who are important in my life.
BAME at a glance
It feels churlish to question BAME. But, if identifying a misrepresented or under-represented minority, then why not just “minority”? The writer and historian Paul Gilroy, in his book There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, has already queried the “imploded, narcissistic obsession with the minutiae of ethnicity”. Why the splintering and separation? Does the “B” in BAME reference the Windrush generation or the recently arrived Somali, or neither, or both?
Are we in danger of engendering a hierarchy by stealth, so some minorities are considered more “minority” than others? As a “British Asian” (holding a British passport now, I have become one) I cannot claim to have the same experiences and reception as a Briton with Nigerian origins. But I might well share some of her experiences if she is a woman (like me), if she is a writer (like me), or if she is as scared of her teenage daughter as I am.
And if we take the “A” – what constitutes a (British) Asian? Not all of us emanate from the Punjab or Gujarat or Bangladesh, or made a prolonged stopover in East Africa. Not all of our parents arrived in the UK in the 1960s or 1970s. Not all of live in a large, dense community, or speak its language – or even wish to. Not all of us dance bhangra or admire Bollywood. Our families may not all have served in or near the Raj and we may not have a strong memory of or feelings about partition.
Disappointed? You might well be, so embedded are the discourses surrounding British Asians. A discourse which can blind an “A” in BAME to the heterogeneity and diversity within – and which is perpetuated sometimes by these individuals themselves. I once watched on television a very well-known British Asian comic whose punchline centred on the unlikelihood of finding an Indian at a Catholic school. The laughter from the audience only served to show how they little knew of the millions of Indians who are Catholic. But, more depressingly – neither it seemed, buying into the discourse, did the comic.
To note, the aforementioned Jhalak prize, is the Hindi-Urdu word for “glance”. Considering it is open to all BAME writers, the Bs and the MEs alongside the As, perhaps this is not the most inclusive title?
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Perhaps rather than trying to solve issues about diversity by making diversity more explicit and more fractured at the expense of cohesion, we should simply acknowledge that it is, frankly, impossible to categorise a creature as self-reflective and self-concerned as a human being.
The link below is to an article that considers how authors can use YouTube to their advantage.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the subject of author photos.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at whether an author’s dying wishes should be observed.
Women’s writing has long been a thorn in the side of the male literary establishment. From fears in the late 18th century that reading novels – particularly written by women – would be emotionally and physically dangerous for women, to the Brontë sisters publishing initially under male pseudonyms, to the dismissal of the genre of romance fiction as beyond the critical pale, there has been a dominant culture which finds the association of women and writing to be dangerous. It has long been something to be controlled, managed and dismissed.
One of the ways that publishers, booksellers and critics use to “manage” literature is through the notion of genre: labelling a book as “detective fiction” becomes an easy way to identify particular tropes in a novel. These genre designations are particularly helpful for publishers and booksellers, with the logic running something like this: a reader can walk into any bookstore, anywhere, and go to the detective fiction section and find a book to read, because s/he has read detective fiction before and enjoyed it.
What complicates this is who makes the decision of which genres are deemed to be appropriate, and which books are put into which category. Genre is also complicated by the idea of women’s writing. Can we have a genre that is designated solely by the sex of the author? What if we turned this around, and rather than a genre, women’s writing was a term we used to simply celebrate writing about women?
Here are five novels by women – and about women – from across the 20th century. These novels all grapple, in very different ways, with women and independence.
Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anna Beddingfeld, a self-mocking heroine, who is very aware of the conventions of gender and genre, impulsively buys a ticket to South Africa because the boat fare is the exact amount she has left in the world. She ends up taking down an international crime syndicate with aplomb and panache.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle (1926)
Doss is the expendable unmarried older woman in a Victorian novel. But in this story, she walks out on her largely uninterested family to move into a cabin on an island with a man she has met only briefly. A fantasy of the Canadian wilderness, the novel was one of Montgomery’s few novels for adults.
Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)
A rewriting of Jane Eyre, the novel contains all the tropes of the Gothic romance – a castle, a family secret, murder – but these are challenged by one of Stewart’s finest protagonists, Linda Martin. Martin is employed as a governess by an aristocratic family, but rejects the trappings of romance to protect her charge, and her own integrity.
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Edana Franklin wakes up in hospital with her arm amputated and the police questioning her husband. It is revealed that she has been travelling back to 1815, where she comes into repeated contact and conflict with Rufus, one of her slave-owning ancestors. A novel that raises important questions about masculinity, power and violence.
Shirley Jackson, Patchwork Girl (1995)
One of the earliest pieces of electronic fiction, this retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Baum’s The Patchwork Girl (1913) places the narrative in the hands of the reader, who pieces together the story through illustrations of parts of a female body.
Often popular novels by women have a narrative arc that is visible from the outset: the protagonists will find a romantic partner in the end. In some of the above books, some of the women do, and some of them don’t, find a romantic partner. For those who do, the romance is secondary to the work they do, and the choices that they make about their own lives.
What unites the novels is an exploration of the choices that some women have to make as a result of their sexed and gendered embodiment, whether travelling to South Africa on a whim, being jolted unwillingly back onto a slave plantation, or making an explicit call to the (woman) reader to make choices about how the electronic story develops.
Writing about women (and often by women) gives us some examples of how to challenge the status quo, if only for a little while. Each challenge, however, provides another example of how to effect change in a patriarchal culture. Here’s to the writers about women who have done this – from Jane Austen to Shirley Jackson, from Frances Burney to Josephine Tey, and from Angela Carter to Val McDermid.