The treasure that emerged from today’s investigations of the Museum of Childhood book collection was a small red book with gold writing tooled on its binding announcing that it contained Tales from Catland. While kittens and cats are currently the most popular posts on the internet and social media, this popularity is not a new phenomenon. During the Victorian era cats were very popular as the subject of books, cards, paintings and even stuffed and displayed in cases with humanistic poses.
Inside the small red covers is a dedication to ‘Eliza Hewat from her affectionate Uncle Alexander 1851’. The Victorians were, of course, very enthusiastic celebrants of Christmas and the custom of giving children presents for Christmas really took off at this time. Many of our festive traditions today are rooted in how the Victorians celebrated, especially after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert appeared in an engraving celebrating Christmas at Windsor around a tree adorned with gifts at Windsor published in 1848 in the Illustrated London News.
The sub title of the book is: ‘To the Kittens of England the following pages are very affectionately dedicated; by their sincere friend and well-wisher Tabitha Grimalkin’.
It appears that the original first page of the story has been lost and replaced with a beautifully hand written version of the story which sets up the two main characters of the stories. Glumdalkin is an older, stout and grumpy cat with jet black fur and an ‘uncommonly cross pair of green eyes’. Friskarina is a younger, playful tortoiseshell cat who likes to leap over footstools, under the watchful eye of Glumdalkin. They both live with a young princess who lives in a sumptuous palace and has a large number of luxurious gowns to choose from.
The adventures of the cats include venturing into local rural cottages, meeting a poor cat, and making this acquaintance a way for the princess to learn of others less fortunate than herself. There are other stories about different cats having adventures, usually it has to be said with a moral lesson at the end – something else Victorians were very keen on. The image below is from the tale of ‘The Discontented Cat’, where a magpie formerly in the service of Countess Von Rustenfustenmustencrustenberg makes the humble Mrs Puss feel as if she is discontented without the finer luxuries of the world, until a wise owl sets her straight and makes her realise the joy and satisfaction in the simple plain life.
These cats may not play the piano or wear a shower cap, as often shared on social media, but they would have been just as popular in their day and given as much pleasure.
This post written by Lyn Wall (Curator, Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh)