Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Soft spot for the Siamese cat reveals shifts in 20th-century society

With their rousing repertoire of miaows, chirps and yowls, Siamese cats are adept at telling humans what they want. According to experts, they also have a great deal to tell us about 20th-century social history.

A new study from historians at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues that shifting attitudes to the breed exemplify broad and enduring changes in British domestic and emotional life.

The cats originate in modern-day Thailand where they were once associated with royalty. They were first exhibited in Britain in 1885 and were the prerogative of wealthy cat fanciers for decades before proliferating as pets in the interwar period. One committee member of the Siamese Cat Club observed in 1950 that to have a Siamese when the club was founded in 1901 was like owning “a Corot or a Ming Vase”, whereas “today, the Siamese is found in every home from castle to cottage”.

Actress Ava Gardner with Siamese cat, 1946. Images of celebrities with the breed helped to boost its popularity. Photo: Alamy

Nevertheless, price remained a barrier and the breed’s popularity was partly due to its perceived exclusivity as well as “exoticism”. The historians found that May Eustace, secretary of the Northern Counties Cat Club, who bred Siamese cats from the 1930s and wrote about them, looked down her nose at working-class prospective buyers who came to her home. Even so, owners’ accounts of the breed’s appeal focused not on the cats’ social cachet but on their personalities.

The study, by Professor Jane Hamlett, of Royal Holloway, and Dr Rebecca Preston, a historian and former researcher at the university, draws on a survey of scores newspaper and magazine articles about Siamese cats from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. They also analysed longer writings, including advice literature and popular books about living with the breed. They identified around 20 authors publishing memoirs or stories based around Siamese cats, including the publisher Michael Joseph and prolific writers Doreen Tovey and Compton Mackenzie.

Owners recognised their Siamese cats’ individuality and the breed’s competing qualities of loyalty in comparison with other cats and independence vis-á-vis dogs. The historians found that the words “demand” and “demanding” were often used. Nevertheless, they said it was this demanding nature, and what owners saw as the animal’s agency, that were believed to give it its capacity to love. As author Irene Holdsworth wrote: “Siamese have the most tremendous capacity for loving, and they not only ask, but they demand that they are given love in return”.

Mackenzie, who is best known for his comic novel Whisky Galore!, was so smitten with Sylvia, his first Siamese, that she became a fixture of meal times at his home on the Channel Island of Herm in the early 1920s. He recalled: “[She] always arrived in the dining-room when the parlour-maid brought in the fish or entrée. Then she would jump on the mahogany table and sit for the rest of the meal on a mat which was placed at my left-hand to spare her the discomfort of the bare board. She never moved from her mat until a dish of filberts appeared with dessert …” 

The historians found that, from the 1920s and 1930s, press commentary and pet manuals invested the breed with new emotional significance. Writers suggested that Siamese cats had a special ability to form relationships with humans and compared them to dogs for their attachment to their owners and habit of following them around.

Siamese cat and kittens at the cat show at the Salle Wagram, Paris, 1955. Photo: Keystone Pictures USA/Zumapress/Alamy

Hamlett said this marked a cultural shift, given negative perceptions of “sly” cats and the contrasting devotion to dogs in earlier eras. “The Victorian period was very much the age of the dog. Dogs were loyal, steadfast and so on — they exemplified the best traits of the kind of manly character celebrated by the Victorians. But when we move into the 20th century, autonomy and independence became more prized.

“There was a transformation of family hierarchies as the Victorian paterfamilias became less dominant and women and children became more powerful. Independence and autonomy in the family were more possible and more accepted. And I think that also applies to pets. I think that’s partly why Siamese cats were more popular.”

If the dog comparisons were intended as praise, some Siamese owners demurred. Mackenzie said the breed “combines all that is best in cats and dogs … even more attractive to my mind is the personal devotion of the Siamese cat not to its master, but in what I think is a finer relationship, to its friend … ” 

In other words, the Siamese was superior because it was not automatically devoted to its master, but chose to be so.

Almost all the narratives the historians studied for the paper in Cultural and Social History emphasised the cats’ vocal range and perceived talkativeness. As the outspoken Northern Counties breeder Mrs Eustace had it: “The cat has, in many ways, the most highly developed personality and often understands in a most weird and startling way the meaning of what you say to it”. She thought the Siamese had “a greater variety of vocal sounds … than any other animal”, and it was only “our stupidity” that stopped us understanding them.

“Less and less do I understand people who are able to live without a cat”

Irene Holdsworth

Michael Joseph wrote of his Siamese cat Charles: “With him I came nearer than I ever have been, or ever shall be, to bridging the gulf which divides us from the so-called dumb animals. Many of my happiest hours were spent in his company, for there was communion between us.”

Joseph prized Charles as a gentle cat that was not “pugnacious” like others of his breed. However, Siamese cats were more often portrayed as ruling the roost. Writer Doreen Tovey described the “Bedlam” of broken ornaments, battered furniture and stains caused by her and her husbands’ cats. Some owners made elaborate modifications to their homes. In the case of Tory MP Sir John Smyth, this included enclosing a balcony with wire mesh, and obscuring a prized view, to prevent the cats from falling out. The Siamese cat Pooni had already devoured Lady Smyth’s balcony flower-garden.

Actress Rene Ray and 10-year-old Ralph Hussein, of Hampstead, with Ray’s Siamese cat and kittens, 1951. Photo: SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

Despite this, the historians said the animals were perceived as being especially able to contribute to the emotional life and congenial domesticity of the home. Holdsworth wrote: “Less and less do I understand people who are able to live without a cat. One’s house or flat may be delightful, but unless there is a cat stretched out in limp contentment before the fire, that house can never be a home.”

Through such authors’ accounts, as well as reports of famous owners and depictions of Siamese cats in films such as Lady and the Tramp, the breed came to be known and celebrated outside of owners’ circles. Moreover, the historians said growing emotional expectations around the Siamese cat were “the tip of a feline iceberg”. Owners of non-pedigree cats and other breeds had similar experiences even if popular perceptions of the Siamese’s qualities meant it was disproportionately represented in media.

Hamlett said: “What we’re seeing with these Siamese writers is that they really stressed their emotional relationship with a cat. People wrote about cats in the 19th century and earlier as well, but perhaps what changed was that people were more comfortable with seeing themselves as in a relationship with their pets. And they still are.”

The research was part of the Pets and Family Life in England and Wales, 1837–1939 project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). A book from the project, Pet Revolution: Animals and the Making of Modern British Life, by Jane Hamlett and Julie-Marie Strange, will be published by Reaktion next February.

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