Blog #212: A Katherine Pedigree for Virginia’s Manx Cat


If by good luck there had been an ash-tray handy, if one had not knocked the ash out of the window in default, if things had been a little different from what they were, one would not have seen, presumably, a cat without a tail. The sight of that abrupt and truncated animal padding softly across the quadrangle changed by some fluke of the subconscious intelligence the emotional light for me. It was as if someone had let fall a shade. Perhaps the excellent hock was relinquishing its hold. Certainly, as I watched the Manx cat pause in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe, something seemed lacking, something seemed different. But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk?

[…]

There was something so ludicrous in thinking of people humming such things even under their breath at luncheon parties before the war that I burst out laughing, and had to explain my laughter by pointing at the Manx cat, who did look a little absurd, poor beast, without a tail, in the middle of the lawn. Was he really born so, or had he lost his tail in an accident? The tailless cat, though some are said to exist in the Isle of Man, is rarer than one thinks. It is a queer animal, quaint rather than beautiful. It is strange what a difference a tail makes—you know the sort of things one says as a lunch party breaks up and people are finding their coats and hats.

A Room of One’s Own

The following speculation is not directly connected to To the Lighthouse, yet it bears witness to the richness and depth of Virginia’s associative mind. Virginia’s playfulness continues to delight. As well as leaving traces in Mrs. Dalloway and in To the Lighthouse, the shade of Katherine Mansfield also lingers in A Room of One’s Own.

By way of trying to establish a Mansfield connection, let me start by asserting that the “Man” in Mansfield suggests the “Man” in Manx. Preposterous? Perhaps…yet all the same I think a case can be made. Is it coincidence that both cat and writer hail from exotic islands, and both could accurately be described as “quaint rather than beautiful.”? But, rather than focus on the tail end of the cat, I’ll examine other pieces of evidence.

One indirect piece of evidence lies in the starting point of A Room of One’s Own. It is by thinking about “women and fiction” that Virginia comes to the conclusion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Given the importance of Katherine to Virginia, her status as someone who produced “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”, it would have been almost impossible for Virginia not to think about Katherine while writing her talks or essay. The closeness between cat and narrator, “as if it too questioned the universe”, suggests a Mansfield parallel. Virginia repeatedly thought of Katherine as a kindred spirit, as someone who, like her, had “a terribly sensitive mind’ and was “a writer, a born writer.” [E4, 446]

Stronger evidence, even if still circumstantial, lies in the fact that Virginia strongly associated Katherine with cats. Cat is sometimes a nickname for Katherine, and perhaps that played a part in Virginia’s repeatedly thinking of Katherine as catlike. Early in their relationship (October 112th, 1917), Virginia wrote the following impression in her diary:

We could both wish that ones first impression of K. M. was not that she stinks like a–well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap. However when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship. [D1, 58]

Some two and a half years later, Virginia, though less cattily, again thought of cats when describing Catherine:

” It struck me that she is of the cat kind: alien, composed, always solitary and observant. And then we talked about solitude, & I found her expressing my feelings, as I never heard them expressed.” [D2, 44]

Enough teasing. Time to present my strongest evidence, the link which led me to scratch up the foregoing, indirect, possible cat associations. This evidence, evidence which to me seems conclusive, lurks once again in “Bliss.” In Mansfield’s story there are to be found not one but two cats, cats which like Virginia’s Manx are overtly symbolic. Looking out the window just before she gives her dinner party, Bertha sees a grey cat followed by a black one creep across the lawn, and again at the end of the story, as the dinner party breaks up, the two cats are alluded to. Dinner party, window, lawn, cats, overt symbolism and Virginia’s strong and complex reaction to “Bliss” are all the proof of pedigree I need.

Tailpiece: Out of puckishness I started this exploration by linking the “Man” in Manx and the “Man” in Mansfield. Continuing in a playful vein, I’ll conclude by shifting from a cat without a tail to a “Man without a T.” In the diary entry where Virginia reflects on Katherine as being “of the cat kind,” she goes on to give suggestive fragments of her conversation with Katherine. In one such fragment she refers to Mansfield’s short story “The Man Without a Temperament” as “Man without a T.” In Virginia’s ever so retentive and associative mind might the “Man without a T.” have contributed to the cat without a tail? Delightful to think of Virginia cutting men down to size so playfully.

The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal. Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers, seemed to lean upon the dusk. A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.
“What creepy things cats are!” she stammered, and she turned away from the window and began walking up and down. . . .

[...]

“Good-bye,” said Bertha.
Miss Fulton held her hand a moment longer.
“Your lovely pear tree!” she murmured.
And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.
“I’ll shut up shop,” said Harry, extravagantly cool and collected.
“Your lovely pear tree–pear tree—pear tree!”
Bertha simply ran over to the long windows.
“Oh, what is going to happen now?” she cried.
But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.

“Bliss”, 1918

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