That Difficult First Novel…

Image from title page of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat

I was stumped by a trivia question which asked: “What was the first novel in English?”

The problem with the question is one of setting boundaries, specifically:

  • What counts as a novel? Do legends count? What about Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur? Is it a novel, a retelling or a purported (if fanciful) attempt at history?
  • What counts as ‘in English’? Does Chaucer’s middle English count? What about Malory’s middle English (which is more like modern English than Chaucer?)
  • Do translations count? Don Quixote is very like a novel, so might the first translation of that into English count?

Luckily there is actually a Wikipedia page on this very topic:

Anyway the answer offered by the trivia question was “Robinson Crusoe” to which my reaction is ‘meh’. I’d say rather that first novel in English must be at least as old as Robinson Crusoe but there are several candidates in that list of some note and…wait…what was that second entry in that list? You’ve looked at the Wikipedia page by now I hope, if not look now. Look there, right after Le Morte D’Arthur is…


Now, I don’t think I had ever heard of a notable book in English called “Beware the Cat” until today. So off on a Wikipedia dive into the links…

According to the oracle of Wikipedia:

There is an anti-Catholic undercurrent in the plot, but many of the allusions are now lost and many such aspects of the book may not even be noticed by modern readers. The initial setting is in London in the reign of Edward VI. The story is framed by the oration of an embedded first-person narrator on a cold Christmas night, one Master Streamer, who recounts a complex cycle of interlinked stories to two of his friends as they share his bed. These stories feature a version of “The King of the Cats“, an Irish werewolf, the Grimalkin, and an underworld society of talking cats, among several other horror and magical/supernatural elements such as an ancient book of forbidden lore and magic potions.


Wikipedia also relates that:

An abridged adaptation, put into modern English, was published in Tales of Lovecraftian Cats (2010).

Well wow again I guess.

An 1864 re-printing is available here

It’s not unreadable. I don’t know if it counts as very late Middle English or rather early Modern English but is recognizably English but with eccentric spelling and archaic words. The main barrier to readability is excessively long run on sentences and huge paragraphs.

Running through (amid the anti-papacy) is a theme of whether animals can reason and use language but the examples cited are weird legends about talking cats, witches and werewolves. Here is a taste:

Then quod he that had been in Ireland, “I cannot tell, Sir, by what means witches do change their own likeness and the shapes of other things, but I have heard of so many and seen so much my self that they do it. For in Ireland, as they have been ere this in England, witches are for fear held in high reverence ; they be so cunning that they can change the shapes of things as they list at their pleasure, and so deceived the people therby that an Act was made in Ireland, that no man should by any red swine. The cause therof was this,โ€”the witches used to send to the markets many red swine, fair and fat to see unto as any might be, and would in that form continue long, but if it chaunced the buyer of them to bring them to any water, immediately they found them returned either into wisps of hay, straw, old rotten boards, or such like trumpery, by means wherof they lost the money or such other cattel they gave in exchange for them. There is also in Ireland one notion wherof some man orย  woman are at evry seven years end turned into woolf, and so continue in the woods the space of seven years ; and if they hap to live out the time, they return to their own form again, and other twain are turned for the like time into the same shape ; which is a pennance they say enioined by St. Patrick for some wickedness of their ancestors.

Adjacent to that is whether plays should include characters who are talking animals – indeed this is the initial discussion that sets off the various arguments and tall tales.

So there you go. I don’t know if Beware the Cat is the first English novel but it is clearly a proto-English novel and hence talking cats are one of the oldest established themes in English literature.



15 thoughts on “That Difficult First Novel…

  1. I was taught that Tom Jones (1749) was the first English novel, on the grounds that a novel has to have a plot. Prior novel-length works (notably Moll Flanders (1722)) were tales, not novels, because events simply happen one after another without any purpose. I’m surprised Wikipedia doesn’t even have Tom Jones on their list. I think that’s the argument against Robinson Crusoe, but I’d have to look it up, and I’m too lazy. ๐Ÿ™‚

    As a linguist, I can assure you that “Beware the Cat” is early modern English. A few words have shifted meanings, but not many, and it has entirely modern grammar. With just a little effort, it’s easily readable by a modern reader.

    Middle English had different grammar and many, many words with different meanings. Read the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to see just how different that makes it. Even so, with a little training, a modern reader can enjoy works of Middle English, but it does take some time and effort, especially if you want to learn the pronunciation so you can appreciate the poetry.

    You don’t mention Old English, but it’s worth taking a moment to point out just how alien it is. Look at the Prologue to Beowulf to see what I mean. I showed this to a friend once (who had claimed his class read Beowulf in the original Old English in high school) and he exclaimed “but the font is screwed up!” Learning Old English is an effort on a par with learning modern German.


    1. My intro to English Literature at uni started at Robinson Crusoe and moved on from there. We were encouraged to reason for or against its being the “start” of English novel-writing (as is my nature I joined the “against” side, partly because it was such an annoying book to read, and partly because it’s usually just better/more fun to argue against a proposition like that)


      1. I’ve been known to argue that Goldfinger is the first James Bond film (the previous films being just spy films with a character called James Bond in them).


  2. It’s interesting to me how closely the novel genre is allied with that of biography/ life stories. I wonder if a cat thus merits nine times as many versions, Rashomon-style?


    1. Well I’m working my way through Beware the Cat at the moment and we’ve already had two versions of an apparently ordinary cat sitting at home when a human recounts that “Grimalkin is dead” and the cat freaking out (one announces that they have to leave, whereas in the other story a kitten jumps on a Irish brigand’s face and strangles him).


      1. In all seriousness though, this is a very interesting topic and I might have to read it myself someday. I’ve never heard of Beware the Cat. I wish I knew how to post photos here. I have a great manuscript image of a rocket cat, Here’s a link to a story about another one (rocket cats were apparently a 16th century thing). Maybe you know about them already. The images aren’t as great as the one I have but you get the gist.

        I like biographies (and also also Irish brigands). I’m planning to reread the Quijote this year, and I just finished Orhan Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind, which was a biography of a person and a country/era, like most of his work is.

        PS — for a 1001st blog post, this one is seriously lacking in jinns, lamps and vizirs. ๐Ÿ™‚


      2. KR, Imgur (WP will not allow me to post a hyperlink) will let you post photos without signing up for anything, so I use it occasionally. (It will give you a “Delete” link once you post a photo; if you think you’ll want to remove the photo at some later point, be sure to copy the Delete link somewhere from whence you can retrieve it, because when posting as a guest, once you navigate away from that page or close that tab, you’ll never be able to access the link to delete the photo).


    1. Here is the freaky thing – a key character is this catholic apologist who is the secondary narrator who likes to use over complicated sentences, archaic references and makes over use of adjectives to push nonesensical arguments – I think it must be JCW’s ancestor…


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