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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_novel_in_English
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…
BEWARE THE CAT
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 http://www.presscom.co.uk/halliwell/baldwin/baldwin_halli_en.html
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,—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 or 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.