BtC 9/22. Aside: Is Beware the Cat a Novel?

If you recall, dear reader, the original question that led me to Beware the Cat was the identity of the first English novel. Does Beware the Cat count as the first English novel?

At least one person has made a serious claim that it is:

Streamer’s narrative of his experience, as reported by Baldwin, is the first English novel, or if you prefer, the earliest original work of longer prose fiction in English. It may appear surprising, but it is nevertheless true, that before Baldwin’s time all works of prose fiction in English of more than short-story length had been translations or adaptations, mainly from Latin or French, and not original. “Beware the Cat” and the Beginnings of English Fiction by William A. Ringler, Jr. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1979), pp. 113-126 Published by Duke University Press

Ringler modifies his claim from ‘novel’ to ‘longer prose fiction’ which is more defensible. However, Beware the Cat fails to be a novel.

  1. It is too short to really be called a novel.
  2. While there is a sort of overall plot (Mr Streamer investigating talking cats) it is really just a bunch of stories connected together.

However, it is not lacking in either structure or sophistication. Mr Streamer is wonderfully characterised by showing how he speaks and how he perceives himself. The other narrators get their own distinct voices and motivations.

Importantly the reader is expected to do a lot of the work. You are not being told a straightforward story. Narrators do not tell the truth (although they rarely lie) and are often inconsistent and/or hypocritical.


One comment

  1. Mark

    I think length is a red herring of sorts – perceptions of the “right” length for a novel have changed over time, and the real question should be whether it is long enough to have and develop the other necessary elements of being a “novel”. (Mind you, I’d be unable to articulate what those elements actually are)
    Point two is more to the mark – I think it’s up in the air whether these stories come together as a whole. As an example, I thought this year’s Central Station by Lavie Tidhar was an edge case for whether it was a novel or a strongly linked collection.