If you’ve read the previous posts then you should now have a good sense of what Beware the Cat is like. However, if you are like me, you are probably still trying to make sense of it.
The English Reformation was social, political and theological. It happened in the wake of an information technology revolution (the printed book), an increased centralisation of the state and a Marxian shift from feudalism to capitalism. It exists at a time of conflict and to readers now it is a conflict that is difficult to identify with.
At one level it is about the modern (Baldwin) versus the pre-modern (Thomas) and scholasticism (Streamer). There is a secular, sceptical and rationalist element to it that presages later thinkers (or near contemporaries such as Frances Bacon).
At the same time, it is an argument for the oppression of ideas, dismissive of folk tales, Catholic traditions and regional distinctions. The Elizabethan era that the book anticipates was a time when Englishness was standardised and enforced and essentially when English nationalism (and imperialism) was invented and codified. Religion, language and monarchy were all part of that mix.
State-sponsored violence in the name of religion would dominate England for centuries after. Europe would become engulfed in wars of religion. In this context, Baldwin’s funny cat-story mockery loses its humour.
Yet looking at it another way, there is a humanism to the book that is charming and positive. The mocking is mostly gentle, even when targeted at the occasional priest. Mr Streamer is richly drawn and more than just a figure of mockery – you could imagine him to be entertaining company in small doses. Mouseslayer is also given depth and character and there is something powerful in the way the most complex character is somebody who would be otherwise marginalised – a common household pet.
I see this as a book full of optimism – much of it misplaced given events but still optimism. Baldwin is siding with rationality over superstition and humanity over tradition and he sees that in his protestant cause. Reality isn’t so simple. Within months of writing the book, his expectations of a more rational protestant future were thrown on their head by the death of Edward and crowning of Mary.
Above all this is a subversive book. It lets ideas run where they will and out of control of each of the narrators. In an almost post-modern twist, the final moral arrives in the form of a post-hoc rationalisation using the same kind of reasoning as the servants discussing Thomas’s tales of swindling Irish witches and their red swine.
The cliche is that herding cats is nigh on impossible and the narrative of Beware the Cat has that same cat-like quality. It goes where it wants to and defies the expectations of the reader and (probably) the author. By avoiding direct allegory, the story can slip out of any simple propagandised reading. By making all the narrators unreliable or marginalised, Baldwin makes the whole text resistant to any single reading.
For example, I doubt Baldwin had any feminist thoughts while writing the book and the book covers some of the most misogynist tropes in literature – specifically that women may be witches responsible for all manner of ills (a trope with parallels in the myths exploited in anti-Semitism or anti-Romany campaigns of violence). Yet while drawing on these tropes, which are still familiar today, the nature of the story is to pull them apart and subvert them. The belief in witches is shown to be absurd. Demonic apparitions are church bells, or cats and the mass panic of crowds is shown to be true danger.
Even as message fiction it is subversive. So what can we make of anti-Catholic tract whose anti-Catholicism is tied so tightly to a crowd of cats running across the roofs of Tudor London? I doubt many present-day Catholics would find it threatening. Its power lay in being overtly disrespectful to ideas and people that pre-reformation held great political and social power.
Look, really the only thing we can say is that we should all just behave ourselves just in case our cats are talking about us behind our backs. Beware, as Baldwin reminds us, the cat.