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,—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.



Review: Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw (novella)

A well executed Lovecraftian noir detective story set in South London. It treads a tricky path between horror and pastiche but it is well written and atmospheric.

A hard-boiled private detective, who is not what he seems, is hired by a 10-year old to kill the child’s violent stepfather. The case takes the detective to the suburbs of Croydon where he finds lurking horrors and a demonic contagion.

If that sounds like a setting for John Constantine then you may be disappointed that the narrating detective’s snarky voice is more 1940s New York than 1980’s Liverpool but otherwise this novella captures that same feel as the Jamie Delano era Hellblazer.

Novella length suits the story well – enough space for lingering menace but not long enough for the faux Sam Spade narration to become irritating.

There is apparently a sequel novella and I enjoyed this well enough that I’ll read that as well.

Review: Fellside by M.R.Carey

In The Girl With All the Gifts, Mike Carey pulled together some well used ideas (zombies, post-collapse Britain) and made a clever and original novel. Fellside has a similar feel – a host of familiar ideas but put together in a somewhat unusual way that provides enough unfamiliarity to feel original but with less success than The Girl With All the Gifts.

Jess Moulson is a heroin addict who finds herself imprisoned for murder after a fire in her flat causes the death of a child in the flat above her. Sent to a private prison in Yorkshire, Jess is consumed by despair and guilt but has little recall of the actual events around the fire. In attempt to end her life by starving herself, Jess rediscovers a lost childhood capacity to talk to ghosts…

The book certainly drags you along into the mystery of Jess supposed crime and the ghost-like being she forms a bond with, as well as the violent machinations of the prison’s drug trade and corrupt prison officers. Nearly everybody is either terrible or ineffectual and the themes of guilt (justified or not) run throughout.

Yet, the pieces never really feel convincing. It is unfair to call the characters cliches but they aren’t far from being basic prison-drama tropes. The join between the mundane and the supernatural feels clunky and the information about Jess’s childhood abilities arrives by an early infodump. The legal process (which is important to the plot and denouement) is unconvincing. The super-clever scheme for smuggling drugs into prison makes no sense at all. Also, the story seems to imply that there is either only one courthouse in England and/or prisoners at Fellside only ever have to visit this one special courthouse just for them.

Wasn’t keen on the violence – the story has a focus on pain and injury that felt too engrossed in the idea.

The ending – yeah, also not great.

Good beach read. Good read on really hot post-Christmas do nothing sort of day in the Australian summer when the air-con is broken and really you can’t do anything but lie still with the fan on full blast. I feel mean criticising it because I read it and it pulled me along. Stephen King would have pulled the whole thing together but that is an unfair comparison.

I can imagine it being turned it to a really good TV adaptation. A horror story in which it is mundane reality which is threatening & monstorous in contrast to a supernatural haunting which is comforting.