The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Published 1940

 

Read for Sylvia Townsend Warner Week, 20 Books of Summer, and the Classics Club

It is Sylvia Townsend Warner Week at a gallimaufry. I’ve read two of her books, which I plan to review this week.

STW has been known to me for decades.  Two of her novels were among the first published by Virago in the seventies when they launched their Modern Classic series – nos. 2 & 3 in the series in fact.  I eagerly bought both along with the very first, Frost in May, convinced that I would be collecting the entire set of these books by largely forgotten female authors.  Little did I know how many there would eventually be! (687 and counting I think.)

I read Frost in May and was underwhelmed.  I went on to Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner- and here I hit a wall.  I have tried more than once and failed with it.  Thankfully, this inauspicious start did not put me off VMCs in general but it may explain why I never even started on no. 3: The True Heart.  And why I went on to forget I owned it at all.

STW has never dropped off my radar though.  Mr Fortune slipped into the category of ‘books-I-can’t-get-on-with-but-feel-that-I-ought-to-be-able-to-appreciate’.  Not all books that I don’t finish fall into this category but there are some where I really want to enjoy them or at least understand properly why I don’t.

All of which is preamble is to explain why my attention was piqued by the thought of STW week.  One day, I’ve thought over the years, I will get to grips with her.  That day has come.

STW has a full catalogue.  It seemed sensible to try something new.  Try something else, I thought, and once I can appreciate her as an author perhaps Mr Fortune won’t seem quite so ‘unfortunate’.

My first choice is her short story collection, ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’.  It was the insightful review from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock which alerted me to this collection.  I bought myself a copy some while ago, another from Chatto & Windus, this edition published in 1960.  It has a delightful inscription on the flyleaf:

“For Sally, you gave me rabbit consciousness. 

I hope you enjoy the wisdom of cats.  

Thanks for everything.  Love, Randy”

How I would love to know the story behind that message, particularly given the stark and waspish wisdom proffered by these cats…

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Jane’s review (absolutely worth a read, as always) advised me that this is an intriguing book.  I’d completely agree.  The book opens with a lengthy introduction which is essential reading to understand the raison d’etre of the collection.  The introduction is in itself, a story, the longest in the book.  I was hooked from the first page, perhaps from the opening sentence:

“I had never seen a handsomer young man.”

Certainly by the end of that first paragraph.  The writing was so lush and evocative:

“…The house was of brick, it had been coated with a yellowish limewash, and this too was worn thin and the colour of the brick showed dimly through, so the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.”

I shuddered with delight; I could perfectly see and almost taste this house.

In the house lives a young man and numerous cats.  A young woman stops to admire the house and is accosted by various felines.  The young man, when he arrives, berates her for her confession that she understands Cat better than she speaks it.  She learns that he has made it his life’s work to study the culture and history of cats but in particular to document his greatest discovery, which is that cats are storytellers.  Cats from all quarters of the globe tell stories to their kittens (in the cradle) which have a remarkable similarity and through which the lessons of life are passed from generation to generation.  Then events take a very unfortunate and distressing turn.  Disaster befalls the beautiful house and its occupants.  The young man and the cats perish.  It falls to the unknown young woman, as ‘editor’ to collate and publish the stories he had collected.

I admit to being disturbed by this dark twist in events; I must have read of this in Jane’s review (she makes it quite clear) but I’d forgotten.  It came as an unsettling shock.  The honey-coloured house lost its lustre.

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But, introduction over, the stories are a different matter.  Written in the straight-forward manner of human fairy tales, many do not feature cats at all although there are plenty of animals to be found.  The stories are mostly short and are varied.  Grimm, Aesop and others echo through the pages but in new guise.  I didn’t immediately recognise a re-telling; these tales are original.  Which is not surprising since they originate from the feline world and not the human.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editor’s.”

Clearly there are morals and lessons to be gleaned.  I confess that I didn’t try too hard to tease these out.  Mostly, I enjoyed the tales (or not) and danced around the edges of the messages.  But in some it’s impossible not to hear what’s being taught.  Popularity is an example of this, although not with the lesson one might anticipate.  The Two Mothers also has a lot that us paltry humans might do well to reflect upon.  Now I think about it, rather a lot of the stories had endings one might not anticipate.  I agree with Jane that it’s necessary to adopt a feline mindset.  Cats – much as I love them, do have a ruthless streak…

There is plenty of dry humour here too.  The Magpie Charity made me smile.  (Glossing over the unfortunate name of the starving black cat, which appears only at the end of the story.)

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I’m only just beginning to learn more about STW’s life but I note that she was encouraged in her writing by David Garnet, who wrote Lady into Fox I remember feeling mystified when I read that story.  I was left with the question: ‘Why?’.  Why write this, why read it: I struggled to understand its purpose.  There are parallels for me between Lady into Fox and this collection from STW.  Both are seemingly innocuous yet dark, enigmatic, beguiling, puzzling.  In The Cat’s Cradle Book STW has put her collection of Garnetesque stories into a context, a framework.  That helps.

Jane concludes that these are not the best of STW’s short stories but concedes that she is constrained  by the framework she has established for herself.  I found the framework helpful and if these stories are not among her best, then I am left wanting more.  Not more of these extraordinary and contrary tales but more of STW’s writing.  More of the delectable sensory lyricism of the opening paragraph and perhaps more of her short stories.  I am certainly a long way from where I was when I gave up on Mr Fortune.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend this collection to those of a nervous disposition and/or a dislike of bad things happening to animals.  (Although I coped.)  It is not a fluffy feline and kittens book for cat lovers.  (Although once again, I coped.)  The only of-its-time racial reference I noticed was in The Magpie Charity so it may be appropriate for some to skip that tale.  Neither is it, for I trust Jane’s judgement, an example of STW’s finest short story writing.  But it is well-written.  And it’s unique: an oddity.  Dark and macabre perhaps, but different and thus memorable.  On a personal level it has certainly helped me past my fracas with Mr Fortune’s Maggot.  It has also contributed to my fledgling understanding of short stories in general – I have long struggled with the genre – and with Lady into Fox in particular.  (Although at 78 pages this is more properly a novella.)  I might even find I am able to put together a review of it.  As one of the original choices on my Classics Club list, that would be very satisfying.

Thus far, my entry into Sylvia Townsend Warner week has been beguiling and very fruitful.

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43 thoughts on “The Cat’s Cradle Book by Sylvia Townsend Warner”

  1. Thank you for your kind words, Sandra. If I say the stories in The Cat’s Cradle Book are not STW’s best work it isn’t because I don’t love them, its because I can remember others that really are exceptional. And maybe because my reading companion is a border terrier who holds it against the whole species that a cat scratched her nose back in the day when she was a curious puppy.

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    1. I hope I’ll encounter some of her exceptional stories, Jane. (If you can recommend any, please do.) I quite understand Briar’s issues; I’m sure I would feel just as she does after such an experience!

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  2. Your post sent me looking for what I could find about her. I can’t say that I remember reading anything of hers, but I am very familiar with her name. Now I am curious why that might be. The search continues.

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  3. For an animal lover I’ve always held a surprising prejudice against cats so didn’t immediately warm to this short story collection (this is my first window into it). I am quite beguiled by your review though and really I shouldn’t have assumed you have to be a cat sympathiser to get on with this. I’m also young to the short story genre. After reading Joyce’s “The Dubliners” I’m keen to explore the genre further.

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    1. I am a great cat lover 🙂 But many people are not cat people; I can understand why. My very brief attempts to read Joyce were abject failures and my efforts with short stories generally leave me stumped rather than satisfied. I’ll persevere! This collection is certainly different and not difficult to read. For me it was a curiosity more than anything else. Fitting perhaps, given its feline connections!

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      1. Unlike a novel, I think they are easy to forget, in the same way to you’re more likely to forget a snack over a good meal. Eveline by Joyce is perhaps one of the most rememberable short stories I’ve read and definitely worth persevering with. Virginia Woolf also wrote short stories I believe – I remember reading one simply called “a haunted house” via a Guardian article a year or so ago and it was quite ambiguous but definitely intriguing.

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        1. I’m reading a collection at the moment (Diving Belles) which is throwing cats (ha!) among the pigeons when it comes to my experience of short stories. All the things I find frustrating (particuarly a lack of ‘proper’ ending) are here in spades and yet I’m transfixed by this book. I’ll have to get my thoughts together on it when I’ve finished it and I suspect my grasp of the short story genre will have shifted significantly.

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  4. I’m aware from so many of your posts that I am neglecting such a lot of established writers from previous generations – the classics in fact – in favour of more recent authors. You’re encouraging me to plug this gap. But oh…. so many books to read……

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    1. Ironically, Margaret, I am increasingly aware that in reading the older authors I’m missing out many great contemporary ones. There is never enough time and as you rightly say – so many books. Occasionally I wish there could be a moratorium on new books…. just so I might catch up a tiny bit 😱😄 (I really must sort out my goodreads account….)

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  5. Well, Sandra, I am intrigued and tempted. I’m sorry to say that I have never come across STW before, not even in the many cat anthologies I possess! My admiration for cats and their ” ten thousand years of memory” with ” ancient mysteries in their eyes” is boundless, but I confess I’m not just a fluffy feline lover,( although , of course, on the occasions when I’m honoured by fluffy feline love, I’m completely smitten), preferring the total inscrutable, incomprehensible , divine package. These short stories sound perfect to me. Thanks for another recommendation.xxx

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    1. Pat, I thought of you of course 🙂 I’m not sure what you might make of this collection. I think it would intrigue you but I suspect this one may be a marmite book for you! xx

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  6. Cat’s Cradle reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut and his landmark book, one I read and wondered. The premise of Cat’s Cradle Book is deeply interesting. It is apparently closer to the genre of fantasies, but I am sure there is a powerful underlying theme there.

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    1. Yes, Vonnegut comes up first in various search engines. I haven’t read that one; it’s not a genre I read often. There is definitely some fantasy here, Uma. As I think about it, I’m not sure where the boundary lies between fairy tales and fantasy 🙂

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    1. It’s a hard life Chris! 😉 But you may be able to help with the question that came up in my reply to Uma above. Fairy tales…. fantasy… there is obviously an overlap. Are fairy tales a subset of fantasy or is there more to it? 🙂

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      1. A complex relationship, that between fairytale and fantasy, but here is a ‘simplified’ version (!).

        What we call traditional fairytales were originally merely one aspect oral folk tradition, one that—having affinities with myth, including stories of divine and semi-divine figures—naturally had fantastical elements about it such as fairy godmothers, spirits in bottles and wishes being granted. (Some claim fairytales are merely debased myths, which I think is particularly distorting in its simplification.)

        Along came literary fairytales, first of retellings of traditional tales by the likes of Perrault in France, Straparola and Basile in Italy and the Brothers Grimm in Germany. These retellings (some way more sophisticated in language than the originals must have been, often heavy with moralising) led to new tales in a similar style and with similar tropes and motifs by the likes of John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald and a host of lesser writers.

        All these tales had fantastical elements, full of magic and impossible beings. In that sense they are fantasy but, while mainstream fantasy and literary fairytales hugely overlap, modern fantasy has vastly expanded into several subgenres, some examples of which I discussed here: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-3qY

        Finally, what supposedly separates Fantasy from Science Fiction is the substitution of magic for advanced or impossible science and technology, but there are some who argue that they are merely two sides of the same coin.

        So, Sandra, yes to both your alternatives—fairytale is both a subset of fantasy and there’s more to it!

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        1. By the way, not all ‘fairy’ tales have fairies in them. The word ‘fairy’ here is most likely ‘faerie’ or the Land of the Fées, inhabited by supernatural or non-human creatures the name of which derives via Italian fata from the ancient Fates, goddesses who controlled human destiny in the past. A tale like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ can include no fairies but still be a fairytale because it includes magical elements and traditional tale tropes.

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        2. Chris, thank you so much for this. I find it fascinating. I had remembered your genre post from earlier in the year: remembered that it exists, that is, rather than remembered everything it explains. Much to absorb and ponder on – happy days! Thank you! 🙂

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  7. Intriguing review! I do love cats, don’t mind dark and macabre at all and love to be introduced to interesting authors I am not familiar with. On the other hand I am not good at short stories. ‘Oddity’ can be both good and bad in my books, but there are some types of ‘odd’ that my rational, structured brain just can’t cope with. Hmm, will think about this one.

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    1. I also struggle with short stories. STW also wrote novels (and poetry) and if I can get myself together there will be a review of her first novel here soon. Not macabre but certainly shades of dark and certainly unique.

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        1. ah ha! Yes! And like Macavity, the cats in this book don’t necessarily appear – they were the original tellers of the tales. Some stories feature cats, all are told through the feline perspective. That isn’t made apparent – it’s for the reader to remember it and read them as such.

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  8. D > I seem to recall that there was a trend in the earlier part of the 20thC to react against Victorian sentimentality (and, dare I say it, also the Beatrix Potter treatment), and to make animal stories more earthy – more representative of the animals characters and environment. and not just depict them if they were humans in the shape of animals. That makes me wonder about about Watership Down and The Plague Dogs!

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    1. A very good point, Denise. I’m not sure if this applies here because I know so little about this author. She certainly intrigues me and I’m reasonably confident that she certainly likes cats! But cats as they really are: solitary, self-contained and survivialists. We have ‘fairy stories’ applied to humans but with the morals of such cats. (If that makes sense!)

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  9. Hello Sandra, I loved your review and am now anxious to track down a copy of this book! I agree so much with what you say about her wonderful writing – like that description of the house you quoted – but then this dark, sometimes quite upsetting streak – which can come out of what seems like nowhere, in even the most light and comic tale. In ‘The Innocent and the Guilty’ I read this hugely enjoyable story about a woman who walks out of her life – Lolly Willowes-like – and then the end was so unexpected and dark, I cried! Her work might be whimsical sometimes but sentimental it is not.

    I haven’t read Jane’s review of this but shall do so. 🙂

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    1. She seems to defy typecasting, Helen. She makes me think of Angela Carter (who I’ve scarcely read) and Jeanette Winterson (who I’ve read a little more of). Individual, dark, unpredictable but superb writers. It’s also occured to me that in a number of the photos I’ve seen of her, STW resembles a cat… Inscrutable!

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