Charles Dickens Gave His Cat “Bob” a Second Life as a Letter Opener

dicken's cat letter opener
Image via New York Pub­lic Library

Increas­ing­ly Face­book seems a vir­tu­al pet ceme­tery, with images of recent­ly depart­ed cats and dogs but­tressed with words of heart­break and con­so­la­tion. It feels hard-heart­ed to scroll past with­out lay­ing a com­ment at each fresh­ly dug cyber-mound, even when one has no per­son­al rela­tion­ship with the deceased, or, to large degree, the own­er. The lazy man may “like” news of a beloved Airedale’s demise, but acknowl­edg­ment can­not always be said to equal respect.

And what, pray tell, is the pro­to­col after? How many min­utes should elapse before it is accept­able to post Throw­back Thurs­day shots of one’s younger, big-haired self? What if one acci­den­tal­ly sends a Far­mville noti­fi­ca­tion to the bereaved?

If only we had a Vic­to­ri­an we could ask.

Prefer­ably, Charles Dick­ens.

He went to his reward eleven years before “Poor Cher­ry,” the first dog plant­ed in Hyde Park’s small pet ceme­tery, but he was a keen observ­er of mourn­ing cus­toms.

He was also an ani­mal lover, as his daugh­ter, Mamie not­ed in My Father as I Recall Him:

On account of our birds, cats were not allowed in the house; but from a friend in Lon­don I received a present of a white kit­ten — Williami­na — and she and her numer­ous off­spring had a hap­py home at “Gad’s Hill.” … As the kit­tens grow old­er they became more and more frol­ic­some, swarm­ing up the cur­tains, play­ing about on the writ­ing table and scam­per­ing behind the book­shelves. But they were nev­er com­plained of and lived hap­pi­ly in the study until the time came for find­ing them oth­er homes. One of these kit­tens was kept, who, as he was quite deaf, was left unnamed, and became known by ser­vants as “the mas­ter’s cat,” because of his devo­tion to my father. He was always with him, and used to fol­low him about the gar­den like a dog, and sit with him while he wrote. One evening we were all, except father, going to a ball, and when we start­ed, left “the mas­ter” and his cat in the draw­ing-room togeth­er. “The mas­ter” was read­ing at a small table, on which a light­ed can­dle was placed. Sud­den­ly the can­dle went out. My father, who was much inter­est­ed in his book, relight­ed the can­dle, stroked the cat, who was look­ing at him pathet­i­cal­ly he noticed, and con­tin­ued his read­ing. A few min­utes lat­er, as the light became dim, he looked up just in time to see puss delib­er­ate­ly put out the can­dle with his paw, and then look appeal­ing­ly towards him. This sec­ond and unmis­tak­able hint was not dis­re­gard­ed, and puss was giv­en the pet­ting he craved. Father was full of this anec­dote when all met at break­fast the next morn­ing.

One anec­dote Mamie chose not to include is that when Dick­ens’ Bob, the deaf kit­ten men­tioned above, left this earth­ly plane, the mas­ter turned him into a let­ter open­er.

Well, not the whole cat, actu­al­ly. Just a sin­gle paw, which the author had stuffed and attached to an ivory blade. The blade is engraved “C.D. In Mem­o­ry of Bob 1862” which is more grave mark­er than most pussy­cats can hope for.

Should any­one ever pub­lish a His­to­ry of Charles Dick­ens in 100 Objects, count on this object to make the cut.

Still, it’s an odd­i­ty most con­tem­po­rary West­ern­ers would view with dis­taste. (But not all. The Mor­bid Anato­my Museum’s fre­quent small mam­mal taxi­dermy work­shops draw might­i­ly from the ranks of Brook­lyn hip­sters.)

I cer­tain­ly felt the need to hus­tle my then 12-year-old son past this unusu­al sou­venir when it was dis­played as part of the New York Pub­lic Library’s cozy exhib­it, Charles Dick­ens: The Key to Char­ac­ter. The kid’s an ani­mal lover who was in Oliv­er!  at the time. I feared he’d respond with Tale of Two Cities-lev­el peas­ant rage, which is accept­able, except when there’s a show that must go on.

Pre­served!, a British taxi­dermy blog spon­sored by the Arts and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil offers a ten­der take on Dick­ens’ moti­va­tion. Over the years, he had sev­er­al ani­mals, includ­ing a pet raven, stuffed, but his close­ness with Bob called for a spe­cial approach. 19th-cen­tu­ry lit­er­a­ture schol­ar Jen­ny Pyke writes that “the taxi­der­mied cat paw stands out in its tac­tile soft­ness and emo­tion­al ten­der­ness. Most often, as pop­u­lar as it was in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, taxi­dermy was con­sumed visu­al­ly only, dis­played in glass cas­es or crowd­ed cab­i­nets. With Bob’s paw, Dick­ens cre­at­ed an object meant to be held dai­ly.”

It’s not for the squea­mish, but I can see how this can­ni­ly orches­trat­ed hand-hold­ing could bring ongo­ing com­fort. More than the fleet­ing con­do­lences pro­lif­er­at­ing on Face­book, any­way.

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Dick­ens’ Hand-Edit­ed Copy of His Clas­sic Hol­i­day Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol

T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats & Oth­er Clas­sic Poems (75 Min­utes, 1955)

Medieval Cats Behav­ing Bad­ly: Kit­ties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Cen­tu­ry Man­u­scripts

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (2)
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  • Ian Spellerberg says:

    Just one small com­ment or edit. The item in ques­tion is referred to as a ‘let­ter open­er’. I sug­gest that it is in fact a paper-knife. Let­ter open­ers and paper-knives have dif­fer­ent his­to­ries, designs and func­tions. The date is too ear­ly for a let­ter open­er. The shape (broad blade) is con­sis­tent with being a paper-knife. Dur­ing his read­ings, Dick­ens would on occa­sions bran­dish a paper-knife for empha­sis.
    Thank you for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­ment.


  • Raquel says:

    Lis­ten­ing to Neil Gaiman read­ing “A Christ­mas Car­ol” from the NY Pub­lic Library.
    At the intro­duc­tion, researcher and author Mol­ly Old­field ref­er­enced Bob’s paw as Dick­en’s beloved let­ter open­er and the search land­ed me here. Good com­ment about the paper-knife! Appre­ci­ate it.

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