Archive for December 24th, 2015

Mrs Scrooge, widow, at home

Dear friends and readers,

For a few years now I’ve been able to write Christmas blogs about Jane Austen and “this time of festivities” (which is close to how her characters label winter solstice, somewhat ironically): how she perceives Christmas in her writing, how Christmas is treated in film adaptations of her books, e.g., Metropolitan; and more generally how Christmas and the New Year were treated in the 18th century, from Anne Finch, to Robert Southey.

Since this season had not achieved the specificity or importance in the 18th century it has since (heavily a result of 19th and 20th century commercialism), I’ve not been able to find enough on its treatment in other women novelists of the era (or men), but discover that on my old Sylvia blog, I had gone into Posy Simmonds’s illustrations for Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs Scrooge before, but had not noticed how they include a cat when the well-meaning lady is at home,

Her experience of the ghosts in the second half of Duffy’s graphic novel in verse does not perturb her cat

So this year turned to my new project, women artists, and found another woman artist who pictures cats, women and Christmas all together.

As Caroline Bugler says in her The Cat: 3000 years of the Cat in Art, Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909) is not a woman artist who gets much respect.

A photo of Ronner-Knip

She was Dutch, and began with landscapes, still lifes and genre scenes. These are overlooked:: they are mostly awful, overdone with ornament, too crowded with creatures and faux or kitsch pastoral-farm life. In 1876 she found her metier when asked by queen of Belgium to paint two favorite two dogs: she discovered she charmed buyers with depictions of beloved pets at play or sleeping. Her facility at this led to many commissions, first from other wealthy aristocrats and royals around Europe, and then just to customers. Cats in playful and sentimental poses and especially kittens and cat families became her specialty. Many today may not find her paintings to their taste, too artificial, too sweet, too much a part of an implied picturesque bourgeois world, not photographic renditions, but her pictures of animals are based on “acute observation and a thorough knowledge of this animal.” If you look at her studies you find she is often captures some central part of a cat’s mood and poses (Bugler).



For today, Christmas Eve I have opted for her depiction of two kittens ruining a doll under a Christmas tree:


We see two young (well-fed and well-groomed) impossibly cute-calico cats treating a doll the way they would treat a person if they could, and do treat people’s things, not out of malice, but devotion. Who has had a cat who did not sit on their stuff? to gain attention, be close to us, just smell our things and make themselves part of it. Or take your stuff, this case the doll’s detachable fancy braided be-ribboned wig. Yes it’s a pose, yes the paint is too lacquered, the playfulness is too luxuriously pretty. She has moved into fantasy.

Fantasy is the key. You can learn from her cat pictures (as in Suzy Becker’s All I Need to Know I Learned from my Cat) to love, to take out time to play and to explore — and yes sleep and eat and simple be there for one another, implicitly loving. But what people love are those which satisfy their desire for symbols of stable luxury with the cats at play around these, as here where Ronner-Knipp has risen to the level of fantasy because of the objects played around:

Ancient music rolls and ink bottle

Curiosity uses a porcelain candybox, echoed in the bowl; the box underneath echoes the wall

And every once in a while you can find a determined fierceness:

Henriette Ronner-Knip - The Uninvited Guest
An uninvited guest

And the difficulties of a cat’s real predation in its present environments:


Fierceness, determination, environment brings us back to Mrs Scrooge:

Scrooge doornail-dead, his widow, Mrs Scrooge, lived by herself
in London Town. It was that time of year, the clocks long back,
when shops were window-dressed with unsold tinsel, trinkets, toys,
trivial pursuits, with sequinned dresses and designer suits,
with chocolates, glacé fruits and marzipan, with Barbie,
Action Man, with bubblebath and aftershave and showergel;
the words Noel and Season’s Greetings brightly mute
in neon lights. The city bells had only just chimed three,
but it was dusk already. It had not been light all day.
Mrs Scrooge sat googling at her desk,
Catchit the cat
curled at her feet; snowflakes tumbling to the ground
below the window, where a robin perched,
pecking at seeds. Most turkeys,
bred for their meat, are kept in windowless barns,
with some containing over 20,000 birds. Turkeys
are removed from their crates and hung from shackles
by their legs in moving lines
. A small fire crackled
in the grate. Their heads are dragged under
a water bath – electrically charged – before their necks
are cut
. Mrs Scrooge pressed Print

I had not noticed she is an environmentalist, anti-consumer (and thus salutary corrective to Ronner-Knipp) and Duffy’s tale a genuine cautionary tale with applicability to us today in the throes of spreading impoverishment and climate change:


Outside, snowier yet, and cold! Piercing, searching, biting cold.
The cold gnawed noses just as dogs gnaw bones. It iced
the mobile phones pressed tight to ears.
The coldest Christmas Eve
in years saw Mrs Scrooge at Marley’s, handing leaflets out.
The shoppers staggered past, weighed down with bags
or pushing trolleys crammed with breasts, legs, crowns, eggs,
sausages, giant stalks of brussels sprouts, carrots,
spuds, bouquets of broccoli, mangetout, courgettes, petit
pois, foie gras; with salmon, stilton, pork pies, mince pies,
christmas pudding, custard,
port, gin, sherry, whisky,
fizz and plonk,
all done on credit cards.
Most shook their head at Mrs Scrooge,
irked by her cry “Find out how turkeys really die!'”
or shoved her leaflet in the pockets of their coats, unread,
or laughed and called back “Spoilsport! Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Three hours went by like this.
The snow
began to ease
as she walked home.

She hated waste, consumerism, Mrs Scrooge, foraged
in the London parks for chestnuts, mushrooms, blackberries,
ate leftovers, recycled, mended, passed on, purchased secondhand,
turned the heating down and put on layers, walked everywhere,
drank tap-water, used public libraries, possessed a wind-up radio,
switched off lights, lit candles (darkness is cheap and Mrs Scrooge
liked it) and would not spend one penny on a plastic bag.
She passed off-licences with 6 for 5, bookshops with 3 for 2,
food stores with Buy 1 get 1 free
Above her head,
the Christmas lights
danced like a river toward a sea of dark.
The National Power Grid moaned, endangered, like a whale.


The Thames flowed on as Mrs Scrooge proceeded on her way
towards her rooms.
Nobody lived in the building now
but her, and all the other flats were boarded up.
Whatever the developers had offered Mrs Scrooge to move
could never be enough. She liked it where it was,
lurking in the corner of a yard, as though the house
had run there young, playing hide-and-seek,
and had forgotten the way out. She remembered
her first Christmas there with Scrooge,
the single stripey sweet
he’d given her that year, and every year …

— Carol Ann Duffy (turn back to The Guardian)

Nor how she has stayed faithful to her memories of Mr Scrooge before the second imitative half of the tale begins.


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