Sometimes, the best part about writing is that my cat is always curled up nearby, offering sleepy moral support as I sit at my desk, agonizing over why I can’t think of the right word. She half-opens a yellow eye and stares, as if to say, “I don’t know why you persist in hunching over that warm box and gnashing your teeth when you could be having a luxurious nap like me, but you can do what you like,” and I’m glad of the (albeit unsympathetic) company.
Lots of writers feel the same way about having pets to soothe the hours of otherwise being alone with your keyboard or notepad. Well known authors of the past (and present) have had a range of pets, from cats to dogs to ravens to peacocks.
Yep, peacocks. These elaborately decorated birds were the preferred avian companion of writer Flannery O’Connor. I’m slightly wary around them, actually, because all the ones I have encountered seemed mean, and when they screech it sounds like someone calling for help, like they are trying to lure kind-hearted people toward a wing-bashed death. But they are magnificent, and no doubt O’Connor’s peacocks were friendlier to her than the ones at the zoo are to me. She also raised ducks, emus, ostriches, and even toucans!
Flannery O’Conner with a peacock
She wasn’t the only one who liked birds. Charles Dickens’ cherished animal companion was a raven named Grip. When Grip eventually perished (sadly after ingesting a chip of white paint), Dickens had him taxidermied. I don’t think this is the way most people would currently choose to mourn a pet, but maybe it was a bit different in the 1840s. Grip currently resides in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, if you get an urge to visit him. Hopefully a copy of Barnaby Rudge by Dickens is also in that section, because it features a talkative raven and must have been a nod to Grip.
Grip the Raven
Edgar Allan Poe reviewed a copy of Barnaby Rudge, and it is thought that he may have been inspired by it to write his famous poem, “The Raven.” Poe was a cat-person, however, and his pet feline was named Catterina. Since learning this, I am wondering why I didn’t give this name to my cat, because it is clearly the perfect cat name. (Also, I don’t know what this says about my sense of humour).
Mark Twain was also fond of cats. When his cat, named Bambino, unfortunately went missing, Twain put an ad in the newspaper, offering a reward for Bambino’s return. If anyone was in doubt about his profession, I think all who read the description of the cat would know him for a writer. “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.” I have a perfect picture of Bambino in my mind now, lurking in the dusky corner of a library, probably waiting to pounce on my unsuspecting feet. I hope Bambino was found and safely returned home.
Mark Twain with a kitten, who must not be Bambino, based on appearance
Other people with a shared love of writing and cats include(d) Ernest Hemingway, who liked to refer to his cats as “purr factories”, Jorge Luis Borges, Joyce Carol Oates, and Neil Gaiman, and French novelist Colette. (Incidentally, Colette has a cameo in the novel I’m currently writing so I was excited to discover this fact).
Of course, other writers preferred dogs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s self-professed constant companion was a cocker spaniel named Flush. He often lay with his head on one page of her folios while she read the other, loyally keeping her company and getting in the way in that endearing way that pets do. Apparently, Flush understood Greek rather well. At least, Browning said so in a letter. I mostly believe this, at least for spoken Greek. My parents’ dachshund, who lives in fear of the vacuum, knows over half a dozen words for that hateful machine of terror and we constantly have to come up with new code words for it, lest she go running to her bed when we talk about household chores.
Browning and Flush.
The Faithful Friend – Artwork by James E McConnell
P.G. Wodehouse also had a dachshund, which, since I know what that is like, probably explains a lot about his sense of humour. Aside from catering to the whims of his dachshund (it always happens), and writing very witty books, Wodehouse was also active in the Westhampton branch of Bide-a-Wee Home Association, a rescue society for abandoned dogs and cats. It was renamed the P.G. Wodehouse Shelter, in commemoration of his family’s generous donations.
John Steinbeck had a dog named Charley, who featured in the title of the book Travels with Charley. Steinbeck also had a high opinion of the intelligence of dogs. He said, “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” Having also seen this look on occasion, and witnessed the popularity of some very odd things (I’ll let you fill in the blanks here), I really can’t argue.
John Steinbeck and Charley
If you have a special pet that keeps you company while you read or write, do share! Since I have already put more pictures than usual into this post, I would take a picture of my cat, but she is currently running back and forth across the room for no discernible reason. Chasing ghostly mice? Trying to freak me out? Well played, Unfortunately-Not-Named-Catterina, well-played. (Okay, fine. Her name is actually Fifi).
Further reading (and more pictures):