A woman's feelings upon discovering a Roman Emperor beneath her roof are bound to be a bit bewildered.
No doubt it's even more bewildering when the emperor is Nero and he's in feline form…
In spite of the fact that I have a huge wish list of books I'd like to own some day—especially those that just can't be found in libraries anywhere—as soon as I read the basic premise of this novel, I knew I needed a copy of it.
Miss Eliza is the woman in question—a 42-year-old spinster and sometime book reviewer and novelist, who has just severed a relationship with a clergyman because of her inability to relate to organized religion, and who has moved, with her housekeeper Sarah Lupin, from Ireland to a fairy-tale-ish house on a steep hillside, built on the remains of a Roman settlement and apparently buffeted by gale-force winds all the year round. Approaching the house for the first time, she comments to the driver:
"But, dear me ... what scraggy poplars! Quite extraordinarily scraggy they look from up here, like a row of witches' brooms. I suppose you don't believe in witches, chauffeur?"
"Certainly not, ma'am."
"Not even if you saw one with your own eyes?"
"I shouldn't, ma'am. Rubbish, the whole boiling of it!"
"All this bosh about witches and fairies and the rest of it makes me sick, straight it do."
Miss Eliza was very unwilling that anyone should celebrate so rapturous an expedition by being sick. It would have been a thousand pities.
I immediately perked up at this passage, because the whole relationship of spinsters and witches in literature has always been of particular interest to me—at least since Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes seduced me and became my favorite novel a decade or so ago. And although Keown's book is not (for me) quite on a par with Lolly Willowes, I was happy to see that this exchange was no fluke. The witchy subtext remains rather muted in this novel, but it is certainly present—and was actually even more intriguing for me than the spectacle of the Emperor Nero purring by the fireside. But more about that later.
|Personally, I think Nero looked a bit more|
like a dog (a pug, perhaps?) than a cat...
Miss Eliza arrives first at the women's rather desolate new home, and when a black cat suddenly appears in the living room she welcomes the company. But soon he begins to create unease, as when the women are discussing the cat with the carter who, a day or two later, has brought Sarah and her baggage to the house:
As for the carter, his mouth had fallen wide open in astonishment. For the cat, turning his head very quietly and suddenly, had fixed upon his critics a stare so awful that the stoutest heart might well have missed a beat. In his enormous eyes, eyes glowing just now like red hot coals, it seemed as though the scorn of the whole world lay concentrated. An evil look he gave them, an evil and venomous glare, and so triumphantly out of proportion to the offense was it (for who, after all, does not speak of a cat as of an article of furniture, something to be either condemned or admired?) that the poor humans sitting there in the warm and companionable kitchen were struck guilty in their own minds by very contact with its accusing strength...
It's not long until the cat begins conversing with Eliza, and his slip of the tongue about a mother named Agrippina reveals that he is, in fact, none other than the Nero who so famously waxed musical while Rome burned. It turns out that after 1900 or so years in Hell, Nero has decided to do penance for his earthly deeds and thereby get to Heaven. The powers-that-be (fortunately kept vague in the novel) have allowed him to return to earth as a cat, in which form his natural instincts toward cruelty and gluttony will be at their strongest. He must learn to cultivate, among other things, mercy toward mice and birds, tolerance of cold and wet, and a casual indifference to—you guessed it—fiddles and bonfires:
"If we had lived in the Middle Ages," cried Miss Eliza, laughing, "I should have been burned as a witch and you as my familiar."
At the mention of burning the cat's eyes glowed with undisguised delight. "Nothing like a really good bonfire," he said, licking his lips.
All of which sounds hilarious, and it often is. Sometimes his instincts get the best of him, as after a visit from the neighborhood gossip, Annabella Climp—a version of the stereotypical witch in her own right—when he advises that Eliza should eliminate Miss Climp with nightshade. At her horrified response:
"As you please," said he. "Don't blame me if that old woman spreads unpleasant stories about you. Mark my words, she's bound to be a thorn in your side. You'd be very well advised to put her out of the way. But," he added in a huff, "don't mind me. I'm nothing but a novice in such matters."
And since the cat does not speak to Sarah Lupin, only to Miss Eliza (and, later, others, but that would be telling too much), there are some humorous misunderstandings and developments:
The word as applied to Miss Eliza's cat, had a ridiculous sound. It irritated her to hear Sarah Lupin out there in the moonlight calling, "Puss Puss." As well attempt to snare a professor of theology with a buttonhook.
The only weakness here, for me, is that Keown takes her theological themes a bit more seriously than the novel's tone seems to warrant. There are a few longish discussions of religion, organized and otherwise, with the rather predictable conclusion that a free-spirited love of nature and a deep enjoyment of the beauties of life have the advantage over a bunch of stuffy, hypocritical bishops aching for an idyllic afterlife. These sections are sometimes humorous and entertaining, but they do tend to slow the novel's pace—particularly near the end.
But I'm still delighted to have come across the book, because its themes of spinsterhood and witchery are the real attraction. Miss Eliza's concerns with spinsterhood may perhaps result from the fact that she has just ended a romantic relationship at age 42 and might understandably be coming to terms with her possible (but not inevitable) future. At any rate, there seem to be lots of sinister witchy types in the village and thereabouts. What about the postmistress, for example?:
The mingled smell of wallflowers without and peppermints within went to Miss Eliza's head. She laughed unguardedly, saw, too late, that she had offended this sinister virgin behind the counter. However long she might live in the valley, however many stamps she might buy while she lived there, that laugh would never be forgiven her. Something of this she caught, with her intuitive larger vision, from the steely eyes behind the spectacles.
Witchiness also continues to be associated with Miss Eliza herself, even in offhand comments such as this one, to Sarah, as she is hurrying to a party:
"We must hurry," said Miss Eliza, "if I lose that bus I'll be forced to fly."
A mere figure of speech, of course. Or is it?
Later, when Eliza pays a visit to the aforementioned Anabella Climp, one might wonder if the cat's suggestion of a dose of nightshade might not have been wise after all. After assuring Eliza that she doesn't care what anyone thinks of her (a good thing, too!), she adds:
"What's the matter with you is that you do care. Your weakness lies all the other way round. When you hear folks telling each other, 'Here comes the witch. Look at the witch and her cat,' you do care; your wretched little niming piming pride is up in arms at once. You enjoy being a witch, you wouldn't not be witch, but you don't like people calling you a witch. I know you, I've met your sort before."
She seized the arms of her chair and sat back in triumph.
"But I'm not a witch," protested the victim of this curious charge. "I never was and never will be witch, and nothing could ever make me one."
"There you are. What did I tell you?" cried Miss Climp, slapping her lean flank with surprising vigor…
I don't know enough about Keown (and indeed, there's apparently little enough information to be had without some serious digging) to know if she might have been acquainted with Sylvia Townsend Warner and have been self-consciously responding to Warner's novel from only a few years before. They were both novelists and poets, after all, and might have run across each other, for better or worse, at literary gatherings.
|Perhaps not Eliza's idea of "flying" to a party...|
Since Lolly Willowes was a bestseller (and the inaugural Book-of-the-Month Club selection), Keown would surely have been aware of it. But while Lolly embraces her witchiness, Miss Eliza resists hers. If Lolly sees being a witch as a liberation from societal constraints, Miss Eliza might even see this forcing upon her of a witchy identity—based only on her spinsterhood and her unconventional beliefs and lifestyle—as itself a societal constraint, which makes Keown's novel a sort of interesting rejoinder to Warner's. And yet, as we have seen, Miss Eliza herself seems to flirt with witchy visions of herself flying to parties or being burned at the stake. Is she suggesting that witchiness is inescapable for a woman who chooses to remain unmarried, however she might resist it? At the very least, some internal conflict is apparent and adds considerable interest to the novel.
The high point of Lolly Willowes is the sustained brilliance of Lolly's wonderfully bitter climactic monologue on the position of unmarried women. And while it can't match up to Lolly's speech, Miss Eliza too makes a final declaration of independence of sorts (albeit one delivered to a cat), defending her one-ness with nature and her aversion to the constraints of conventional religion:
You are to beware of the lust of the eye...the pomps and vanities of this wicked world. You are to learn to mistrust your instincts. You must not worship the beauty of earth. You must not linger by the way. You must blunder blindly along, your thoughts fixed upon a better place, as a discourteous guest will blunder through the drawing-room of a beautiful hostess in order to attend a (presumably better) party elsewhere.
The speech goes on, and it continues in a later scene, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might track this book down. And it is well worth tracking down. Its most intriguing themes may get a bit muddied at times by the presence of the Emperor Nero meowing on the rug, but the novel's high points really are rather high.
Even as high, perhaps, as a flying broomstick…