Why Not Cats? by Georgina Young-Ellis

Why Not Cats? by Georgina Young-Ellis

Somewhat inspired by Zoe Burton’s post from a couple of weeks ago about the therapy dog in her new JAFF (which sounds great, by the way) I started thinking about cats in Jane Austen. Wait, are there any? There are not, as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t cats around in Jane Austen’s day because, of course, they were very much depended upon to keep houses of all kinds free of mice. However, they tended to be outdoor cats – sometimes given kitchen scraps or milk, but generally expected to fend for themselves and catch their own food. As I once found out, living in a New York apartment with my sweet kitty, Mercutio, if you feed a cat too much, it won’t be interested in mice. I actually took him to the vet to find out why he wasn’t keeping the apartment mouse-free as he had once done, and the vet very clearly stated, “You’re feeding him too much.” He was, indeed, quite fat.


One of my favorite literary references that touches on Austen relates to a cat and is found in Harry Potter. The caretaker of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Argus Filch, has a cranky cat named Mrs. Norris,which I always felt was Rowling’s little homage to Austen – naming an unpleasant cat after the mean and conniving aunt from Mansfield Park.


I recently read, though cats were not exactly common as house pets in Regency times in the same way that dogs were, later in the 19th century their popularity grew among people who valued a quieter, more serene pet. (Anyone who’s met my little fireball of a cat, Lupita, however, knows cats aren’t always serene!) Writers, apparently, began to have cats as pets to keep a solitary soul company, while not demanding a lot of attention. Dogs, of course, generally need outdoor exercise, lots of play, and a fair amount of one on one time. Cats can usually get along just fine without much attention from us, thank you very much, except to be petted when they want to be, played with when they’re bored, and otherwise left to do exactly what they want to do, which is to sit on your computer keyboard when you want to work, or take up your lap when you need it for your laptop.

I find that most humans are either cat people or dog people though I grew up with both. I chose not to have a dog in New York City when I lived  there again in later years because I didn’t relish the thought of taking the dog out for a walk at least twice a day in inclement weather, which NYC has a lot of. We opted for cats because they don’t require that kind of commitment though my son was always bringing home stray kittens, which I then needed to find a home for. As a result, we did, at one point, have three permanent feline residents. And even though I live in Portland, OR now, with a lot more space (and just the one cat), a dog still seems like too much work. Portland is certainly a dog town though, so I get to enjoy other people’s dogs – sort of like a loving aunt who has fun with her nieces and nephews but then gets to send them home with their parents.

All this makes me wonder – was Jane a dog  person, a cat person, or neither? Maybe, when she was young, she was a dog person, since she liked to roughhouse with her brothers and a dog would have fit right in. I’m sure the Austens had a dog or two since so many people of their class did. When she was older, finally settled at Chawton, would she have had a small dog? I don’t see that. I think she would have loved to have a little companion around the house though, so maybe she was among the first of the nineteenth century writers to keep a cat inside. I think she would have liked to have a kitty to keep her lap warm as she wrote at her desk.

So, let the debate begin! Jane as dog person or cat person? What do you think?



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17 Responses to Why Not Cats? by Georgina Young-Ellis

  1. Jane mentioned a cat – a kitten rather – in one of her letters. The animal in question was black and played about the stairs in the lodgings the Austen ladies were going into. She seems to have regarded the kitten as one of the plus points of the lodgings, though whether that was because she liked kittens or because the kitten’s presence made it less likely there would be mice is a moot point. Jane’s much admired Dr Johnson had pet cats, especially one called Hodge whose food he used to prepare himself lest the servants took against the cat for the extra trouble. There was a pet dog at Chawton, but he belonged to Cassandra.

  2. My mother did not like cats so we didn’t have any. My great-grand-mother loved cats and when we would come to visit the cats would scatter. Mother was pregnant at the time and great-grand-mother wouldn’t fuss at her. It was funny to see those cats glower at mother and her glower right back at them. When I was really small there was a dog that kept me company. I really liked him but that was the only pet I remember. I suppose he stayed when we moved to another state.

  3. Dogs for a long walk and cats to act a mousers and catch those pesky rodents who would keep her awake at night.

  4. I don’t know why but I see her as loving both. I like both but prefer cats although I much prefer having one indoors. As a child we had a pet cat but it was not allowed inside the house.

  5. I don’t know it runs in my mind that there were dogs mentioned in Jane’s books but not cats. I wonder why there were never cats mentioned. I agree with the comment about J.K. Rowling. I knew I heard the name Mrs.Norris before! I know Jane Austen is her favorite author so it makes sense! I own a dog but I am an animal lover in general. Maybe Jane wasn’t a cat person!lol

  6. Thanks for this post! I agree with the majority here. I say neither. I got the feeling from her description of Lady Bertram that she thought pets were silly.

  7. What a lovely post, Georgina! Your kitties sound delightful.

    I agree with Gianna. I dare say that Jane Austen, as a woman of her time, had an eminently utilitarian and pragmatic view of animals in general.

    Cats do get one mention in her novels – in Sense and Sensibility, when Mrs. Jennings talks to Colonel Brandon about Elinor and Marianne in Chapter 39:

    “Ah! Colonel, I do not know what you and I shall do without the Miss Dashwoods (…) Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.”

    “Dull” is probably the last adjective I would use to describe a feline, but as a fellow cat owner/slave, I’m biased…

    • Thanks for pointing out the reference, Eliza, and you may be right about her pragmatic view of animals.

  8. I picture Jane Austen as a dog person, if either. It would be a working dog, too. For guarding or hunting or some such. I don’t think she would have a companion dog, or a companion cat. I can’t imagine she’d object to a working cat, for mice. I feel like she had an eminently practical streak. Everything must have a function.

  9. Georgina, What a lovely post! Thank you for starting what might prove to be a fun debate. Although I like dogs (for fifteen years I had a wonderful German Shepherd – Dachshund mix) I’m a cat person to the core. There is something about the company of a purring fur ball that is like a soothing cup of tea…all warm and cuddly. Why did Jane not mention pets? That is an interesting point. Could it be that she was so completely into human nature she had no room in her world for a cat or dog? I think of that scene in 1995 P&P where Lizzy is playing with the large dog at Pemberley and think how sweet it was on film; would it have worked in the book?

    • A German Shepherd/Dachshund mix? I’m trying to imagine that! I think you may be right about our Jane, too 🙂

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