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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Cats during the Regency

My son keeps a cat and when he asked me if people in Jane Austen's time kept cats as pets, I had to think about it. I know that dogs were mostly working animals, especially in the country—herding, guarding, hunting, pulling cards and even used as turnspits in the kitchens—but there were also companion dogs. Pekingese and pugs were kept as exotic lap dogs and often seen as a status symbol. I'm looking you, Lady Bertram

In this zoomed in image of Hogarth's Portrait of a Family, we see a relaxed home scene with both a dog and cat inside with the family. It's from about 100 years before the time I write about, but no one seems to mind that the cat has toppled over the yarn basket.

Cats pretty much domesticated themselves thousands of years ago when human settlements with grain stores attracted rodents. The Romans brought domesticated cats with them when they invaded Britain, and the Vikings brought their own, too. By the 18th century, keeping pets became more common for the upper classes, but for many people cats still had to earn their keep as vermin hunters.

This is a portrait of Lady Jane Bertie with a kitten. "But Heather, she's clearly from before the regency, too." Yeah, but we're going to go on an Austen-related tangent. Stick with me. Lady Jane Bertie married General Edward Mathew in 1760. Their daughter, Anne, married James Austen in 1792. General Matthew had a temper and was known to be a "bitter, stiff, and dictatorial presence". Some think that since he was James Austen's father-in-law, Jane Austen might have used him as inspiration for General Tilney.

Back to cats. By the time we get to the 19th century, more cats were kept for companionship and they didn't necessarily have to earn their place in barns and kitchens by chasing mice. We even start to see cats wearing a bell strung on ribbon to warn potential prey. In my house, the bell is so the cat doesn't sneak up on me and to make sure my I don't lose my dark cat against my dark floor and accidentally step on her.

In this time, there were only a few distinct breeds of cat. Like with dogs, breeding for specific qualities to a strict and agreed upon standard wasn't in place yet. There were some elite cat breeds—Angora, Chartreux, Persian—but most pet cats were native British mixed breeds.

This portrait of Élisa Coudray is from 1821. (Note she's been dressed wearing a coral necklace. See my post on coral jewelry.) There seems to be a stronger association with cat with women and children, but this could be because most dogs still had a stronger connection to men and boys and the tasks they fulfilled.

There was a more compassionate attitude toward animals beginning around this time, too. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824. It came from a climate of the late 18th and early 19th centuries of pushing back against using animals in experiments or as entertainment. There were attempts to pass laws against bull-baiting and against animal cruelty that never got off the ground until the 1830s. Still, there was a shift to seeing animals as more than working creatures but as beloved companions deserving of care.

Portrait of a Young Girl Holding her Cat c 1800

I'm guessing that regency-era pets would have been like my son's cat. Sleeping most of the day on whatever cushion she picked, and certainly not in the bed we made for her. Regency cat owners liked loved and cared for their furry companions the just as much as we do.

Do you have any pets? Are you a cat or a dog person? I never thought I was either one until I let my son get a cat. Should I add a pet to my next work in progress?

Elizabeth Paquette Companion Animals in the Regency June 2022 RFW Conference

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