Johnson’s cat casts a long shadow

FEW cats can boast such a lasting legacy as Samuel Johnson’s Hodge.

Immortalised in a statue, poetry and various literary references, Hodge was described by his owner as “a very fine cat indeed”, although relatively little is actually known about the favoured feline in question.

The most frequently quoted reference is from his friend James Boswell’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 and unique for the period in that it directly incorporated conversations Boswell had noted down, along with far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to reading.

Among such revelations was Boswell’s recollection of how Johnson treated his feline companions: “I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters.”

He goes on to explain that Johnson’s logic behind this was that if he got his servants to do this job, they would begin to hate the spoilt cat – a scene recreated with a bronze statue outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square which was unveiled in 1997 and displays Hodge posing proudly on the famous dictionary next to a pair of empty oyster shells.

This is the charming 300-year-old townhouse, now a museum, where Dr Johnson lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language in the garret.

Although Hodge is undoubtedly the most famous of Johnson’s cats, the writer did have other four-legged friends, including Lily, a ‘white kitling’ who was ‘very well behaved’.

But it was Hodge who was so vividly described by Boswell: “I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.”

Another friend of Johnson’s, the poet Percival Stockdale, wrote an ornate elegy in homage to Hodge in 1778:

Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable furr?

But that wasn’t the last time that Hodge would be remembered in print. Wood engraver and illustrator Yvonne Skargon wrote Lily & Hodge & Dr Johnson in 1991, juxtaposing a series of engravings of the two cats accompanied by quotations from Johnson.

And the writer William Boyd weaved an even more surreal reference into his 2002 novel Any Human Heart when his hedonistic protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, inadvertently sparks a furious argument in the Pyrenees through a chance reference to Hodge, who happens to bear the same name as his travelling companion.

More recently, Robin Saikia has paid his own tribute to Hodge through a dramatic monologue in which Samuel Johnson celebrates the life of his favourite cat and gives a spirited account of his adventures in London coffee houses.

Back in Gough Square, thanks to the sculptor Jon Bickley, Hodge (actually modelled on his own cat, Thomas Henry) is permanently ensconced with his oyster shells round the corner from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub renowned for its literary associations and maze of atmospherically gloomy bars.

Historically it’s always been a popular meeting place for writers and journalists, somehow epitomising the spirit of that most famous of all Johnson quotes: “Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life: for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history, the poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer and editor found popularity and success when monumental dictionary was finally published in 1755 after nine years of work.

But for some, his fondness for animals was just another demonstration of his underlying compassion, or as Boswell put it, “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”.

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