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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Samuel Johnson’s Stray Cat Blues

From Christy Somer bringing forward the bizarre anecdote of the cold blooded murder of Tysoe Hancock’s cat..... reactions by Diane Reynolds, myself......

...and others to the twistedness of Hancock’s account of that shooting in a letter to the 12 year old goddaughter (and presumptive illegitimate daughter) of Warren Hastings, Eliza Hancock (later Eliza Austen, wife of Henry Austen), things have now taken a wild and crazy twist with Maria Torres’s pointing us to the anecdote about Dr. Johnson’s cat Hodge in Boswell’s Life of Johnson.....

Why a crazy twist? Because there is an insanely high level of coincidence in this little historical matrix –I’ve just spent an hour tracking down at least _five_ aspects of coincidence, and my conclusion is that there is a bona fide (_non_ tin-hat conspiracy theory) possibility that these coincidences are _not_ accidental at all, but are a reflection of Johnson’s awareness of the actual Hancock backstory, and his sly way of reflecting same. Here is how I analyze it all:

First we have Tysoe Hancock writing a letter in 1774 to the (illegitimate) goddaughter of Warren Hastings about a neighbor shooting Hancock’s cat, supposedly in revenge for the behavior of a young gentleman of good family, Mr. Stanhope, a cousin of Hancock’s wife, who is staying with Hancock as a recent arrival to the Subcontinent. And…this young Mr. Stanhope just happens to be the adoptive heir of the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, the author of those very famous letters to his _illegitimate_son, who had died in 1768!

Second we have Boswell, in his famous 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, telling an anecdote about Johnson’s hearing a rumor about a young gentleman of a good family running around shooting cats, to which Johnson supposedly replies that he will make sure his own beloved cat, _Hodge_, will be spared from being shot.

Third, we have a well known painting of Mrs. Hastings on the Ganges, painted during 1790-1 by a guy named _Hodges_ (virtually identical to the name of Johnson’s cat), who then wrote a book published in 1794 which included a discussion of that same painting!

Fourth, Hastings and Johnson corresponded with each other (Johnson was 23 years older than Hastings).

Fifth, as we also learn in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Johnson long harbored a deep antipathy toward the Earl of Chesterfield, because of that gentleman’s failure to be treat Johnson right at an early stage of Johnson’s career, including failing to be the generous patron that Johnson expected him to be, arising out of the Earl’s relationship with Johnson’s cousin, Cornelius Ford, among other causes. Examples of Johnson’s lifelong hostile feelings for Lord Chesterfield are illustrated by these two wicked bon mots of Johnson’s about the Earl:

“This man (said he) I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among Lords!”

[When the Earl’s Letters to his son were published]: “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.”’

So…given all of the above, it would seem that Johnson, if he somehow _had_ heard the story about Mr. Stanhope’s having been the unwitting cause of the shooting of Hancock’s cat, would have every vengeful motivation in the world to want to publicize it in some way, to get one final shot off across the Earl’s ‘bow’ before leaving the lists of life.

But could Johnson plausibly have heard the story? Yes, here’s how. We know for a fact that Johnson was a correspondent of Warren Hastings after Hancock’s letter was written. We can also safely infer that at some point _Hastings_ heard Hancock’s story about the cat, either from Hancock, from his adoptive son, and/or from Eliza. And we can also infer that Hastings knew that if he had a juicy nasty anecdote about Lord Chesterfield’s family, it would greatly please Johnson to hear it.

And there you also have the reason why Johnson would have elected not to say the name “Stanhope” in his anecdote. Although Hancock was long dead, Johnson might have wished to protect the confidence of his source, Hastings, and not provoke any sort of retaliation from Mr. Stanhope the adoptive son, or any other member of the Earl’s family, against Hastings—especially given that Hastings was already, when Johnson died, in the crosshairs of imminent impeachment proceedings against him that ran from 1787-1795.

So Johnson, I suggest, settled for an injoke directed against Lord Chesterfield, which would immunize Hastings from suspicion of being the source, but would nonetheless be a matter of some joviality amongst Johnson and his trusted friends.
And so, I conclude by reproducing again this passage from Boswell’s Life, which might take on new meaning in light of the above argument:

"Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him 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.' This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot. “

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. The one linkage I was not able to establish, but I still wonder about, is whether Samuel Johnson and William Hodges knew each other—it would have been entirely possible via their common connection via Hastings, who was a great patron to Hodges, everything that Lord Chesterfield was _not_ to the young Samuel Johnson. I can find no online evidence of a Johnson-Hodges direct connection as of yet, but I still hold out hope on that one. If that evidence were also added in, it would obviously make my argument stronger.

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