Anna Letitia Barbauld, “Letter from Grimalkin to Selima”

The Introduction

Written around 1802 but not published until 1826, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s Letter From Grimalkin to Selima is a witty prose piece that presents a satire of the conduct literature disseminated during Barbauld’s formative years.  Featuring two domestic cats as her characters, Barbauld utilizes a tri-fold satirical approach, parodying the female character, the form and the content of conduct literature, in order to advance an argument for the silliness and impracticalness of its teachings for young women.  Letter From Grimalkin to Selima also acts as an interesting piece from which to examine Barbauld’s complicated political relationship to Mary Wollstonecraft and the two influential women’s approaches to the debatable issue of female education.

Barbauld’s selection of cats for her characters in Letter From Grimalkin to Selima was most definitely not a coincidental choice.  Cats, both in Barbauld’s time period and in our contemporary culture, represent domesticity.  Historically, females were reserved exclusively to the domestic sphere as it was thought unpropitious for women to engage in social or political matters outside of the home. In drawing a direct comparison between women and cats, Barbauld is offering a deep critique of treatment of women as animals in the genre of conduct literature. In this literature, women were treated as merely bodies of beauty who’s purpose in life was to capture a man and then to carry out his wishes. This was a point of contention for Barbauld as she struggled personally with the boundaries set against her sex (McCarthy & Kraft 25).  Barbauld was constantly searching for avenues into the public sphere without severely compromising her female propriety.  The names of the cats also play an intentional role in the audience’s satirical interpretation of the text.  “Grimalkin” or greymalkin was a common term for an old or evil female cat that had come to colloquially refer to an elderly woman (McCarthy & Kraft 356).  Barbauld’s use of the name “Selima” is thought to have stemmed from the poem “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” written by Thoms Gray (McCarthy & Kraft 356).  In this poem, the demure tabby cat Selima finds herself drowning in a fish bowl after she is overcome by her avarice.  Gray describes Selima as “fair”, “demure”, “snowy”, “reclined”.  These adjectives capture the ideal perfect woman as she is described in the conduct literature: a pure and gentle creature who is not fit for toil or labour of any sort.  Images are conjured up of women lounging sleepily on couches with their lapdogs.  Barbauld utilizes this typical female portrait as a platform for her satire as she advocates that the female character should be regarded as much useful, practical, and interesting than the domesticated feline portrayal provided in the contemporary conduct literature.

Secondly, the structure of Barbauld’s work acts as a parody of the structure of many publications of female conduct literature.  Barbauld’s text is written as a letter from a mother cat to her young, female kitten.  This parent-to-daughter letter format was seen in many female guidance publications, such as A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters by John Gregory and also in An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters in a Letter by Sarah Pennington.  Textual confirmation of this parody is evidenced by Barbauld’s replication of Pennington’s signature at the end of her work.  Pennington signed “Your Affectionate Mother” and Barbauld end her work with “Signed by the paw of you affectionate mother”.  Barbauld draws in again the satirical imagery by mentioning “the paw” but more importantly she is drawing a distinct relationship between her work and female conduct literature.

The most specific and significant examples of Barbauld’s parody of female guidance literature come through the content of her Letter From Grimalkin to Selima.  Barbauld’s work presents snippets of satirical commentary on some of the most common conduct book literature topics such as acceptable female behaviour, female domesticity and care for the home, and appropriate indulgences of entertainment.  To begin, Grimalkin reminds Selima: “life is not to be spent in running after your own tail.  Remember you were sent into the world to catch rats and mice” (McCarthy & Kraft 356). In this section, Barbauld makes reference the confined lifestyle held by women in her era.  They were “sent into the world” with the sole purpose of being wives and mothers and, in most cases, their existence beyond that spectrum was of no value to society.  Secondly, the idea of catching rats alludes to a female’s duty to “catch” a husband.  A woman was raised and educated only in order to become a suitable mate for the opposite sex.  The greater the “smattering of accomplishments” a young lady had – whether it be painting, drawing, singing, or sewing – the better a potential wife she was considered to be.  Barbauld parody of this delusional approach reveals the curiousity of such a notion.  Grimalkin goes on to warn to Selima how she must be prepared to endure ridicule without retaliation (McCarthy & Kraft 358).  This meek and passive female behaviour was advocated in many conduct literature books such as John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters where he praises the silent and demure female who blushes at flattery and never exposes her intelligence in the company of gentlemen.  Another example appears in the writing of famous conduct book author Hannah More: “it is of the last importance to their happiness in life that they [women] should acquire a submissive temper and forbearing spirit.  They must even endure to be thought wrong sometimes, when they cannot but feel they are right”.  Barbauld compares such torture to being “lugged about, pinched and pulled by the tail, and played a thousand tricks with” (McCarthy & Kraft 358).  The animalistic quality of Barbauld’s language emphasizes the parody of the statement: what seemed like acceptable instruction in the conduct books is unveiled as preposterous when placed in satirical form.  Finally, Grimalkin explains to the Selima the types of pleasures she is allowed to indulge in while in the country or the city.  This section of Letter From Grimalkin to Selima harkens back to Wollstonecraft’s complaints of a female’s “smattering of accomplishments” where we are again drawn to the frivolity of the ideal female character painted in conduct literature. Grimalkin describes “catching butterflies, climbing trees, and watching birds” in the country or visiting with acquaintances or frequenting concerts in the city (McCarthy & Kraft 359). The trivial nature and, frankly, worthlessness of female indulgences becomes obvious in this passage. Overall, Barbauld’s clever use of borderline indignant satire creates a clear representation of her belief in the wealth of issues in what was contained in female conduct literature and what was promoted as ideal, appropriate female behaviours.

However, interesting, many of Barbauld’s contemporaries did not read her as such a feminist supporter.  As William McCarthy explores in his book Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of Enlightenment, Barbauld was seen as being an anti-feminist foil to the radical and political Mary Wollstonecraft.  This belief stemmed from Barbauld’s “reaction” to Wollstonecraft’s 1792 publication A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  For Barbauld, reading Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was undoubtedly “a turbulent experience” (McCarthy 351).  On one hand, she had read and even written some of the works Wollstonecraft deeply undercut in her work, but on the other she did fundamentally agree with Wollstonecraft’s overarching argument for more practical female education (McCarthy 351-352).  Barbauld’s poem “The Right’s of Women” published by Lucy Aikin in 1825 is believed to be, because of its title, Barbauld’s response to Wollstonecraft’s original work (McCarthy 352).  As William McCarthy ingeniously asserts in his book, while Barbauld’s poem was originally read as evidence to that Barbauld was far from a “Wollstoncraftian”, McCarthy argues that it should be much more delicately read as merely Barbauld “working-through” her feeling for the piece (McCarthy 352).  This reading would not only be much more consistent with Barbauld’s emotions expressed in the poem and seems to give a more accurate, multi-dimensional image of Barbauld.  Given the ideas expressed so satirically in Letter From Grimalkin to Selima and her unique educational upbringing, painting Barbauld, as her contemporaries did, as an anti-feminist, Tory radical seems like an inappropriate label.  It may be true Barbauld struggled with the tensions between the appropriate female conduct of the day and the political radical female position more than authors like Wollstonecraft, but it definitely seems unfair to discount her political pursuance of radical change for females.

Barbauld’s message in Letter From Grimalkin to Selima seems to be an irrefutable one: there is something drastically worrisome about the behaviour and lifestyle being advocated in female conduct literature.  Barbauld’s use of satire to showcase the flaws in her contemporary culture’s understanding of women and their role in society is brilliantly executed in this brief and cheeky prose piece. The historical context surrounding Letter From Grimalkin to Selima only makes in that much more impressive as female conduct literature publications were still in their height of popularity. Barbauld’s contentious argument in this work illustrates her political fearless, especially as a female writer in a time period where women were greatly disadvantaged in the public sphere.  Letter From Grimalkin to Selima strikes the perfect balance between wit and wisdom as Barbauld expresses her personal convictions through female caricatures.

The Text

The piece that appears below is the only known version of this work.  It is suspected to have been written around 1802 and was first published in 1826 in A Legacy for Young Ladies.

My dear Selima,

As you are now going to quit the fostering care of a mother, to enter, young as you are, into the wide world, and conduct your-self by your own prudence, I cannot forbear giving you some parting advice in this important era of you life.

Your extreme youth, make me particularly anxious for your welfare.  In the first place then, let me beg you to remember that life is not to be spent in running after your own tail.  Remember you were sent into the world to catch rats and mice.  It is for this you are furnished with sharp claws, whiskers to improve you scent, (1) and with such an elasticity and spring in your limbs.  Never lose sigh of this great end of your existence.  When you and your sister are jumping over my back, and kicking and scratching one another’s noses, you are indulging the propensities of your nature, and perfecting your-selves in agility and dexterity.  But remember that these frolics are only preparatory to the grand scene of action.  Life is long, but youth is short.  The gaiety of the kitten will most assuredly go off.  In a few months, nay even weeks, those spirits and that playfulness, which now exhilarate all who behold you, will subside; and I beg you to reflect how contemptible you will be, if you should have the gravity of an old cat without that usefulness which alone can ensure respect and protection for you maturer years.

In the first place, my dear child, obtain a command over your appetites, and take care that no tempting opportunity ever induces you to make free with the pantry or larder of your mistress.   You may possibly slip in and out without observation; you may lap a little cream, or run away with a chop without its being missed: but depend upon it, such practices sooner or later will be found out; and if in a single instance you are discovered, every thing which is missing will be charged upon you.  If Mrs. Betty or Mrs. Susan (2) chooses to regale herself with a cold breast of chicken which was set by for supper, – you will have clawed it; or raspberry cream, – you will have lapped it.  Nor is this all.  If you have once thrown down a single cup in your eagerness to get out of the storeroom, every china plate and dish that is ever broken in the house, you will have broken it; and though your back promises to be pretty broad, it will not be broad enough for all the mischief that will be laid upon it.  Honesty you will find is the best policy.

Remember that the true pleasures of life consist in the exertion of our own powers.  If you were to feast every day upon roasted partridges from off Dresden china, (3) and dip your whiskers in syllabubs (4) and creams, it could never give you such true enjoyment as the commonest food procured by the labour of your own paws.  When you have once tasted the exquisite pleasure of catching and playing with a mouse, you will despise the gratification of artificial dainties.

I do not with some moralists call cleanliness a half virtue only.  Remember it is one of the most essential to your sex and station; and if ever you should fail in it, I sincerely hope Mrs. Susan will bestow upon you a good whipping.

Pray do no spit at strangers who do you the honour to take notice of you.  It is very uncivil behaviour, and I have often wondered that kittens of any breeding should be guilty of it.

Avoid thrusting your nose into every closet and cupboard, – unless indeed you smell mice; in which case it is very becoming.

Should you live, as I hope you will, to see the children of your patroness, you must prepare yourself to exercise that branch of fortitude which consists in patient endurance: for you must expect to be lugged about, pinched and pulled by the tail, and played a thousand tricks with; all which you must bear without putting out a claw: for you may depend upon it, if you attempt the least retaliation you will for ever lose the favour of your mistress.

Should there be favourites in the house, such as tame birds, dormice, or a squirrel, great will be your temptations.  In such a circumstance, if the cage hangs low and the door happens to be left open, – to govern your appetite I know will be a difficult task.  But remember that nothing is impossible to the governing mind; and that there are instances upon record of cats who, in the exercise of self-government, have overcome the strongest propensities of their nature.

If you would make yourself agreeable to your mistress, you must observe times and seasons.  You must not startle her by jumping upon her in a rude manner: and above all, be sure to sheathe your claws when you lat your paw upon her lap.

You have like myself been brought up in the country, and I fear you may regret the amusements it affords; such as catching butterflies, climbing trees, and watching birds from the windows, which I have done with great delight for a whole morning together.  But these pleasures are not essential.  A town life has also its gratifications.  You may make many pleasant acquaintances in the neighbouring courts and alleys.  A concert upon the tiles (5) in a find moonlight summer’s evening may at once gratify your ear and your social feelings.  Rats and mice are to be met with everywhere: and at any rate you have reason to be thankful that so creditable a situation has been found for you (6); without which you must have following the fate of your poor brothers, and with a stone about your neck have been drowned in the next pond (7).

It is only when you have kittens yourself, that you will be able to appreciate the cares of a mother.  How unruly have you been when I wanted to wash you face!  how undutiful in galloping about the room instead of coming immediately when I called you!  But nothing can subdue the affections of a parent.  Being grave and thoughtful in my nature, and having the advantage of residing in a literary family, I have mused deeply on the subject of education; I have poured by moonlight over Locke (8), and Edgeworth (9), and Mrs. Hamilton (10), and the laws of association (11): but after much cogitation (12) I am only convinced of this, that kittens will be kittens, and old cats old cats.  May you, my dear child, be an honour to all your relations and to the whole feline race.  May you see you descendants of the fiftieth generation.  And when you depart this life, may the lamentations of you kindred exceed in pathos the melody of an Irish howl. (13)

Signed by the paw of your affectionate mother, (14)


(Page images from The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld Vol. 2, 1826)