Critical Introduction to “Letter from Grimalkin to Selima”

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.

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