“Letter from Grimalkin to Selima”

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)

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