The Feline Mystique

By E.C. McCarthyApril 1, 2012

The Feline Mystique


Cover Art: Sean Tejaratchi

FETISH IS A FELINE WORD on paper, a mocking mirror of a cat's winding tail. The "t," the "s," and the "h" curve deliciously around that Freudian "i" with a light touch that implies a questionable, mutated Id: an excellent metaphor for the late 19th century fixation on cat corsets and their indomitable mannequins.

Mungojerrie: A Brief History of the Cat Corset is Paula Merriman's first book and, given its provocative content, unlikely to be her last. In it she posits that negative reactions to the cat corset craze influenced future generations of artists and writers, most notably T.S. Eliot, to "unlace" the feminine form. Eliot was undeniably taken with cats, as evidenced by his cat-themed compendium, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. His "knockabout clown" Mungojerrie, of "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer" fame, serves as Merriman's muse — the roguish male eyes through which she deciphers the long-range effects of America's "rampant obsession" with corseted cats that resulted in the "first feminist outcry" in the early 1900s. "Feminism is a feline concept," Merriman concludes, inexplicably excluding bitches and other she-mammals who undoubtedly have similar leanings.

Merriman opens her book with a Google search for "cat corset" that returns a mélange of frightening offerings: Playboy Bossy Kitty, Lava Diva, Black Cat Corsetry, etc. — an infinite scroll of homely women posing "tail up." There are zero photos of cats in corsets, however, and this is for very good reason. It is nigh impossible to get a corset onto a cat. My Rolodex produced only one friend willing to let me try one on her cat (Rufus) and I was the rueful loser of a very short game of dress the kitty. (Conversely, my dog, Johnnie, had no problem wearing the undergarment, although he refused to sit for a photograph.)

The complex reaction one experiences when viewing corseted cats is, admittedly, validated by Eliot's words. At first glance, the photos themselves aren't much to look at: 15 sepia-toned mugshots that could easily be the work of one photographer. Yet the cats command your attention with come-hither gazes and eerily slutty poses. You can almost hear the mewing. Eliot's anthropomorphizing, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's later experimentation with leotards, suddenly crystallizes with disconcerting clarity. These cats know you're watching. They want you to look. The cat is domesticated yet it dominates, a possible harbinger of the post-sixties feminist deflation. These cats wear the bra where later cats burned it.

Proof of Merriman's "cat corset fad" is not in evidence so much as her keen ear for bondage tropes. Case in point: the word "corset" does not appear once in Practical Cats, yet Merriman persists in quoting Eliot throughout her misguided, pictorial journey, turning "If the drawers were pulled out from the bedroom chests / and you couldn't find one of your winter vests" into a three-chapter discussion of contemporary society's demeaning substitution of the word "chest" for "boobs." She has missed the point entirely. Merriman avers that Mungojerrie was Eliot's feminist ideal, a tomcat who went about his daily business without the base preoccupations of heaving and humping. Readers are encouraged to "paw between the lines" into Mungojerrie's "advanced male cattitude," while a photograph on the opposite page dares them to consider the delicate boning of black lace lingerie on a doleful tabby. The only proven notion here is that Merriman is masterful at muddled metaphors.

Where the book manages to turn a corner is in Merriman's ethical treatment of cats as people. "Cats are not people," she insists, releasing the book's unhappy subjects from any obligation to feel ashamed of their behavior, which is a very good thing if Eliot is to be believed; cats wouldn't feel ashamed even if they were people, and then where would we be? 

The glaring, insurmountable omission in this text is Rumpelteazer. Old Rumps, Mungojerrie's "partner" in Eliot's story, is excised from Merriman's discussion entirely. Literature's most famous feral duo pose a direct threat to Merriman's corset-as-Eliot-influencer-come-feminist-movement theory, since the two males spend most of their time together, dress as dandies, rob houses, and ignore the ladies except to steal their pearls. Merriman doesn't entertain the possibility that Mungojerrie has no eye for the fairer sex, and Rumpelteazer is conveniently written out of the cat corset narrative in a blatant rejection of legalized gay marriage. 

The logical conclusion to reading this slim volume is to turn directly to one's computer and begin a soulless search for further understanding of one's own compulsion to buy, read, and (worse) finish the book. And finish it you will. The crafty genius of Merriman's prose combined with racy, not-to-be-believed photographs is the foolproof recipe of today's nonfiction winner. While the literary world endorses Merriman's convoluted treatise as "an achievement," it is women and cats who are left holding the laces.


LARB Contributor

E.C. McCarthy is Deputy Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Los Angeles.


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