This chapter is from the "Kittens: A Family Chronicle" book, by Svend Fleuron.
Those who have been content to regard the cat merely, aesthetically, as a household ornament, economically, as a mouse-killer, or fantastically, as an adjunct of witchcraft, will doubtless read this book with some surprise. For Svend Fleuron has imagined (or observed) a cat more or less cut off from relationship with men, bringing up her kittens in the fields, against all the odds that any wild animal, surrounded by the destructive terrors of nature, has to face. If this novel were a true picture of human life, it would show, relentlessly and bitterly, how nature overcame the mother and her children. As, however, it is a picture of cat life, the end is a happy one. Grey Puss is successful in the struggle and so are all her kittens. "The other farm cats' kittens were born in barn and loft and were drowned litter after litter—but she would see that her kittens grew to be cats."
In spite of the complete veracity of this chronicle, I can realize the shock which the book offers to those uninformed or insensitive persons who persist in regarding the cat as a soft plaything or a decorative coward, for, without a touch of sentimentality, Fleuron has very strikingly portrayed the courage, the resourcefulness, the patience, and the independence of Grey Puss and her multi-coloured brood. They are forced to battle for their food, to compete with the crow and the owl, to fight the fox; they are maltreated by the farmhands and pursued by the dog, Box; even their father makes a frustrated attempt to eat them; but they emerge triumphantly and each kitten, in his own manner, succeeds in making his way in the world. It is well to remember that the picture is not extraordinary or the case abnormal. Eighty out of every hundred cats, who grow up, make their way valiantly under similar disheartening circumstances.
Just as certain tame cats sometimes have decided to leave the hearth for the adventures of wild life, so Grey Puss, who had once been a children's pet, occasionally, in spite of rebuffs and the remembered treachery of man, hankers after domesticity, the milk-pail, the kitchen stove, and the soft warm hay in the barn. Several of her kittens, Grey, White, and Tiny, inherit this vague longing and eventually settle down in human habitations, but human beings, on the whole, play small and entirely inferior roles in this fine novel. They seldom step across its pages and when they do appear, we see, with Grey Puss, only their feet and their legs as high as the knee. Box, the dog, a more important character in this essentially feline drama, is painted as a good-hearted, blundering brute, always in trouble, punished for following his instincts, and finally meeting his end in an aquatic encounter with the mother heroine.
The cat as wild animal has been treated in fiction before, notably by Mary E. Wilkins in The Cat, by Charles G. D. Roberts in How a Cat Played Robinson Crusoe, and by F. St. Mars in Pharaoh. These, however, are short stories with a single hero. Fleuron has employed a broader canvas. His subtitle, A Family Chronicle, explains his scheme. He is writing the story of a family. It would have been easy to confuse kitten with kitten. Lesser writers in writing about cats have readily fallen into this error. Fleuron, however, paints distinct portraits of each separate puss. Each of these kittens differs from the others not alone in appearance but also in character and each is confronted with the rewards and punishments of his own vices and virtues. They emerge at the end of the book as rounded and recognizable and memorable as any of the characters in The Way of All Flesh. Striped Big, "thick-set and sturdy, with short tail, strong legs, and a back which merged smoothly into a plump round stomach; big attentive eyes with intelligence and intensity in their glance; small ears never at rest . . . the master-hunter of the litter," who becomes a wild cat in a deer park; Black, the quarrelsome, who "returned snarl and spit for kind word—and he never hit softly on the nose but scratched so that it hurt," who battles with crows and rats, and ends his days in the barracks among and feeling. Human characteristics are not ascribed to them. The philosophy inherent in the book is cat philosophy rather than the author's. All this would avail nothing, were it not obvious to any one who reads a very few pages that Fleuron has observed the animal very closely and sympathetically. Sentimentality is entirely lacking from this book, as it should be, but sympathy, we may be sure, is never very far away.
This novel, I like to believe, will please W. H. Hudson, who, abhorring the idea of "pets," enjoys watching an animal living its own life, unrestrained. Grey Puss and her kittens forge their own destinies, create their own careers, restricted only by their respective characters and their environment. Their lives are not regulated by owners or masters. No more, it is well to remember, are those of pet cats (The Monsieur Sidi of Cote-Darly has said truly, Nous sommes des etres libres, meme dans l'esclavage), but a house-cat is accorded a certain protection which, perhaps, softens His real nature. This, then, marks the great distinction between Kittens and such a cat biography as Pierre Loti's Vies de Deux Chattes, in which the writer very beautifully sets down an account of the lives of two of his cats: those were Loti's cats and in his book he describes, for the greater part, their relations with him. Grey Puss and her kittens are observed in their relations with nature. Their relations with man are recorded from their point of view rather than his. This is the new note in this very authentic cat story, authentic, at least, within the limitations the author has set himself. In much of the previous fiction involving the cat, puss has been handled quite in the manner of a Ouida duchess; Kittens is the feline Esther Waters.
Carl Van Vechten. New York. September 27, 1921.