Bookscapes: The Fur Person

This enchanting 1957 cat-memoir by May Sarton may be the grandmother of the current litter of cat-cozies, a fact that may or may not endear it to you, depending on how you feel about cats and cozies. I ran across it on my shelf last week and sat down with it immediately, remembering the great pleasure it has given me over the years.

The Fur Person chronicles the adventures of Tom Jones, a Cat About Town who lives wild and free on the streets of Boston until he reaches a certain age and begins to see the virtue in reliable meals, a warm bed, and a comfortable lap. After several abortive attempts to hire a Housekeeper, he finally finds two, Brusque Voice (May Sarton) and Gentle Voice (her companion Judy Matlack), who take him in and provide fresh haddock (his favorite), warm milk, chopped liver, and even (yes!) catnip. Fighting Tom learns that cat-life is calmer and more rewarding after a certain . . . alteration in his tomcat-nature. By the end of the book, he has become a Fur Person, who loves and is loved by a human person.

The delight of this little book is in the telling, in the narrator’s distinctive voice. From the first sentence (When he was about two years old, and had been a Cat About Town for some time, glorious in conquests, but rather too thin for comfort, the Fur Person decided that it was time he settled down) to the Eleventh Commandment (A Gentleman Cat becomes a Fur Person when he is truly loved by a human being), the story is as charming and comforting as a warm scone with a spoonful of lemon curd and a cup of hot tea.

And those Commandments (When frightened, a Gentleman Cat looks bored)? I confess to having been under their influence when Bosworth Badger (who lives on Holly How in my series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter) presented me with the Badger Rules of Thumb:

–Badger First Rule of Thumb: Do not on any account approach a human, for they are not trustworthy.
–Second Rule of Thumb: Beware of all dogs, and especially of terriers, for it is safe to say that they do not have a badger’s best interests at heart.
–Third Rule of Thumb (the Aiding and Abetting Rule): One must be as helpful to other animals as one can, for one never knows when one will require help oneself.
–Fourth Rule of Thumb: Take no notice of friends and colleagues who find they must depart without begging leave, for they may be compelled by urgent circumstance.

As I recall, eighteen of these Rules crop up from time to time in the eight Tales. I very much enjoyed writing about Miss Potter, her farm, her village, and her Little Books. But through the years I spent working on the series, it was the animals who gave me the greatest delight. I’ve been forever grateful to May Sarton for creating Tom Jones, the Gentleman Cat whose Commandments proved so inspiring.

Reading note. So the badger poked up the fire, poured himself another cup of tea, and went back to the History to read the curious story of the Fern Vale dwelves, a story (he suspected) that was mostly unknown to the Big Folk. Of course, that sort of thing wasn’t at all unusual, for although the human residents of the Land between the Lakes thought they knew everything about their surroundings, and although scholarly books related the history, inventoried the animals and plants, and catalogued the folktales, people were aware of only a fraction of what went on around them. One was not criticizing when one said this; one was simply stating the fact. Humans, by and large, were ignorant of the mysteries of life and land.–The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, Susan Wittig Albert


32 comments on “Bookscapes: The Fur Person

  1. Thanks for the reminder of your series and The Fur Person. Such delightful books for this cat person (4 let me live with them at present).

  2. I hadn’t thought so much darker as reflective of her reality. To be darker, per se, I think there would need to be a deliberate shading of the mood as the writer is composing the text. More a novelist’s device than a memoirist’s reporting.

  3. Linda, what a lovely little story your book brought you (and now us)–an extra story, really, that gives May Sarton’s story an extra meaning. It’s also a reminder of how important shared books are in our lives. Thank you!

  4. Hi Susan and other readers. I was intrigued after reading your descriptions and admiration for the Fur Person” so I went online to find a copy, specifically one with illustrations by Barbara Knox.
    I received a delightful old copy (love old worn books) with this hand written, heartfelt message on the inside cover in cursive:

    “For my Mother – And my Father. For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – for Valentine’s Day too – for birthdays past and birthdays future – For everyday – and mostly – for you both because I love you so”.

    I thought what a beloved story this must be to have invoked those words. I still haven’t read the book, but I HAVE read that message over and over wishing I could have expressed my love for my parents so eloquently. Every time I read Mary’s words, I feel like I’m doing just that. At 70 years old I still miss my parents every single day. So a shout out and thanks to Mary for helping me express those feelings now. It’s never too late.

    Thank you to Susan too for telling us about this extraordinary book.

    Blessings to all.

  5. I just looked up Paul Gallico, too! My goodness, he wrote “Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris,” my favorite winter movie (Angela Lansbury) and Tomasina (my favorite Disney movie!). Will also read May’s book now!

  6. If you were charmed by the “rules” in this book, I would remind you of two of my favorites: The Abandoned and The Silent Miaow. Both by Paul Gallico. “When in doubt, wash”

  7. Mary Jo, lovely to know that you have your mother’s copy of Sarton’s book. It came out when I was in high school, and that was a LONG time ago. I think it must have been very personal to her–perhaps even more personal than the poetry, which has always felt stylized to me, as if she was writing for a literary audience. Wonder if Fur Person might have been written for Judy.

  8. I just pulled my copy from the bookshelf and had forgotten it was one of my mother’s books. Made me smile. I love the idea of reviewing a long ago written book that’s timeless. Happy Sunday!

  9. People have sometimes asked if Rita Mae Brown’s animals were an influence on the Cottage Tales, Mary Karen–and I have to say, not so much. RMB doesn’t use a Victorian narrator, because her animals are Thoroughly Modern. The Cottage Tales are Victorian/Edwardian, so their narrator has an older, more teacherly tone–very much like Sarton’s in Fur Person. Re: the darker books. Sarton wasn’t happy with the way her work was viewed by the eastern literary establishment, and it colored some of her writing. And she was, as she describes herself in Fur Person, by nature “brusque” (“ascerbic” might have done as well). She didn’t suffer fools gladly.

  10. The Fur Person is one of my favorite books. Of course, that’s a long list, but it’s right near the top! 🙂

  11. I enjoyed many of May Satron’s novels and journals. Perhaps I just “lucked out” and didn’t end up with the darker writings? I do see that I have a copy of “At Eighty-Two”, which I haven’t yet read. “The Fur Person”, however, is one of my favorite books and is on my shelf of cat reads…as it is with Nina, above! I should have realized that it was an inspiration for you, Susan, when creating your delightful Cottage Tales!

  12. I am an unbashed cat lover, so was delighted to get your recommendation. The Fur Person is now downloaded to my Kindle and ready to read.

  13. Glad to hear from a Cottage Tales reader–yes, I think you’ll like Sarton’s little book. You might see some similarities in the Cottage Tales narrator, too. 🙂

  14. The later journals are darker, don’t you think, as her health becomes more precarious. I haven’t read all of her novels.

  15. Thank you, thank you! I loved the Cottage Tales and will read them all again. And thank you for The Fur Person. First I’d heard of it, and I will order it right away.

  16. It was immediate love when I saw (and read) The Fur Person. I suggest if one is put off by May Sarton’s books that her journals are another kettle of fish entirely. When in my 50s I read Encore, and marked so many pages I decided to read each one in order of aging, as road maps of a kind for my own journey. Many of her reflections also humanize her earlier life and work, as I get to know her better. I turned 70 this year and am still at it!

  17. I understand, Carolyn. After that first journal, she was unfailingly honest; she didn’t sugarcoat anything. I find that honesty appealing, but I don’t try to read any of her work back-to-back.

  18. Laurie, I’m so happy to see the word “joyfully” in your note. The fantasy in those books was a major change of pace for me, and I delighted in it. Miss Potter was rather predictable, but I literally never knew, when I began a book, what those animals would get up to. For me, they were pure joy.

  19. I tried to read May Sarton years ago, but found her depressing and annoying. One rainy day I was in my local library and saw she had a new book. I decided to give her one more try, The librarian asked if I was sure I wanted to take her book out on such a miserable day. I don’t think I read it.

  20. I am delighted to read about Tom Jones, the fur person and will be ordering that book. My associations with cats, wild and tame, on the ranch in Wyoming where I grew up, were such fun.
    And I am rereading the Beatrix Potter books joyfully. I just finished reading the China Bayles books from the beginning till I got to books I read recently and remembered. Then I went to Margaret Maron’s series about Deborah Knott, young woman judge in North Carolina, and am rereading them.

  21. We got a tiny bit. I sent my daughter who lives in Colorado a picture of our roof with a tiny dusting and she laughed and laughed! I have always lived in the Dallas area, and remember as a child we would get at least 2 good snows. What good memories!

  22. I agree, Linda–we all need a comfort read right about now! Did you get any of that snow the other night?

  23. I absolutely need to read this book! I am a big fan of your Cottage Tales books, and I loved the “Cat Who..” series. ( And I really need a good read right now.)
    Thanks so much for the this post!!

  24. I like your word “kindness,” Nina, and agree that this little book is more generous than her other work. Interesting that she can feel such empathy with a cat–in the book, she is able (almost) to purr. But less with human persons.

  25. Ah, The Fur Person! A favorite of mine for decades – still on my shelf of cat books — perhaps May Sarton’s kindest work.

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