Sue Gee on Kathleen Hale, the Orlando books - Slightly Foxed Issue 14

On the Broad Shoulders of a Eunuch Cat

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In 1917, Kathleen Hale arrived in London, fresh out of art school, ‘with only a few shillings in my pocket, my pince-nez delicately chained to one ear and no qualifications whatsoever for earning a living’. Her appalled mother wrote demanding that she return at once to Manchester, and take a shorthand-typing course. Not for the first time, Kathleen refused to obey. ‘I am not going to learn to type. I am going to be an artist. You can send a policeman to fetch me, but I shall come back to London again and again.’ Mother gave up.

If, like me, you are continually aware of your inadequacies when conversing with your clever, fully educated friends, you will, like me, find Kathleen Hale enormously reassuring. She did no homework. She knew no facts. But everyone loved her. In person, as on the page, she was a complete individual: spontaneous, funny, affectionate. Also possessed of enormous artistic gifts, and discipline. Harness those two together, let a handsome father-figure cat pad out of the unconscious and head up the perfect family, put them unblinkingly into any and every adventure, and you have created a classic.

As a child I adored Kathleen Hale’s Orlando books, featuring the adventures of Orlando the Marmalade Cat, his wife Grace and their family, and when my sister-in-law, a bit of a rare book dealer on the quiet, gave me her autobiography as a birthday present last year I was enchanted. Written, like the Orlando books, entirely for the author’s own enjoyment, A Slender Reputation is also, I think, a classic. It contains not a dull line and offers an entirely beguiling portrait of an artist and a century.

Kathleen Hale was born in Manchester in 1898, the third child of a vicar’s daughter and an agent for Chappell Pianos. They were well-off and largely contented, but when Kathleen was five her father died of what was then known as General Paralysis of the Insane, a dreadful consequence of syphilis, fortunately not p

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About the contributor

Sue Gee’s novel, Reading in Bed, was published in 2007. She lives with a splendid cat.

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