Report // Emma Thiébaut (LARCA), “Beyond Genus and Genre: the (Nonsense) Politics of Animality in the Life and Works of M.E.W. Freeman,” 1 March 2024

Link to original event here.

Emma Thiébault’s talk delved into Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s short stories and personal correspondence to uncover how her writing, whether fictional, semi-autobiographical or epistolary, repeatedly and deliberately queers the culture of pet-owning. A proud owner of several cats herself, Freeman revered the bonds that tie together pets and their owners, paying tribute to many of her beloved felines in her tales. Thiébault argued that, for Freeman, interspecies love becomes a creative space where queer affective identities are expressed and experimented with under the guise of a more innocent and childish attachment.

The first story Thiébault discussed was “An Object of Love” (1884), which centres on Ann, a celibate woman who loses her faith in God when her beloved cat Willy goes missing. Thiébault posited that Willy is himself the unmistakeable object of Ann’s devotion who acts as the nexus of Ann’s domestic spirituality and around whom her religious worship is structured, justifying how the disappearance of the cat results in the erosion of her faith. Noting the prevalence of the language of religious reverence in contemporary confessions of romantic love (notably, in personal correspondence), Thiébault demonstrated that Ann’s love for her cat is coded as not only spiritual but romantic, which is further reinforced by the story’s publication on Valentine’s day.

Despite the tale’s layered subtext, Thiébault noted that the word “love” only appears once and only in the story’s title, while being completely absent in the body of the text, much like Willy himself, who only returns at the end of the narrative. Willy’s disappearance makes it impossible for Ann to express her love for him, be it verbally or physically with the help of food and pets, all the more so because of the disapproval of her community. Consequently, all she can do is regret his absence, which, Thiébault showed, inscribes love in the negative space of the story. According to Thiébault, it is a love that will not acknowledge itself, will not “say its name,” drawing an obvious parallel with sapphic love and encoding queer affect into the inexpressible feelings that characterise the experience of pet ownership.

The second story that Thiébault read was “The Little Persian Princess” (1889), which is nestled deep within the context of Freeman’s private relationship with her editor, Mary Louise Booth. The women’s correspondence hints at Freeman’s romantic feelings for Booth, which she was careful to differentiate from a sisterly bond by filling her letters with romantic imagery borrowed from sentimental literature and adopting the epistolary persona of her addressee’s suitor. The exchange of letters and stories performed and deepened the affective proximity between the two women, culminating, as Thiébault demonstrated, in Freeman’s writing of “The Little Persian Princess,” a tribute to Booth, in which the latter secretly figures as a character.

In the story, two royals are transformed into cats and are subsequently adopted into the household of two ladies. Thiébault pointed out that the secret to these fictionalised women’s identities lies in the names they give to their new pets—“Vashti” and “Muff,” after Booth’s own two cats. Thiébault described the tale as one of “transformation and secret recognition” in that the felines’ names act as a key to accessing not only the women’s identities but also to revealing the queer nature of the ladies’ cohabitation, discretely unveiling the sapphic household. Thiébault argued that “The Little Persian Princess” is itself a kind of love-letter from Freeman to her beloved editor, one that perfectly embodies their relationship at the intersection between the intimately personal and the commercial.

In the final section of her talk, Thiébault explored yet another queer dimension of felinity, namely its haptic output. Petting or caressing, the central practice used to deepen the affective bonds between cat and owner in “The Object of Love” and “The Persian Princess,” is a non-penetrative gesture used to distribute mutual pleasure, evoking sapphic eroticism. This covert sensual practice is likewise extended to the reader, similarly implicating her in the clandestine sapphic bonds on the page, Thiébault noted, as holding the text is itself a form of a subtle caress. The childlike innocence of Freeman’s feline vocabulary (“Kitten,” “Pussy”) as well as of all the aforementioned tactile practices—stroking a cat’s fur, handling letters, holding a book—protects sapphic sexuality from unambiguous discovery by shrouding it in uncertainty. In Freeman’s creative tributes to pet ownership and interspecies love, queerness figures as a perpetual possibility: always there, yet never confirmed.

The subsequent discussion became a collaborative effort aimed at placing Thiébault’s discoveries in the larger context of pet-ownership in the nineteenth-century United States. Most notably, the conversation focused on urban middle-class practices of pet-keeping, in which cats were transformed into treasured companions, which contrasts sharply with their functional utility in more rural settings. The history of association between felinity and sapphic sexuality was likewise touched on by Thiébault and her audience.

Citer ce billet
Anna Shmatenko (2024, 2 avril). Report // Emma Thiébaut (LARCA), “Beyond Genus and Genre: the (Nonsense) Politics of Animality in the Life and Works of M.E.W. Freeman,” 1 March 2024. A19. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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A propos Anna Shmatenko

Anna Shmatenko holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Anglophone Studies from Sorbonne Université. She is interested in the representations of liminal states between life and death in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States.

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