Blatherings

A Very Dangerous Woman in America

Dangerous Woman.10

Today is North American publication day for A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia’s Most Seductive Spy, the new biography of spy, seductress and woman of amazing strength and character Baroness Moura Budberg, which I co-authored with Deborah McDonald.

To mark the occasion, I have two online pieces about the book. The first, co-written with Deborah, is at History News Network. The other is at Wonders & Marvels. As a bonus, W&M has two copies of the book to give away.

For news and info about the book, go to mourabudberg.com or the linked Facebook page.

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: How Lewis Carroll stole the Cheshire Cat

Wonders, curiosities and found facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable incidental details which rarely make it into the books. Here I bring them out of the margins and explore them in more depth.

Today: Cheshire Cats, with bonus British imperialism!


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“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

The Cheshire Cat is one of the most memorable characters in a book which is largely famous for its memorable characters. The Cat’s grin has become part of the language – to “grin like a Cheshire Cat” is a stock expression, with or without vanishing. But, as with the madness of hatters, Lewis Carroll didn’t actually invent the Cheshire Cat – at least, not all of it – though you wouldn’t guess that from the book, in which Alice has clearly never heard the expression:

“Please could you tell me,” said Alice, a little timidly, for she was not quite sure whether it was good manners for her to speak first, “why your cat grins like that?”

“It’s a Cheshire-Cat,” said the Duchess, “and that’s why.”

“I didn’t know that Cheshire-Cats always grinned; in fact, I didn’t know that cats could grin.”

“They all can,” said the Duchess; “and most of ’em do.”

NPG P7(26), Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832–1898) in June 1857 (source: Wikipedia)

In fact, “grinning like a Cheshire cat” had been around for at least eighty years when Carroll wrote this story in 1865, as a curiously obscure piece of slang which puzzled lexicographers even then. Where does it come from, and why? I stumbled across it while looking in an early 19th century slang dictionary for a reference to the early days of the Chelsea military hospital, where “to get Chelsea” appears alongside “Cheese toaster” (a sword) and “Cheshire-cat”. I decided to look further, and found a mystery.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017