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MONTHLY BLOG 130, MEANINGS OF BEING PENELOPE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.

ENDNOTES:

1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 117, AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FOLLY-BUILDER & CAT-LOVER

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)


Public monuments to cats – as opposed to literary, artistic and musical celebrations1 – are rare to find, especially dating from the eighteenth century. So this majestic example deserves full appreciation. The lordly cat sits atop a giant Grecian vase, all forming the substantial Cat Monument.2 It was designed in 1749 and built c.1770 in the new weatherproof composite known as Coade Stone.3 Erected at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire, the Monument was commissioned by Thomas Anson (c.1695-1773). He was the felinophile, who owned the estate and had the wealth as well as the space to indulge his taste for architectural patronage in full.

Curiously enough, the identity of this publicly honoured cat remains uncertain. One strong possibility is that it commemorates Thomas Anton’s own favoured pet, named Khouli-Khan. This cat was the last of a line of Persian cats owned by the family. Hence, behind the luxuriant mustachios on the Monument’s lordly feline, the statue may show the round face and short muzzle that is characteristic of that particular breed.

Another possibility, however, is that the honoured cat was the adventurous moggy who circumnavigated the globe in the years 1740-44 with Admiral George Anson (1697-1762). He was the much admired younger brother of Thomas Anson. And the childless George Anson had bequeathed his great fortune, based upon Spanish treasure, to his older sibling. As a result, some of the monuments and memorabilia at Shugborough Park were devised as fraternal tributes to the circumnavigator. In that context, therefore, it is possible that the Cat Monument commemorates the circumnavigating cat.

Throughout this period (as in earlier and later eras), thousands of feline pest controllers travelled the high seas.4 They dined on the mice and rats which infested the wooden ships of the commercial fleet and the Royal Navy. (Keeping pets on board was banned by the British Navy only in 1975). Often these sailing cats were adopted by the crews as informal mascots. The feline companion (name unknown) of George Anson seems to have been a talisman of that ilk. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Cat Monument commemorates not one specific cat but human admiration for the species generically. The design is certainly eclectic. Around the Monument’s plinth are the carved heads of Corinthian goats, which were kept on the Shugborough Park estate c.1768. But the lofty cat is the king.

Accompanying the Monument, meanwhile, Anson commissioned an extraordinary array of follies and fancies.5 The Chinese House (1747) is one of the earliest examples of oriental design in Britain. A Gothic Ruin, complete with a gothic pigeon-house, followed in 1750. The Shepherd’s Monument was built in the later 1750s, taking the form of an ornamental arch around a pastoral bas-relief. (Two outer pillars and a classic pediment were added in 1763). A Doric Temple followed in c.1760. The massive Hadrian’s Arch was then erected in 1762, at a high point on the estate with extensive views. Built in a style borrowed from classical Athens, the design was adapted as a tribute to George Anson, who died in 1762, and George’s wife Elizabeth. A Tower of the Winds, based upon the Athens’ Horologium of Andronikos, was created in 1765, initially with a surrounding pool of water, which was lost in the course of flood damage on the estate in 1795. And in 1771 the Lanthorn of Demosthenes, based upon the design of an Athenian house dating from 4BCE, completed Anson’s career as an alfresco architectural patron. (He also remodelled the ancestral Shugborough Hall and amassed a collection of memorabilia).

Amongst this eclectic miscellany of edifices, the Cat Monument more than holds its own. It has a stately presence, framed by trees. It is not overawed by its Gothic, Oriental, Doric or Corinthian monumental companions, elsewhere in Shugborough Park. Whether it commemorates one adventurous globe-trotting feline, or one exotic Persian cat, or all cats generically, it makes its point finely.

Fig.2.1-3 Three Shugborough Park Monuments, Commissioned by Thomas Anson:
(L) The Shepherd’s Monument (later 1750s; expanded 1763)
(Centre) The Cat Monument (designed 1749; built c.1770)
(R) Hadrian’s Arch (1762), adapted as a tribute to Admiral George Anson and his wife Elizabeth.

Around the globe – and at home in Staffordshire – feline companionship is something to admire. A cat may look at an admiral or at a country landowner (and MP) or at a king. And humans look closely at these classic domestic companions too. At a time of global crisis, compounded of climatic, epidemiological, economic and political challenges, it is as well for humans to recollect their pan-global co-residence with all living beings. And, not least among them, those great triggers to the literary imagination in the form of the amiable, adventurous, wily, and famously enigmatic cats.6

ENDNOTES:

1 H. Loxton, Cats: 99 Lives – Cats in History, Legend and Literature (1999).

2 For the Cat Monument (designed 1749; erected c.1770) NGR: SJ9932022722, see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

3 H. Van Lemmen, Coade Stone (Princes Risborough, 2006).

4 See V. Lewis, Ship’s Cats in War and Peace (2001); and listings in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_cat/.

5 All monuments are listed and dated in https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

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