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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Athénaïs Michelet1   17 May 1872

Paris | rue d’assas | 76—

17 mai 1872

Monsieur

Le nom de mon mari vous étant connu, je l’espère, par ses grands travaux historiques, et notre admiration pour votre génie, étant exprimée dans plusieurs de ses ouvrages, je viens en humble disciple, demander l’aide de vos conseils pour un travail qui m’occupe en ce moment.2

Il s’agit des chats, mes hôtes et mes favoris, depuis ma plus tendre enfance.3

Elevée à la campagne, dans une sorte d’arche de Noé, j’ai passé ma jeunesse solitaire à observer et noter les impressions que je recevais de mes compagnons habituels.

Mon livre, néanmoins, n’a pas de prétentions scientifiques. Il sera le frère de l’oiseau, de l’Insecte, etc, où nous avons cherché, ensemble, à donner aux gens du monde, le goût de l’histoire naturelle, à faire naître le désir de la mieux connaître, près des maîtres de la science.4

J’ai lu très attentivement dans votre ouvrage des variations, le chapitre qui concerne les chats, regrettant bien sa briéveté.5

Je puis vous affirmer, monsieur, que les métis demi angora, se reproduisent entr’eux, et avec les chats communs.—6 Autour de ce fait, je vous intéresserai peut-être, en vous donnant quelques détails.— J’avais reçu, il y a quelques années, une couple de chats. Le mâle magnifique angora noir et blanc, semblait pourtant avoir subi un léger mélange.

La femelle, était une vraie chatte de gouttière, maigre, rase, élancée.

Au printemps, les époux songeant à la famille, se retirèrent discrètement au fond de mon jardin. Mais un chat noir fumeux, vint roder par là, et eut avec le mari légitime, les duels accoutumés.—

Trois petits chats naquirent de cette union. Je les gardai tous. Voici leur signalement:— L’aîné, blanc et noir comme son père, avait, par opposition, le poil ras et toutes les allures de sa mère.—

Le second, une petite chatte, avait au contraire, la robe entièrement de la couleur de sa mère; mais avec la fourrure longue et soyeuse de son père, ce qui donna lieu, plus tard, aux reflets les plus chauds, les plus délicats. Je l’appelai: La blonde.

Le troisième, fut un mâle tout noir, non pas du noir de jai de son père, mais du noir éteint de l’étranger.

La singularité, c’est que son poil plutôt laineux que soyeux, avait en même temps, la longueur et l’ampleur d’un chat angora. Je le surnommai Pluton. Je l’ai gardé 5 ans. Il a péri d’un coup de feu.—7

Dès sa première année, il y eut mariage entre lui et sa soeur. Mais celle-ci, souffrante d’unions trop précoces, eut une mauvaise portée. Affaiblie, elle ne manifesta aucun instinct maternel. Les petits moururent presque en naissant.— Cependant après cette espèce d’avortement, sa santé reprit le dessus; elle devint merveilleusement belle; mais conserva de ses premières épreuves, je ne sais quelle grâce morale, dans les poses et les mouvemens. On eût dit une personne.

L’année suivante, au moment où elle allait nous donner des petits de Pluton, (le père et le frère aîné, étaient déjà morts d’accident,) elle fut prise dans une piège, et étranglée.—

Ceci, en prouvant la fécondité des métis, prouverait aussi que la sélection intentionnelle, n’est pas si difficile que l’on pense.

À Paris, où l’on enferme les chats auxquels on tient, s’il y a couple, le ménage ne semble nullement proccupé de chercher ailleurs. J’ai même constaté que les époux se témoignent, aux saisons calmes, des signes d’attachement réciproque. J’ai vu la femelle s’irriter et souffleter un mari qu’elle croyait volage.

L’indépendance indomptable des chats, la besoin impérieux des sorties nocturnes, empêchera toujours, dans les villes, la longévité de l’individu, mais, en tenant le ménage sédentaire aux époques voulues, on pourra jusqu’à un certain point modifier une race.

Votre ouvrage ayant été publié avant les deux expositions qui se sont faites à Londres, vous n’avez pu en parler.8

Oserai-je vous prier, monsieur, de me dire s’il en a été fait des comptes rendus qui méritent qu’on s’y arrête? Je voudrais savoir aussi, s’il existe en anglais quelques biographies, ou des études partielles d’amateurs, sur les chats domestiques et sur les grands chats, lion, tigre etc. Tout doit aller à vous, monsieur comme en hommage, et ces renseignements précieux pour moi, vous les avez, j’en suis sûre, sous la main.—

Recevez, je vous prie, l’expression de notre très haute considération. | A Michelet

P S. J’aurai l’honneur de vous envoyer mon petit livre, réclamant d’avance pour lui, toute votre indulgence. C’est une monnaie généreuse que les grands esprits ne savent pas refuser.

Footnotes

For a translation of this letter, see Correspondence vol. 20, Appendix I.
Jules Michelet, Athénaïs’s husband, was a well-known French historian; Athénaïs collaborated with him on many works.
In January 1872, Michelet had resumed work she began in 1868 on a book on the history and behaviour of cats; her original intention, first conceived in 1861, had been to write a fictionalised account of her own cats. Her incomplete manuscript was published after her death (A. Michelet [1904]). (A. Michelet 1978, pp. i–xx.)
Michelet refers to J. Michelet 1856 and 1858.
Michelet refers to Variation 1: 43–8.
In Variation 1: 45, CD wrote, ‘In England half-bred Angora cats are perfectly fertile with the common cat; I do not know whether the half-breeds are fertile one with another; but as they are common in some parts of Europe, any marked degree of sterility could hardly fail to have been noticed.’ In Variation 2d ed. 1: 47, CD omitted the text after ‘common cat’.
The cats mentioned are discussed in A. Michelet [1904].
The first official London cat show was held at the Crystal Palace on 13 July 1871 (Era, 16 July 1871, p. 4); a second was held at the Crystal Palace on 2 and 4 December 1871 (The Times, 4 December 1871, p. 12). See also Correspondence vol. 19, letter from George Grove, 15 July 1871, and letter to George Grove, 17 July [1871].

Translation

From Athénaïs Michelet1   17 May 1872

Paris | rue d’assas | 76—

17 May 1872

Sir

As my husband’s name is known to you, I hope, through his great historical books, and our admiration for your genius is frequently expressed in several of his works, I come as a humble disciple to request the support of your counsel for a book on which I am occupied at the moment.2

It concerns cats, my guests and favourites since my earliest childhood.3

Brought up in the country, in a sort of Noah’s ark, I spent my solitary youth observing and noting the impressions I received from my habitual companions.

My book has no scientific pretensions, however. It is to be a brother volume to the Bird, the Insect, etc., in which we tried together to give society people a taste for natural history and to develop their desire to familiarise themselves with it from the masters of the science.4

I have read the chapter on cats in your book on variations most attentively, and much regretted its brevity.5

I can confirm, sir, that half-Angora crossbreeds do reproduce with one another and with common cats.—6 In connection with this fact, perhaps I can interest you by giving you some details.— Some years ago I received a pair of cats. The male, a magnificent black and white Angora, nevertheless seemed to show slight intermixture.

The female was a true gutter cat, meagre, short-haired, and slender.

In the spring, contemplating a family, the spouses discreetly withdrew to the bottom of my garden. But a smoky black cat came prowling about, and had the customary duels with the husband.—

Three kittens were born from that union. I kept them all. These were their markings:— Though black and white like his father, the eldest had short hair and a look of his mother.—

The second, a female kitten, had by contrast a coat entirely of her mother’s colouring, but with her father’s long silky fur, which later developed the warmest and most delicate glints. I called her: The blonde.

The third, was a totally black male, not the jet black of his father, but the dull black of the outsider.

The singularity was that his fur, more woolly than silky, had at the same time the length and volume of an Angora cat. I named him Pluto. I kept him for 5 years. He died of a gunshot.—7

From his first year he and his sister were mated. But she, suffering from the excessively precocious union, had a bad litter. In her weakened state, she showed no maternal instinct. The kittens died almost at birth.— But after this sort of miscarriage, her health regained the upper hand; she became remarkably beautiful; yet preserved some indefinable moral grace in her attitudes and movements from those early trials. She might have been a person.

The year after, at the moment when she was about to give us kittens by Pluto, (the father and the elder brother had already met an accidental death,) she was caught in a snare, and strangled.—

This proves the fecundity of crossbreeds, and also proves that intentional selection is not so difficult as one thinks.

In Paris, where one keeps cats to which one is attached indoors, the couple, where there is a pair, seems to be completely uninterested in looking elsewhere. I have even confirmed that the spouses display signs of reciprocal attachment in the calm seasons. I have seen the female becoming irritated and boxing the ears of a husband whom she thought flighty.

The indomitable independence of cats and their pressing need to roam at night will always be an obstacle to the longevity of individuals in towns; but, by keeping the couple sedentary at the desired time, one can modify a breed up to a certain point.

Since your book was published before the two exhibitions held at London, you were not able to speak of them.8

May I dare to enquire, sir, whether reports worth dwelling upon have been written? I should also like to know whether there are any biographies or partial studies by amateurs written in English on domestic cats and big cats, lions, tigers etc. Everything must reach you, sir, as if in tribute, and I am sure that you have this information which is so precious to me at hand.— With our highest consideration, I remain yours faithfully | A Michelet

P S. I shall be honoured to send you my little book, requesting all your indulgence towards it in advance. That is a generous currency which great minds cannot withhold.

Footnotes

For a transcription of this letter in its original French, see pp. 212–13.
Jules Michelet, Athénaïs’s husband, was a well-known French historian; Athénaïs collaborated with him on many works.
In January 1872, Michelet had resumed work she began in 1868 on a book on the history and behaviour of cats; her original intention, first conceived in 1861, had been to write a fictionalised account of her own cats. Her incomplete manuscript was published after her death (A. Michelet [1904]). (A. Michelet 1978, pp. i–xx.)
Michelet refers to J. Michelet 1856 and 1858.
Michelet refers to Variation 1: 43–8.
In Variation 1: 45, CD wrote, ‘In England half-bred Angora cats are perfectly fertile with the common cat; I do not know whether the half-breeds are fertile one with another; but as they are common in some parts of Europe, any marked degree of sterility could hardly fail to have been noticed.’ In Variation 2d ed. 1: 47, CD omitted the text after ‘common cat’.
The cats mentioned are discussed in A. Michelet [1904].
The first official London cat show was held at the Crystal Palace on 13 July 1871 (Era, 16 July 1871, p. 4); a second was held at the Crystal Palace on 2 and 4 December 1871 (The Times, 4 December 1871, p. 12). See also Correspondence vol. 19, letter from George Grove, 15 July 1871, and letter to George Grove, 17 July [1871].

Summary

AM [wife of Jules Michelet] offers information on crosses in cats.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-8356
From
Michelet, A. M.
To
Darwin, C. R.
Sent from
Paris
Source of text
DAR 171: 170
Physical description
8pp (French)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8356,” accessed on 26 February 2017, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-8356

letter