Journals that Have Published Essays by Stephen R. Pastore: a Sampling
The Cat and the Canard
Stephen R. Pastore
As everyone knows, Hardy's funeral was accomplished in triplicate--with simultaneous services in Westminster Abbey, Stinsford parish church, and St Peter's, Dorchester--and as the climax to a series of events all too easy to characterise as dense with Hardyan ironies. Hardy's will specified burial at Stinsford beside his parents and his first wife, but some accompanying document (never made public) was invoked in justification of the Abbey funeral that 'the Nation' was said to demand. Once the difficulty presented by Hardy's agnosticism had been overcome, arrangements for his cremation had to be set promptly in train, interment of bodies in the Abbey having for health reasons long been abandoned. Cremation was itself a distressing issue for Hardy's brother and sister to have to cope with--as it would probably have been for Hardy himself--and a further complication arose when Florence Hardy yielded to a suggestion from the Vicar of Stinsford that the strong Dorset sentiment in favour of a local burial could to some extent be satisfied by the removal of his heart prior to cremation and its separate burial at Stinsford under the existing family tomb that Hardy had himself designed. Heart burial had certainly been practised in the past, especially during the Crusades, and the poet Shelley's heart had been brought home from Italy that it might lie in English earth, but news of the removal of Hardy's heart created a national sensation and was widely denounced as an act of medieval barbarity. So that while the surgical procedure itself was performed quietly enough at Max Gate by Hardy's doctor, the press coverage of the event was very extensive and popular interest, both nationally and locally, extremely high. Dorchester itself, while happy to be known as the home of so famous a figure, had never taken Hardy himself to its collective heart, and reaction to the somewhat bizarre events attendant upon his death had prompted a good deal of sardonic comment, especially in the local public houses. Of almost instant creation was the still surviving joke in which God, on the Day of Judgement, demands (in his best Dorset accent), 'Yer be 'is 'eart, but where be rest of 'ee?' And it seems reasonable to assume a similar date and context for the origin of the still more widely influential story that Hardy's heart was eaten by 'the cat' and that it was therefore 'the cat', with the heart inside it, that was buried at Stinsford even as Hardy's ashes, in an identical casket, were being interred in Westminster Abbey.
Since the cat-ate-the-heart story has been passed down mainly through an oral tradition--retold with glee even by the leaders of Thomas Hardy Society tours--it exists in many different versions, one of which holds that the casket buried at Stinsford was simply empty. The common and, indeed, necessary element has of course been the cat, but that has always been the point of greatest difficulty. Whose cat could have had access to the extracted heart, and who would have ventured to kill it, however evident its guilt and however national the crisis it had created? (And what house cat could be so large as to be able to ingest a human heart?)
It seems clear enough that on 13 January 1928, two days after Hardy's death, his heart was removed at Max Gate by the local surgeon, Dr Nash-Wortham, wrapped in a towel, placed temporarily in a biscuit-tin obtained from the Max Gate kitchen, and left at Max Gate over that night and possibly a second night as well. The story then has it that 'the cat' prised off the lid of the tin and devoured the piece of offal it found inside. But what cat? In an extensive and ostensibly circumstantial article in The Observer of 31 December 1995, headlined 'Village cat ate Thomas Hardy's heart', it is confidently stated that the undertaker, calling at Max Gate to collect the heart, discovered both the crime and the criminal and immediately wrung the cat's neck. Village cats did not, however, have the run of Max Gate, and the only cat on hand in January 1928 was the still youthful Cobweb, given to and cherished by Hardy as a compensation for the loss of Wessex. And even if one could imagine such an action on the undertaker's part, with or without Florence Hardy's consent, there is ample evidence of Cobweb's being alive well after her master's death. What now changes everything is the astonishing resurfacing of the Max Gate biscuit-tin itself, accompanied and authenticated by the following note: 'This is the tin used to hold Mr. Hardy's heart after it was removed from his body while a proper box was made. Mrs Hardy instructed that I burn it. As it was metal, I did not and kept it. She never inquired of it as she was in dismay after Mr. Hardy's death.” The note is typed (with several errors) and unsigned , but was certainly composed by Bertie Stevens, the Max Gate gardener, who in 1963 described to James Stevens Cox (interviewing him in 1963 for the sixth of the Toucan Press pamphlets) the bonfires used to destroy letters and other papers in the Max Gate garden in the immediate aftermath of Hardy's death. The tin is appropriately small; its lid fits snugly and firmly (far too snugly for even the most ravenous and dextrous feline to open); the manufacturer's named stamped into the base is no longer legible; but still quite colourfully and even garishly present on the top and sides are several images of kittens, including one (reproduced here) in which they are depicted in the process of catching and presumably killing a bird with the somewhat ironic caption, “In disgrace.”
It cannot be known whether the story of a cat's devouring Hardy's heart was mischievously originated by one of the Max Gate staff (conceivably Bertie Stephens himself) or, perhaps more innocently, by someone who had gathered a mistaken impression from hearing the box described.Assuming only innocent motives, it would not be much of a stretch for “It was placed in a tin with cats on it” to evolve by telling and re-telling into “It was placed in a tin that the cat got into.” But these are intriguing possibilities that lend supplementary interest to what is in any case a notable witness to the more than Hardyan circumstances of Hardy's final departure. And, of course, there is the residual blood still very obviously present and, in all likelihood, the only extant DNA of Mr. Hardy.For now, the tin that held Hardy’s heart resides safely in my collection.