The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat: A Sweet Vintage Parable of Loneliness, Love, and Letting Go
By Maria Popova
All too often, we carry the notion of love as a checklist of expectations, demanding that the objects of our love conform to them. “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his beautiful meditation on the art of “interbeing.” But it also wounds us. Those self-wounding preconceptions of how love should be performed by the other are what novelist Lore Segal and beloved children’s book artist Paul O. Zelinsky explore in the 1985 gem The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat (public library) — one of the most delightful children’s books I’ve ever encountered, told with warm wit and enormously expressive illustrations.
It’s a story both playful and profound about how we sabotage our deepest longing for connection by demanding that our loved ones love us in exactly the way we expect — a crowning curio in the vast canon of feline parables of our imperfect humanity.
Maurice Sendak — who was once Zelinsky’s teacher and who collaborated with Segal on one of the finest reimaginings of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales — wrote of this vintage treasure:
If fresh, imaginative writing and brilliantly animated pictures, all wonderfully syncopated, are the essence of an original picture book, then Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat is indeed a dazzling example. With its dry, wry good humor and sympathetic understanding of human — and animal — misbehavior, the book fairly jumps from your hands for the wonder of it.
We meet the always-chilly Mrs. Lovewright, a woman faintly reminiscent of a middle-aged Virginia Woolf. Perhaps too proud and mannered to admit the graver soul-chill of loneliness, she sets out to solve the bodily discomfort by getting herself a cat to keep her warm.
She entrusts Dylan the grocery boy with the task: “I don’t care what color so it’s little and cute and purrs on my lap,” Mrs. Lovewright instructs him. And so he delivers.
Mrs. Lovewright tilted her head and said, “Aw! You are so little, I don’t believe it.”
She names the kitten Purrly because his ultimate purpose, she has decided, is to lie on her lap and purr.
But Purrly refuses to purr.
“You and I,” she said to Purrly, “are going to be cozy,” and she poked the fire, took off her shoes, and said, “Hey! That is my stool you’re sitting on! That’s for me to put my feet up. You have to lie on my lap.”
But Purrly folded his paws under him, settled his little chest, and laid his tail as far as it would go around himself.
“Don’t you look cozy!” Mrs. Lovewright said, and smiled into Purrly’s eyes. The cat stared at Mrs. Lovewright. He didn’t smile back. Mrs. Lovewright was surprised. She sat and she watched Purrly’s round, baby-blue eyes close into two blue hyphens. When they had disappeared, Mrs. Lovewright sighed and said, “Chilly in here! I’m going to bed and get under my blanket.”
So begins their saga of mutual defiance — Mrs. Lovewright with her demand that Purrly be a compliant companion and unobtrusive accessory, and most of all that he purr; Purrly with his growing spatial entitlement and his refusal to purr.
One day, as Mrs. Lovewright wrestles Purrly into her lap and demands that he perform his function — “Lie down, and I will stroke your back and you purr. You are so warm and so soft! I don’t believe how soft you are! Isn’t this cozy? Purr! Come on. Don’t you know how to purr? You have to go RRR rrr, RRR up, rrr down. Now you. RRR rrr. Try. Lie down. Don’t you turn up your tail at me in that rude way!” — Purrly pounces down her legs with his claws out and lands by the door, meowing.
She decides to call him Purrless.
As the days roll on, things only escalate — the more Mrs. Lovewright tries to force Purrless into what she considers proper catlike behavior, the more he lashes out. In one particularly colorful kerfuffle, he bites her little toe, which causes Mrs. Lovewright to scream and kick in pain, sending Purrless across the room; he lands on her broom, which falls and gives Mrs. Lovewright’s a black eye — a Rube Goldberg machine of mutually inflicted pain.
But not everything the story says is spoken — for, as E.B. White memorably observed, children are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” As the story progresses, we see the tiny Purrly grow and grown, eventually becoming enormous — he’s growing, of course, because Mrs. Lovewright is feeding him; and she’s feeding him because, despite his vexing defiance, she really does love him.
Just as Mrs. Lovewright begins making up her mind that Purrless is a foul cat, she walks into the bedroom and discovers him “curled and enormous, middle of the bed.”
Elated that she might at last have gotten the cozy-making companion she always wanted, she tries to get into bed. But Purrless wouldn’t budge, so she lays down on the very edge, with no blanket to cover her. In the middle of the night, she wakes up with a thump on the floor — Purrless has pushed her off and is standing victoriously in the middle of the bed, yawning.
Mrs. Lovewright is at the end of her rope. In one final attempt to get Purrless to comply, she props him onto her lap and begins stroking him determinately, commanding him to purr. But when she leans in to listen, hopeful that he might be purring only quietly, he turns around and bites her nose.
That’s it — Mrs. Lovewright opens the door and sees Purrless out.
When Dylan visits the next day, a dejected Mrs. Lovewright proclaims that she no longer cares about Purrlsess.
There’s no being cozy with a cat. Shut the door, Dylan, and good-bye.
But as she crawls into bed, her unbitten toes chilly once again, she hears Purrless meowing.
At first too hurt to relent, her heart eventually softens.
“You don’t have to shout,” said Mrs. Lovewright. She got out of bed, and went and opened the door. Purrless came streaking in, right between Mrs. Lovewright’s legs, lumped on the broom, which fell and tripped Mrs. Lovewright so that Purrless got into the bed ahead of her and curled himself right in the middle of the blanket.
And that’s how Mrs. Lovewright and her cat lived many more years together.
And so Mrs. Lovewright learns that although Purrless doesn’t love her rigid rules, he does love her — and she loves him. Every real love, after all, writes its own rules of rightness.
Sometimes she was sure that she heard Purrless purring, and she would look to see the end of his tail flicking to and fro. “Don’t you want to be cozy?” she would ask him, and she’d stroke his soft, warm, enormous back and she’d say, “Why don’t you want to?”
The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat is an immeasurable delight from cover to cover, should you be fortunate enough to find a used copy. Complement it with a kindred spirit from the same era, A Cat-Hater’s Handbook, and the perfect contemporary counterpart — nearly thirty years later, Caroline Paul wrote in her own magnificent memoir of what a cat taught her about life and love: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”
Published September 18, 2015