I love the mental image this week’s word phrase evokes. We can all picture the literal meaning of the phrase and, upon reading its definition, easily picture its double meaning.
Cat’s Paw (noun)
To be made a cat’s paw of; to be made a tool or instrument to accomplish the purpose of another. An allusion to the story of a monkey, who made use of a cat’s paw to scratch a roasted chesnut [sic] out of the fire.
In the caricature The Cat’s Paw, below, artist HB Doyle intimated that Frenchman Tallyrand was wily enough to outwit the English Lord Palmerston. Unfortunately, Palmerston both wrote and spoke French fluently, so he was not easy mark. Tallyrand complained, “C’est un homme qui n’a pas le talent du raisonnement.” Palmerston would not engage him in argument.
The Cat’s Paw (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince de Benevento; Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston) by John HB Doyle, 1832, National Portrait Gallery, London.
The parliamentary elections of 1784 were the culmination of a year of political maneuverings between King George III and Charles James Fox. To force a very entertaining and information-filled year into a nutshell, the King choreographed the ousting of Fox as Prime Minister so he could appoint William Pitt the Younger. Fox and his allies, chiefly Lord North, cried foul and declared the constitution had been violated. Fox and North were unable to stir up enough support for their cause; in fact, each new petition or motion they introduced only succeeded in driving their defenders underground or to the opposition. What resulted was a nationwide campaign between the old Fox/North coalition and the new King/Pitt government. On local levels, songs and poems were published as each side celebrated success or suffered defeat in the crusade. The following poem about Charles Fox addresses whom is to be the cat’s paw in this round of the game of politics.
A poem about Charles Fox and his role in the Elections 1784, from History of the Westminster Elections by Lovers of Truth and Justice. Price Ten Shillings and Sixpence!
James Gillray used a child’s toy as cat’s paw, illustrating how little it took and how easily it was to distract the Prince Regent. In this instance, famed actor Richard Sheridan uses a bandelure (or yo-yo) to play cat’s paw whilst he romances Mrs. Fitzherbert. The caption reads:
————“thus sits the Dupe, content!
Pleases himself with Toys, thinks Heav’n secure,
Depends on Woman’s smiles, & thinks the Man
His Soul is wrap’d in, can be nought but true;
Fond Fool, arouse! shake off thy childish Dream,
Behold Love’s falshood, Friendships perjur’d troth;
Nor sit & sleep, for all around the World,
Thy shame is known, while thou alone art blind –
Bandelures by James Gillray, 1791, British Museum.
Though I’m far more familiar with Robert Cruikshank the artist, author Robert Cruikshank, in his novel James Hatfield and the Beauty of Buttermere: a story of modern times, writes about employing the subterfuge of the cat’s paw for highly nefarious reasons: to the death!
James Hatfield and the Beauty of Buttermere: a story of modern times by Robert Cruikshank, 1841