If anyone has heard of Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching in the last ten years, it’s undoubtedly due to Crispin Glover’s 1999 reconstruction of the book, Rat Catching. Most mentions of Glover’s book identify Barkley’s work as “a 19th-century non-fiction book” or a handbook on how to catch rats.
Which it is. On one level, at least. Studies purports to be the recollections of one Bill Joy, master rat-catcher, who was enticed into putting them down in print after regaling a country house full of young people with them one weekend. Much of the first two-thirds of the book takes the reader step-by-step through the process of ridding farms and houses of rats for profit, starting with picking the right ferrets, dogs, and shovels and continuing into stories of memorable hunts. There is also a chapter on rabbit-catching, reminding us that, in the days before Beatrix Potter, farmers like Mr. McGregor looked on them as pests, not pets.
But how then to take Barkley/Joy’s introduction to the book?
Ever since I was a boy, and ah! long, long before that, I fancy, the one great anxiety of parents of the upper and middle classes blessed with large families has been, ” What are we to do with our boys ? ” and the cry goes on increasing, being intensified by the depreciation in the value of land, and by our distant colonies getting a little overstocked with young gentlemen, who have been banished to them by thousands, to struggle and strive, sink or swim, as fate wills it. At home, all professions are full and everything has been tried ; and, go where you will, even the children of the noble may be found wrestling with those of the middle and working classes for every piece of bread that falls in the gutter. Nothing is infra dig that brings in a shilling, and all has been and is being tried.
Rat-catching, it appears, is Barkley/Joy’s solution to the problem of upper class unemployment:
I believe kind Dame Nature during the last summer has stepped in and opened out an honourable path for many gentlemen’s sons, that I think will be their salvation, and at all events, if it does not make them all rich, will, if they only follow it, make them most useful members of society and keep them out of mischief and out of their mammas’ snug drawing-rooms.
Thus, he dedicates the book to “the Head Masters of Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, and all other schools,” Old Joy is no rube, but the son of a country parson, and not completely out of touch with the mores and manners of the upper classes. He is careful to advise his young readers, for example, to “show your respect by not taking ferrets or dead rats in your pockets into her drawing-room, and by washing your hands a little between fondling them and cuddling her.” And he takes pride in his humble but honest and worthy profession. He expresses his hope that his book will serve as a more practical alternative to learning Greek and Latin, which only equips boys to become “such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting.”
So there is clearly more going on here than a simple handbook on rat-catching. Barkley is taking a sly shot at public school education. Most chapters end with Joy instructing his young Etonian readers: “There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again”–or admonishing Croker minor, the trouble-maker of the class: “The top part of Jones’ leg was not made to stick pins into!”
But then, in Chapter VIII, “A Trip to the Seaside,” Joy meanders his way from telling about his annual excursions to a seaside town for hunting rats on “the Denes” to a long-winded story about the rescue of a child from the wreck of a ship smuggling arms to Irish separatists–a story that has nothing to do with rats or educating public school boys. “Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on ‘Rat-catching for the Use of Schools,’ and I have drifted off the line here,” he laments. “I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed,” he concludes, abruptly ending the book.
Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is, then, a practical guide to rat-catching, as its title claims; and an attempt to mock the education and employment prospects of the upper class; and a collection of quaint tales of life and adventures in rural England. It’s certainly not wholly successful in being any one of these, but I’d argue that Barkley managed to create something of an 19th century cut-up–which itself makes the book quite a bit more than just some dull old book Crispin Glover reworked a hundred years later.