Thursday, March 22, 2012

dogs, in excess

Finished Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë, by Maureen Adams. I expected this book to be fun and make me pleasantly emotional. I did not expect it to be as well-written or insightful as it was (Adams is a psychologist, and brings that to the table). The"muse" reference is that in these five cases dogs served as ears for their mistresses' writing, but they were also very important emotionally, and most of the book is about the bond between women and dogs.

Emily Brontë calmed down after grim Wuthering Heights sessions by settling near the fire with Keeper, her mastiff. Emily Dickinson would walk up and down in her room, talking over everything with Carlo, her Newfoundland, while "his eyes grow meaning, and his shaggy feet keep a slower pace". Edith Wharton avoided the emotional breakdowns which used to follow her completion of a book by romping with her little dogs, and never recovered from the death of her final Pekingese (she died less than four months later). Elizabeth Barrett (not yet Browning), an invalid and probable agoraphobic, hadn't left her house in years, but when her spaniel Flush was dognapped, she marched into Whitechapel's slums and negotiated with the dognappers (seriously, she did). Virginia Woolf was unsentimental about dogs, but she had them all her life, and the death of her last one, Pinka, sent her into a major depression. She noted in her diary that a woman who had recently drowned herself in the river Ouse had first killed her dog, because she could not bear to leave him behind. A few days later, Woolf herself walked into the Ouse, with no dog to leave.

To my surprise, given my feelings about Emily Brontë's writing (hint: they are negative), the chapter about her and her family's enormous mastiff Keeper touched me deeply. Keeper was initially a guard dog, and apparently so good at it that he terrified even the Brontë family, and roamed the place with impunity, sleeping on the beds in a time when most dogs weren't even allowed in the house. When Emily returned from a teaching gig, she decided that this would not stand, and she and a dog twice her size engaged in a major power struggle.

This was very close to home for me: Darcy came to live with us when his previous owners could no longer keep him, and he had not been disciplined or loved for several years. It was like having a feral ninety-pound wolf in the house (his healthy weight is 120, which was part of the problem), and at first he terrified me and I didn't think we could keep him. When I finally worked up the courage to establish dominance, he responded amazingly, and since then we have been - like Emily and Keeper - inseparable. Charlotte Brontë wrote, of Emily and Keeper, "The lion-like bulk is ever stretched beside her... one hand of the mistress generally reposes on the loving serf's rude head, because if she takes it away he groans and is discontented." Yup. That's how it works in my house.

Though Emily, like Virginia Woolf, was unsentimental about dogs, and her dominance over Keeper was established by a disturbingly harsh beating, Adams points out that in Wuthering Heights Heathcliff's instability and viciousness are frequently illustrated by his violence toward dogs (Cathy's desire to dominate is also shown by the pleasure she takes in dogfights). I had not remembered this, but then, I try not to read Wuthering Heights unless it is absolutely necessary.

Brontë is the only writer in the book who predeceased her dog, and Keeper refused to leave her side throughout her final illness. At the funeral, he walked with the family to the church, and was apparently allowed in, since he is described as lying at the family's feet in their pew. For the rest of his life he slept at Emily's door, and whined at it every morning. When Anne died, soon after Emily, Charlotte turned to the dogs Keeper and Flossy (Anne's spaniel) for comfort, as did her father. Mr. Brontë said once, of death, "I shall never feel Keeper’s paws on my knees again!"

If you know me, you know that at this point in the book I was just crying my eyes out. And we hadn't even gotten to Emily Dickinson yet; when we did, I was in trouble. "You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself." I knew most of the Carlo quotes, but didn't know that after his death she wrote far less than before, and that her serious reclusivity began then. Before his death, she was almost as frequently seen in Amherst with her giant dog as Brontë was on the moors with hers. When he died, she wrote a letter to a friend which read, in its entirety, "Carlo died. Would you instruct me now?"

(I'm just going to step aside here for a moment... got something in my eye.)

This book is really, really good. It does a great job of showing not just how dogs help draw out writers, whose occupation is of necessity isolating, but how women have been able throughout the centuries to access their own emotions through dogs. Both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf, writing to those they loved, ascribed their emotions to their dogs in order to say what they dared not say openly. Emily Brontë dealt with her anger towards her circumscribed world by roaming it with a giant beast only she could control. Emily Dickinson, full of words and visions she could not share, poured her heart out to Carlo, and shaped her poems in doing so.

My point, if you've made it through all the dog rambling, is that I recommend this book highly, and that it's far more well-constructed than this blog entry.

Now I am re-reading Middlemarch. It is a blast.

Oh, but one last thing. There is some disagreement over whether Dickinson is referring to God or Carlo in this poem. Given that she wrote it right after Carlo's death, I have no doubt, personally.

'Twas my one Glory —
Let it be
I was owned of Thee —


  1. Have you read Caroline Knapp's Pack of Two? (sniff)

    1. I have, indeed. The first thing I did when I heard that Caroline Knapp had died was hie me to the internet to find out what had happened to Lucille.

      Also, one of my favorite quotes about sobriety and dogs comes from there:

      Lucille has never seen me drunk. Simple enough statement, but it means volumes to me; she is a central part of the solace and peace I derive from being a sober person. I look at her sometimes at night, and I think about what a mess I'd be if I were still drinking, about how compromised my ability to care for her would be, about how she'd look at me and know that I wasn't really there. She is a symbol of something that was unavailable to me in the throes of addiction, an emblem not just of what I've been able to give to another being but of what I've been able to give to myself: consistency, continuity, connection. In a word, love.

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