12.09.2008

Dogs and Books

I spent the weekend reading Shaggy Muses, a slim book I picked up in the library about five major literary figures (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf) and the dogs they loved. The Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Bronte sections were the most interesting.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an invalid for roughly the first 35 years of her life. Her loyal spaniel Flush was the only thing that got her through the multiple deaths in her family. She embraced the posture of the sickly, subservient daughter and allowed her father to make all the decisions in her life, even determining who was allowed to visit Elizabeth. When Flush was stolen by The Fancy, a crime ring that stole dogs and put them up for ransom (if you didn't pay, you would recieve your dog's paw or head), Mr. Barrett would not pay the ransom. Elizabeth had some money of her own from her published work, so she paid the ransom herself - behind her father's back. This act was the first independent thing she ever did, and it enabled her to begin to see her life as an independent person. Years later she met Robert Browning, fell in love, and moved to Italy (where her depression and sickness disappeared forever), but it may not have been possible without Flush. jInterestingly, Flush made such an impression on people who knew Elizabeth and read her letters that half a decade later, Virginia Woolf wrote Flush: A Biography about the famous little dog.
)))
Emily Bronte was an odd character. Her dog, Keeper, was a huge mastiff that she literally beat into submission. She did not leave much personal writing, besides a few diary papers, so it is difficult to determine with certainty exactly how she felt about the dog, but her family and neighbors all believed that she was deeply attached to him. Of course, this was after he made the grave error of sleeping on her newly washed white bed linen, an act that won a severe, eye-bloodying, beating from Emily. She nursed him back to health and from then on he was always by her side. Even at her deathbed, he laid his head on her bed and wouldn't leave. For weeks after her death, he would lie in front of her room and moan for her.

In total, these women were able to achieve a degree of emotional freedom through the relationship with their dogs. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning were falling in love, they would articulate their feelings through Flush. Elizabeth, in particular, would use Flush as a mouthpiece of her private thoughts, an act that would have allowed her some personal distance from feelings that were new, wonderful, but clearly upsetting to her well-ordered, cloistered life. As a group, these were talented, creative women, but they were also deeply constricted by their times. Their dogs gave them a little reprieve.

If you like this, you might also like:
Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat that Touched the World - Vicki Myron
Grayfiar's Bobby - Eleanore Powell
Flush: A Biography -Virginia Woolf

2 comments:

  1. I was reading about Dickinson's dog today. He lived 16 years and she never had another dog after that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Emily and Carlo were big buds. She said that she expected Carlo would be the first person to meet her in heaven. They were clearly quite close.

    ReplyDelete