I’ve been thinking about this recently because several months ago my children, aged 7 and 4, mounted a vigorous and sustained campaign for a dog. And I’m about to concede defeat. I’ve accepted that our dog that will live in our house and shed on our furniture and need lots of training and exercise and brushing and bathing and veterinary visits and dear god, possibly also tooth-brushing and ear-cleaning and nail-clipping? (Maybe I’ll tackle the history of pet care in a different post.) My point is simply that all this domestic dog chat has me thinking about dogs in literary history.
The first literary–historical dogs I remember noticing was the litter of puppies in Wuthering Heights. They’re never named or numbered, of course; they’re mere props for the vivid illustration of Hareton Earnshaw’s character. As Hareton hangs the puppies (one by one? In a batch? It’s never clearly described) "from a chair-back in the doorway", we readers realize the extent to which Hareton’s own moral growth and intellectual development were strangled from birth.
|Branwell Brontë's circa 1834 sibling portrait, with his own image painted out.
The next fictional dog to make a deep impression on me was Shock, Belinda's indulged pet in Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock”. For me, the poem is a full-on olfactory assault. Let me break it down for you:
1. There’s a crush of people at Belinda’s house. Their combined body heat will heighten the ripeness of early eighteenth-century bodies.
2. This bodily funk will, in turn, be overlaid by the liberal use of perfumes.
3. The room will be lit by beeswax candles, which add their own sweet, thick scent to the air. (In a poorer household, the candles would be made of tallow and thus smell strongly of animals.)
4. As part of the ceremonial serving of coffee, Belinda’s family roasts coffee beans in the drawing room before grinding and brewing the expensive imported drink. Coffee-roasting novices expect the process to smell delectable but the toasting of green coffee beans actually produces a strong burnt aroma as the husks burn off; the roasted coffee smell emerges only at the end of the process. As a result, the smells of body musk and perfume would intermingle with the strong, acrid smell of burning.
|Aubrey Beardsley's 1897 illustration of "The Rape of the Lock". At left, the Baron is about to snip off Belinda's curl.
5. The pampered, yipping, little dog Shock (whose name strikes me as a joke about the English pronunciation of “Jacques”), who fails to protect her from assault. I’m not sure how often pet dogs were bathed in 1717. However, in her biography of Samuel Pepys, Claire Tomalin describes the general domestic atmosphere of the 1650s: "Every house, every family enjoyed its own smell, to which father, mother, children, apprentices, maids and pets all contributed, a rich brew of hair, bodies, sweat and other emissions, bedclothes, cooking, whatever food was lying about, whatever dirty linen had been piled up for the monthly wash, whatever chamber pots were waiting to be emptied into yard or street. Home meant the familiar reek which everyone breathed." "The Rape of the Lock" takes place only 60 years or so later.
My third literary dog was a Newfoundland breed named "Boatswain". Having once read it, who could forget Byron’s "Epitaph to a Dog"? It's engraved on this monument at Newstead Abbey, Byron's family estate.
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,Byron’s anger and disgust with human hypocrisy here is all the more powerful because he practised it so well: “Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,/Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit” is a cri de coeur from a restless artist who spent much of his life at the centre of a bubble of scandal.
Unknown to Glory but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below:
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,
Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth:
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debas’d by slavery, or corrupt by power,
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on, it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one—and here he lies.
|Byron originally posed for this portrait in 1813, about 5 years after railing against the "vain insect" that is Man. Image courtesy of a Creative Commons license from the National Portrait Gallery.
There’s so much more I could say about dogs in literary history - and in social history, for that matter. But for the time being, I’ll return to my own practical dog research and continue to battle my residual squeamishness about dog odour and dog hair. Wish me luck!
Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries/The Agency Quartet (Walker Books/Candlewick Press). She blogs every Wednesday at www.yslee.com.