Behind every great woman
They say that behind every great man there has to be a great woman, but behind a great woman? They do not mention. Perhaps we should look down toward the hearth. Shaggy Muses, by Maureen Adams, is a heartful tribute to the dogs who unknowingly, and unconditionally inspired five iconic female writers: Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
I suppose there are dog-lovers in all walks of life. So, what makes this connection interesting, or is it just a coincidence? Having read to the end, I see that the dogs—differing vastly in breed, breeding, size and temperament—played differing roles in the lives of each woman, but there are themes in these interspecies bonds too strikingly similar to be coincidental. That makes for a fascinating read, but the dogs themselves make it heart-wrenchingly un-put-downable (for this dog-lover at least).
Sadly all women had one clear thing in common: traumatic lives. That is a well-trod path for writers in general; not so much in terms of life’s challenging events per se, but the heightened sensitivity and emotionality of creative people leaves them ill-equipped for bereavements, illnesses, emotional or physical abuse, the sheer overwhelming nature of creative output itself, and in many cases everyday life in general. In each of these five cases the dog (or dogs) had a soothing and joyful influence, keeping the writer grounded, as well as offering empathy, employing that other-worldly sixth-sensitivity which is the hallmark of their species.
Virginia Woolf (pictured on the front cover), the most tragic of all, maintained humour in her letters about dogs and their refreshingly earthly simplicity. But she had no qualms about referring to their spiritual qualities either. It seemed both were equally essential to her, making her literally inseparable from them:
“Out after lunch with Gurth to … the Joachim concert at the Bechstein Hall, where Gurth accompanied a … song with a voluntary bass of his own composition & I had to remove him in haste.”
“I took Max along the River, but we were a good deal impeded, by a bone he stole, by my suspenders coming down, by a dogfight in which his ear was torn & bled horribly. I thought how happy I was without any of the excitements, which, once, seemed to me to constitute happiness.”
“And the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at it vanishes; but look at the ceiling , at Grizzle … and the soul slips in.”
“Your puppy has destroyed, by eating holes, my skirt, ate L’s proofs, and done such damage as could be done to the carpet—But she is an angel of light. Leonard says seriously she makes him believe in God…”
In one passage Virginia hits the cornerstone of what it is to be a writer, which may further explain why a writer may be willing to overlook the less desirable canine traits to behold the more refined and inspirational:
“Why does my spaniel jump onto chairs when she is dripping from a swim in the river? The answer is that instead of controlling life … we writers merely contemplate it.”
I say the most tragic of all was Virginia Woolf, but I felt sorriest of all for Edith Wharton. Who would be born to a wealthy family in Victorian times? Denied the privilege of reading novels until after she was married, the awkward seventeen-year-old was primped and primed as a debutante, a husband being the only seemly occupation for a young lady of her era.
The young Edith was certainly forbidden from writing novels; imagination could not be a helpful quality for a wife to possess, and as for self-expression, well! In a world where every daily act and duty followed strict rules of propriety, what place could there be for spontaneity or spirit? As a child she begged the servants to save oddments of brown wrapping paper from any parcels delivered to the house. Crouching on the floor, she wrote on them her first secret stories.
She did marry an eligible and affable chap in the end, but he suffered a hereditary form of insanity, which came on soon after. Although she devotedly nursed him and encouraged him, he did not improve, and became too dangerous to be alone with, so Edith was left to her dogs and her servants. As the latter could not be decently leant on emotionally, that job fell to a string of Poodles, Chihuahuas and Pekingese, on whom she was almost excruciatingly dependent. In the autumn of her life, that role only increased in importance. Her own words describe why it was dogs who won her heart:
“If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me … Let us begin with some stray thoughts—The subconscious … of the psychologists … I am secretly afraid of animals—of all animals except dogs, and even of some dogs. I think it is because of the usness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it, and is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them: left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us.”
One can say unequivocally in the case of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning that her dog was not merely a companion, but a life-saver. After a volley of painful bereavements, and many years of debilitating illness, it seemed the young poet had given up the will to live. Bedridden in a darkened room, mourning acutely for her closest brother, she barely ate or slept, and was described by her family as “close to death”.
In a daring attempt to lift her from despair, a friend offered a spaniel puppy named Flush. There were many near-refusals by the poet, born of misgivings about the dog’s cloistered future, and mere shyness of accepting such a dear and generous gift. But even before she did finally accept, thoughts of the puppy had begun to turn her from her grief. By the time he arrived, he had already entered her heart and begun to transform her suffering existence into a life of joy and creativity. To her benefactor, Elizabeth wrote:
“How I thank you for Flush!—Dear little Flush—growing dearer every day!… Such a quiet, loving intelligent little dog—& so very very pretty! He shines as if he carried sunlight about on his back!”
Not exactly the words of a person close to death. The dog had a blissfully spoiled existence, sleeping on his mistress’s bed and eating from her hand. They were singularly devoted to one another. One problem with devotion to dogs is that they do have such short lives compared to ours. It would seem perilous for such a fragile girl to invest her whole heart in a mere spaniel. Indeed she plunged back into despair when the dog was stolen more than once by a gang of professional dog-nappers, demanding a ransom for his return. The two were reunited each time (both somewhat the worse for wear), and their bond only deepened.
For all they say about similarities between dogs and their owners, one can’t help noticing that this mistress wore her hair uncannily like a spaniel’s ears. Flush’s greatest gift to Elizabeth was not hairdressing though, but self-confidence. That trait was sorely lacking in the poet as as she lay immobile for much of her early life, unable to contribute to the family household, and seemingly ineligible for marriage. But soon, basking in the dog’s devotion, she grew spirit enough to think and act for herself, to write prolifically, and to live happily ever after with fellow poet Robert Browning.
By the time Flush passed away Elizabeth was an established writer with much finer health than when he came into her life, leaving her far better equipped to accept the loss and to replace her grief with gratitude for his life. Although she survived him by only six years, they were for the most part happy and creative years; a continuation of the strength he had brought her.
Brontë dogs were a far cry from pampered Pekingese and spoiled Spaniels. The one who featured most prominently in Emily’s life was the formidable Keeper, brought into the family to deter burglars. Maureen Adams sets the scene:
“On England’s Yorkshire moors in the mid-1840s, the villagers of Haworth often paused in their work at the sight of Emily Brontë, the parson’s daughter, striding across the heath with a massive dog at her side. Years later, they could still remember the tall woman and her dog appearing suddenly out of the fog. No warning of their approach could be heard except for the dog’s odd breathing, a wheezing whistle, the result of an injury from one of his fierce brawls with the local dogs. Emily would nod a greeting and pause to hear the latest tales of quarrels, thievery or ghost sightings. The dog, Keeper, stood completely still—his eyes on his mistress—until the moment she stirred, when he instantly followed her. A strange pair they were, uncanny and frightening, like the old stories of the goddesses and their dogs. Yet there was gentleness between them.”
It was more a battle of wills between the two characters than an abundance of affection as with the other women and their lapdogs, but it was as powerful a connection. In fact it seemed Emily was not entirely aware of a boundary between herself and the dog, in the same way that she had difficulty distinguishing her outer life from her inner life of fiction. Maureen Adams notes:
“Most dog owners depend on their dogs to keep them connected to the natural world. Taking a dog for a daily walk allows one to experience the changing seasons and the vicissitudes of weather. But Emily Brontë, who wasted away if not free to wander the moors, did not need Keeper to connect her to nature. Instead, she needed him to help her stay grounded with daily routines, which she tended to forget when she was absorbed in writing.”
All the Brontës died young, so, unusually, Keeper outlived his mistress. According to one observer:
“Keeper walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion after her death.”
This poet was by far the most reclusive of the five women, and thus perhaps the most dependent on her canine muse to keep aloneness from turning to loneliness.
The puppy Carlo was a gift from her father. As a successful lawyer he spent a lot of time away, and fretted about the safety of the three females he left behind: Emily, her sister Lavinia, and their mother. His fears were not unfounded, as bandits and burglars were rife in New England, but he was somewhat overprotective, which perhaps swayed his choice of a very large breed: the Newfoundland.
It was no accident that he gave the puppy specifically to Emily, but it may have been a fortunate coincidence that he also chose such a very sensitive breed. He knew very well of his daughter’s preference for solitude, which turned easily into anxiety about what lay beyond the garden hedge. It seems he gave Carlo not only for practical outer protection but for “human” companionship and reassurance when he could not be there himself.
Again this huge beast was no lapdog, and spent most of his time outside, but he was allowed upstairs into his mistress’s living quarters. Not quite fitting into the private conservatory where Emily spent much of her time, he would lie in the doorway with only two paws inside. Emily loved the outdoors, and roamed happily alone with Carlo in the family meadow and neighbouring woods before entering into her best-known state of complete seclusion. Even then the family had a large garden where Emily grew fragrant flowers and sketched poems, always with Carlo looking on.
It must be said that it was not only fear which kept her alone, but a disillusionment with the world and with humanity. She craved silence and sensitivity, but found it only rarely in human society. Carlo’s virtues grew in her esteem; a tribute to the dog and to dogs in general, if at the expense of some cynicism about the human race. In letters she openly credits Carlo with more refinement than society:
“They [men and women] talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog—He and I dont object to them, if they’ll exist their side.”
“You ask of my Companions—Hills Sir and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself, that my father bought me—They are better than Beings—because they know—but do not tell.”
“I talk of all these things with Carlo, and his eyes grow meaning, and his shaggy feet keep a slower pace.”
Says Maureen Adams:
“Carlo never grew exhausted by Emily’s need for constant, attuned attention because it was part of his inbred nature to provide such a response. All dogs naturally look at their owners with a steady gaze, but it can be argued that the Newfoundland’s deep-set, dark eyes are the most sympathetic of all.”
As with most of these writers when their favourite dogs passed away, Emily did not write much about it to her friends. She would understandably have been too grief-stricken at Carlo’s death to speak of such a delicate subject to mere humans, remaining more inclined to “tell it slant” through her poems. Years before the event finally came though, she told a friend:
“Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful, old friend Carlo?”
With many thanks to Maureen Adams (and her two shaggy muses) for this touching and insightful read. It is truly one of the best books I have ever owned, and I will treasure it.
Found out more at ShaggyMuses.com
4 replies on “Shaggy Muses”
Emily Bronte drew a portrait of another family dog named “Grasper”. The sketch was drawn with the greatest sensitivity and love, highlighting the attentiveness, intelligence, and cuteness of the terrier. It was interest in this aspect of Emily’s persona that brought me to this site.
Thank you for your visit, Robert, and for your interesting comment!
Every writer gets inspiration from somewhere. Its intriguing to follow the common thread of canine companions among these particular writers.