As a dog blogger and an English major, how could I resist a book entitled, Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Brontë? I mean, this book has my name all over it, except, that is, where I was wish it was—on the title page! As much as I enjoyed reading it, I would have liked writing it even more.
Kudos to first-time author Maureen Adams, an English-professor-turned-clinical-psychologist, for daring to mine a topic many scholars might dismiss as frivolous, and for excavating fresh artistic and psychological insight into these five great writers. Shaggy Muses (Ballantine Books, 2007) is a charming, well-researched book that strongly suggests that our literary canon would be so much the poorer had these authors been cat people, even it as it begs the unsettling (for me) question: do shaggy muses only visit lonely, depressive women?
As Adams notes, there was an “unsettling similarity between lapdogs and women in Victorian England. Both were powerless, and both were dependent for their very existence on pleasing others.” (Those “others” were their fathers or husbands, of course.) Though Wharton and Woolf were not Victorians, they still lived in an era where social convention left them few options for “independence” outside of marriage and motherhood. Of the women featured in Shaggy Muses, only Barrett Browning succeeded in achieving the romantic ideal of marrying her soul mate (at age 40) and bearing a child (at 43). Wharton married a mentally unstable man and was divorced; Woolf married for companionship, but her life’s great passion was another woman; and Brontë and Dickinson were prototypical Victorian spinsters ruled by domineering fathers.
Adams asserts that the writers’ dogs served not only as stand-ins for male protectors and surrogate children, but also as maternal “attachment figures” because their own mothers had been either physically absent (Barrett Browning, Bronte, Woolf all lost their mothers as children) or emotionally unavailable (Dickinson’s mother was clinically depressed, and Wharton’s was a narcissist). Without the benefit of modern psychotherapy or anti-depressants, each of these unhappy women found in their dogs what Adams calls “limbic resonance: the ability of mammals to soothe one another by regulating their heartbeats and breathing to be in synchrony. The result is a shared sense of well-being and safety.”
In fact, the term “muse” is something of a misnomer, as the dogs served more as alter egos and playful companions—in essence, therapy pets—rather than as direct conduits to creative inspiration. The exception, of course, is Woolf’s fictional biography of Barrett Browning’s Cocker spaniel, the eponymous Flush, which was inspired by her affection for her own spaniel Pinka, a gift from her lover Vita Sackville-West.
Flush, the golden Cocker whom Barrett Browning wrote, “shines as if he carried the sunlight on his back,” is already well known to many readers, but Shaggy Muses introduces us to several other dogs whose life stories would doubtless have proved equally entertaining had Woolf lived to write a series of canine biographies. They include:
The aforementioned Pinka, Woolf’s black Cocker spaniel, who like his terrier predecessors Gurth and Grizzle, the author taught to extinguish her match with his paw after she lit a cigarette, a parlor trick that would surely be frowned upon today. Pinka, who lived from 1926-35, was Woolf’s last dog, and one wonders if a subsequent dog might have forestalled her descent into madness, or even prevented her drowning herself into the river Ouse six years later.
Carlo, Emily Dickinson’s giant Newfoundland, who served as the diminutive poet’s guardian and escort on outings (at least for a few years before she retreated to her bedroom) and whose shaggy ears were the first to hear her poems read aloud. Carlo lived to the ripe old age of 16 (1849-65), and Adams notes that for the year after he died, Dickinson wrote almost nothing.
Keeper, Emily Brontë’s fearsome Mastiff mix, accompanied her on her errands into Haworth village and on long walks on the moors. Adams asserts that Keeper’s fierce temperament and frequent involvement in dogfights inspired the scenes of animal abuse in Wuthering Heights. Keeper lived from 1839-51, and when Brontë died in 1848 he escorted her coffin in the funeral procession.
Linky, Wharton’s beloved Pekingese, was one of a long series of toy dogs that also included longhaired Chihuahuas and Papillons as well as several small Spitz-type dogs. At one point, Wharton had as many as five Pekingese, but Linky was her favorite. The author doted on all her dogs, much to her friends’ irritation. (Adams notes that only Henry James understood, as he was equally attached to his Dachshunds.) Linky was her last dog; he lived from 1926-37, and Wharton died four months later.
(All images are among those published in Shaggy Muses.)