- The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination by Beryl Gray
“Dog-love” is how Elizabeth Barrett Browning described her relationship with her cocker spaniel, Flush, when writing to Mary Russell Mitford, who had given Flush to her friend in 1841. Mrs. Browning wrote hundreds of letters narrating Flush’s life, and Dickens probably wrote hundreds more about his own pet dogs, the first of whom was his beloved Timber, a white Havanese given him in America in 1842. The tiny animal (the breed stands only 8–11 inches at the shoulder) was first imposingly named Timber Doodle, but this was changed to Snittle Timbery and finally to plain Timber. It is interesting that Dickens’s dogs could go through as many name changes as some of his characters.
Timber’s richly documented life lasted twelve years, and the dogs who succeeded him were, with one notable exception, all large dogs – Newfoundlands, bloodhounds, a St. Bernard – most of whom were acquired in order to defend Gad’s Hill Place from the passing tramps on the nearby high road and to protect Dickens’s daughters when they went out walking. The notable exception was the white Pomeranian Dickens named Mrs. Bouncer, a gift to Mamie in 1859. Dickens’s bond with Mrs. Bouncer was so intense that he would dream of her every night when he was away from home, and years after his death, Mamie recollected how
He had a peculiar voice and way of speaking for her, which she knew perfectly well and would respond to at once. … To be stroked with a foot had great fascination for Mrs Bouncer … and Charles Dickens would often and often take off his boot of an evening and sit stroking the little creature – while he read or smoked – for an hour together.(“Charles Dickens at Home,” New York Times, 6 April 1884)
With the percipience that characterizes all her observations on Dickens and dogs and on dogs in Dickens, Beryl Gray remarks of this anecdote:
Among all the non-human creatures he maintained – birds of various kinds, horses, cats, and his own dogs – it is only Mrs Bouncer who can be associated with domestic quietude; and of all the many portraits we have of Dickens, whether visual, written, or performed, this by his eldest daughter must be one of the most intimate and moving(90).
Having published scholarly articles on George Eliot and her dogs and Jane Welsh Carlyle’s relationship with her adored Nero, Beryl Gray must be the foremost authority on the subject of Victorian writers and their dogs, [End Page 157] and with The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination, she has written the ne plus ultra of the already considerable literature on the subject of Dickens’s dogs, real and fictional. Not only is Beryl Gray thoroughly acquainted with Dickens’s life, novels, number plans, miscellaneous prose and letters, she is also well read in the history of dogs in art as well as being an acute critic of the many illustrations to the novels in which dogs are depicted. Sixteen plates by George Cruikshank and H. K. Browne are reproduced in the book, and Gray’s comments on them make significant contributions to the art criticism of Jane Cohen and Michael Steig. Gray even considers dogs who never appear in the text but feature in the illustrations, such as the King Charles spaniel who occupies the center foreground in Browne’s Bleak House plate, “Magnanimous conduct of Mr Guppy” (170).
The two parts of the book, “A Life with Dogs” and “Knowing His Place: the Dog in Dickens’s Art,” discuss first the dogs Dickens owned and also “encountered,” and second, the fictional dogs in Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Hard Times, Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. The foundation of all the chapters is acute observation and sound research, particularly into social and historical contexts. Throughout the book, Gray’s numerous and meticulously referenced footnotes are as full of fascinating information as her text. An example is the inclusion...