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  • “The Little Dog Is Only a Stage Property”:The Blind Man’s Dog in Victorian Culture
  • Jennifer Esmail (bio)

In an 1860 article on “blind mendicancy,” an Athenaeum writer caustically reports that despite the common sight of a blind “beggar” “whin[ing] at one end of a string that terminates in a dog,” blind Londoners typically traversed the city with only a staff. “The little dog,” declares the writer, “is only a stage property” (Gilbert 407). This report is a salient example of a dominant strand of Victorian discourse around blindness, one that persistently, and disparagingly, aligns blindness with begging on the street. Further, both the writer’s description of the dog’s economic utility (as a kind of “stage property” in the begging performance) and the inversion of an expected species hierarchy (it is the man and not the dog “whining at one end of the string”) are typical of Victorian accounts of the figure of the “blind man’s dog.”1 An examination of the Victorian cultural reception of the blind man’s [End Page 18] dog reveals, first, that blind people and their dogs forged multiple kinds of partnerships in the Victorian period that moved beyond guiding assistance to a range of economic and affective interactions. Furthermore, Victorian representations of these collaborations consistently mobilized hierarchies of cultural worth—whether related to class, ability, or species—in order to represent the blind man’s dog’s qualities of intelligence, industriousness, and fidelity as a model not only for other non-human animals but also for humans.

While all Victorians relied heavily upon non-human animals for work, clothing, transportation, food, or companionship, an attention to the Victorian cultural reception of the blind man’s dog, in particular, reveals that Victorian writers often understood the partnership between a human and a non-human animal differently—as a solution for a form of “lack” or even as an index of dependence—when the human requiring animal assistance had been marked as disabled. Ivan Kreilkamp’s conception of “anthroprosthesis” is a useful lens through which to investigate this particular understanding of animals as prosthetics for people with disabilities: according to Kreilkamp, Victorians used animals as “anthroprosthetic” tools that both “extend[ed] the human and mark[ed] the human being’s difference from the animal by incorporating and appropriating the animal in an ongoing, anxious process of defining that difference” (36–37, emphasis added). In Victorian accounts of the blind man’s dog, the dog is consistently described as extending his or her human companion’s abilities. However, the “ongoing, anxious process of defining th[e] difference” between the sighted dog and the blind human is either marked in a manner that inverts the dominant human/non-human animal hierarchy or left altogether ambiguous. Attending to the unique position of the blind man’s dog, then, underscores how the process of demarcating and hierarchizing human and non-human animals can be confounded when the non-human animal of the partnership is culturally revered and the disabled human partner is culturally denigrated. These constructions of the blind man and his dog expose how distinctions between human and non-human animals so often hinge on cultural understandings of ability.2

The blind man’s dog is an especially rich cultural construct for an investigation of the uneasy connections and convergences between disability and animality because of what has been labelled the Victorian “cult” of the dog (Donald 138). Dogs were celebrated above all other non-human animals in Victorian culture for features believed to be especially canine—namely, faithfulness, sagacity, and self-sacrifice.3 Furthermore, Victorian descriptions of the blind man’s dog amplify conventional glorifications of canine qualities, whether of the dog’s fidelity to his or her owner even through dire poverty, of the dog’s cleverness and industriousness in navigating the streets, or of the dog’s unselfishness in saving his or her companion’s life. For example, Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a naturalist who published various accounts of “Puss, the blind man’s dog” in the 1870s, describes the many ways that Puss’s [End Page 19] “intelligent” and “faithful” efforts saved the life of her blind companion, James Stocks...


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pp. 18-23
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