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224 11. ‘Staunch little democrat that he was’: Humanitarian Sentiment, Social Reform, and Political Idealism in Eleanor Atkinson’s Greyfriars Bobby DAVID SALTER Despite the enduring popularity of Greyfriars Bobby, which has been continuously in print since its first publication in 1912, and which has come to assume the status of a children’s classic, the novel’s American author, Eleanor Atkinson (1863–1942), remains an elusive and critically overlooked figure. An historical novelist, journalist, teacher, and the author of several educational textbooks, it is principally for Greyfriars Bobby that Atkinson is remembered today. But, although her fictionalised biography of Bobby – the Edinburgh Skye Terrier who kept loyal vigil at the grave of his master from 1858 until his own death fourteen years later – has appealed to generations of young readers (and has given rise to three Hollywood films), its reputation amongst adult critics of children’s literature has not fared so well.1 Both Atkinson the novelist, and Greyfriars Bobby the novel, have been almost completely excluded from the critical literature. There have been no biographies or literary lives of Atkinson; there are no major studies of any of her fictional writings; and there are no entries dedicated either to Greyfriars Bobby or to Atkinson in any of the standard children’s literature reference works, such as Jack Zipes’s definitive fourvolume Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (2006).2 There are a number of reasons which could account for the disparity between the continuing popularity of Greyfriars Bobby, and the critical neglect which has befallen both the novel and its author. In part, Atkinson’s poor critical reputation reflects the unevenness of her literary output. While she published a handful of novels during her lifetime, it is only Greyfriars Bobby which can really be said to have stood the test of time, and which continues to have a wide readership more than a century after its first appearance.3 And because Greyfriars Bobby is based – however loosely – on 225 sentiment, reform, and idealism in greyfriars bobby the life of a real dog (who achieved considerable celebrity in his own lifetime), it is probably inevitable that the fame of the author has been eclipsed by the notoriety of her canine subject. Indeed, Bobby’s enduring appeal, which exists independently of Atkinson’s novel, is evident from the crowds of tourists who can be seen almost every day admiring his statue in front of the entrance to Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh.4 Moreover, the considerable artistic license which Atkinson allowed herself when recounting Bobby’s ‘history’ has been condemned by those writers – such as Forbes Macgregor and Jan Bondeson – who have sought to uncover the historical facts of the dog’s life, arguing that much of Atkinson’s narrative is, in Macgregor’s words, ‘total myth’ and, according to Bondeson, ‘worthless for the serious historian’.5 Finally, Atkinson’s reputation also suffers because she falls between two national literary traditions, and as a result is difficult to categorise as a writer in conventional, generic terms. As an American author of historical fiction who is best known for a Scottish children’s novel (and one which seeks deeply to embed its Scottishness not simply in its Edinburgh setting, but in its use of Scottish dialect and in its tissue of literary and historical allusions), Atkinson resists the straightforward literary canons into which authors are habitually placed by critics, such as the categories of American writer, children’s author, journalist, biographer, and historical novelist. And as an American author whose Scottish novel is written at least in part in Scots, Atkinson has also been subject to the condescension, even superciliousness, of those critics from the Scottish side of the Atlantic who highlight the linguistic and topographical errors which occasionally characterise her attempts at verisimilitude.6 It is my contention that Greyfriars Bobby merits the kind of serious critical attention which it has so far failed to receive. This chapter argues that the novel’s lasting popularity cannot be put down either to the poor critical judgement or excessive sentimentality and gullibility of its youthful readership, but rather that it speaks in powerful and compelling ways to what it means to be a child. In the first part of the book, Bobby’s youthfulness and childlikeness are repeatedly emphasised, making him an obvious proxy and source of identification for the novel’s young readership. In her sympathetic exploration of Bobby’s experiences of love, loss, loneliness, 226 and powerlessness, Atkinson is able to...


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