The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination by Beryl Gray

Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, Surrey 2014) – Reviewed by Malvina Yock.

This book explores the dogs in Charles Dickens’ life, both real and fictional. It begins with a lively introduction from the author, asserting that the streets of London where Dickens walked as a boy created rich fodder for his writings. This included dog sightings, whether they were actual dogs, or those seen on a picture, a sign, or featured on a building (the cover depicts same), and so on. Gray considers that Dickens’ career literally grew out of those London streets. She suggests the term ‘Victorian London’ immediately conjures up an image of ‘Dickens’s London’, and that dogs (real and imagined) are inextricably linked to that image. As Gray says: “…one of the purposes of this book is to reflect their place in it”, and goes on to say that Dickens’ portrayals of dogs are as alive and vibrant on the page as his portrayals of people. Thus the dogs in his work have become incredibly memorable.

The book is in two large sections. The first section, A Life With Dogs, is largely biographical about Dickens and the dogs he owned and knew, and how he then transcribes/transforms these dogs into his letters, books, short stories, and other writings.

Years before he owned a dog, Dickens used them in his works. A dog was in his first published story in December 1833, A Dinner At Poplar Walk, in London’s The Monthly Magazine. Then along came Ponto in The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Bill Sikes’ Bulls-eye in Oliver Twist (1837-9), and others followed.

His first ‘real’ dog arrived in 1842. Timber was a small, shaggy Havana spaniel, according to Dickens’ daughter Mamie. Dickens himself described Timber as “a very small white dog, curling all over; and barking.” The dog began to feature in letters to friends as Dickens watched his behaviour, trying to work out dog thought processes and psychology. Watching Timber naturally led to creating other dogs in his writing, even as Timber himself was frequently mentioned in Dickens’ letters. Gray states that Dickens believed the person he was writing to was always interested in the dog, and so the references and anecdotes were quaint and entertaining. We ‘see’ Timber in Pictures From Italy. Witness the poor dog’s (embarrassed? painful?) fall from the carriage, and his subsequent infestation with fleas at their villa. All documented, but – Gray notes – curiously without much attached emotion.

There were other large dogs at Gad’s Hill before Dickens died: Turk, a mastiff, Sultan, possibly an Irish bloodhound, Linda, a St Bernard (and four of her puppies, two to Turk, two to Sultan), and Don, a young, black Newfoundland. They were primarily used as guard dogs from passing riffraff, but Sultan had to be shot when he savaged a young child. There was also Mamie’s dog, Mrs Bouncer. Mamie said that Dickens liked to take his shoes off in the evening, smoke, and stroke Mrs Bouncer with his foot while he read. What a picture of domestic bliss and relaxation.

Of course, Dickens used other animals as well as dogs in his books: caged birds, horses, donkeys, poultry, and cats, etc. But Gray remarks constantly on Dickens’ innate ability to translate his observations about dogs onto the page and states: “The acuity of Dickens’s observations is remarkable. Anthropomorphic though the notion of the dog’s reasoning with himself may be, the description of his actual behaviour is in every detail absolutely that of a dog.”

She considers that societal attitudes changed towards the treatment of dogs as Dickens championed better care, and credits some of this influence in the establishment of what eventually became known as the Battersea Dog’s Home.

In the second part of the book, Knowing His Place: The Dog in Dickens’s Art, Gray goes into further detail about the author as an astute dog watcher, and how this translated into his body of work.

Mentioned before, arguably the most famous dog in Dickens is Bulls-eye, Bill Sikes’ dog in Oliver Twist, who accidentally dies after his master’s accidental hanging. The role of the wretched dog was further immortalised in Dickens’ Readings as he travelled around. The script for the death of Nancy, Bill Sikes and Bulls-eye in the Readings was highly dramatised for maximum impact. The dog’s unhappy end as he falls off the body of Sikes and ‘dashed out his brains’ was as vivid and shocking to listeners (and readers) as the deaths of Nancy and Bill.

I was interested to read that Gray considers Quilp, the villain from The Old Curiosity Shop, as a metaphor for a fierce canine. Quilp taunts other dogs, he has ‘fangs’, over-large teeth, he pants, he howls, he shakes himself like a dog, his tongue lolls out, he threatens to bite, and he chews his food with ‘ferocity’. That adds a new character dimension to consider when reading the book.

Gray looks at Hard Times (the performing dogs), Bleak House (a dog is the first animal seen in the book), Dombey and Son (discussing how Diogenes brings vitality to the novel), Little Dorrit (Lion is the faithful dog belonging to the cruel and careless Henry Gowan), and David Copperfield (the defining dog being Jip, inseparable from Dora; there is also the terrible black dog that charges David on his return after his mother’s marriage – in some part an interpretation of the terrible Mr Murdstone). In Great Expectations Gray again sees the convict Magwitch as being another ‘dog metaphor’: leaping on Pip and scaring him in the graveyard, gobbling his food, skulking on the marshes, and his eventual sudden, furtive, scruffy reappearance.

Through her book Gray fascinatingly compares and contrasts Dickens’ original illustrations and plates with the texts. She also looks at periodicals of the time, newspapers, letters, and archives. How were dogs depicted in society? How were they treated? Was this a true reflection of the society at the time? Did the illustrations of the dogs in Dickens’ work ‘match’ the text? Did they add or subtract any meaning to the text? And so on. She uses original illustrators George Cruickshank and Hablot Knight Browne, and paintings by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Edwin Landseer.

I found the book well researched, presented and illustrated. It has clear footnotes, an extensive bibliography to tempt you with further reading, and a good index. It is extremely interesting to read – and indeed, very readable, for all its scholarly aspect. I imagine it will become an excellent resource for Dickens scholars and readers alike, and also for those simply interested in the social history of nineteenth-century England. Highly recommended.


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