Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)
The nineteenth century saw great changes in the way the English thought about animals. This wasn't only because of Darwinian revelations; it was also the result of increased urbanization and industrialization. Less frequently confined to the farmyard or the hunting kennels the dog, in particular, entered the daily life of humans as never before. It became a domestic pet, a fellow worker, the object of scientific enquiry; in today's accepted phrase, it became a member of 'a companion species', deserving understanding and concern. Dorothea Brooke, we might recall, was 'always attentive to the feelings of dogs, and very polite if she had to decline their advances.
At the same time the very appearance of the species was increasingly regularized and aestheticized with the implementation of breed specifications, dog shows and institutions such as the Kennel Club. These shifts brought with them fresh opportunities for anthropomorphism, that ancient trope always at the heart of how we think about living in the world with animals. As Beryl Gray shows in this devotedly researched book, for Charles Dickens in particular the dog was an omnipresent fact of social life exerting a continual pull upon his emotions and providing a means of conveying feelings of domestic alienation along with more consoling thoughts of an inclusive animate community. At no point are canine characteristics simply metaphoric; the Dickens dog is always a character, though of a different non-human kind. The writer observes the animal closely - and thinks about what it might be thinking about.
Gray opens with detailed biographical notes on the real-life dogs that Dickens owned, but she continues with a mythic creature: 'The Dog of Montargis', with whose story Dickens was very familiar, evoking it on several occasions. This is one of those dog anecdotes that have always been with us in one form or another but it was revived in the early nineteenth century in a staged melodrama. The hero is a bloodhound who revenges the assassination of his master by tracking down the killer and publicly holding him down until he confesses. Here are the mixed qualities of intelligence, loyalty, instinct and sheer physical strength that Dickens respected in his own pets and projected in complex and sometimes hesitant ways onto the imaginary dogs that feature in his writing.