Thursday, August 09, 2007

Shaggy Muses - A Review

Ballantine Books kindly sent us a copy of Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Brontë. After reading it carefully, this is our review.


Publisher: Ballantine Books
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Pub Date: July 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-345-48406-2 (0-345-48406-1)


This review will be divided into two parts. First, briefly, we will talk about the book as a whole and finally we will focus on the chaper on Emily Brontë and several other Brontë-related mentions.

A book that tries to explore the bond between this group of women authors and their dogs can be addressed from very different perspectives: a purely scholar approach trying to unveil the psychological and sociological reasons that made these authors(1) develop such special relations with their dogs; or a less academical approach that delves into these issues providing a biographical background and an accessible narrative catering for literature- and dog-loving readers alike. This book clearly falls in this second category but doesn't renounce to some scattered scholar toppings in some chapters(2). The references and sources are restricted to the notes at the end of the book and, although this renders it easier for the casual reader it also makes it hard to find some of the sources of the different biographical details provided. Especially interesting are the foreword (sincerely tracing the path from the personal experience of the author to the realization that this was, as a matter of fact, a more general experience) and the afterword that, starting with quotes from the different authors, explores the different shapes that the human-dog relationship can take: attachment figures, dogs as witnesses, the limbic resonance, etc...

The chapter on Emily Brontë is more or less divided between a succinct biographical digest of the Brontës' lives with the usual suspects and no surprises for the Brontë connoisseur. The special emphasis on Emily and her relationship with Keeper (Grasper and Flossie are also mentioned, but of course the main star here is the mastiff) is explored through some well-known biographical accounts: the beating of Keeper after sleeping on the Parsonage beds, the episode with the dog fight and Emily's no-nonsense intervention, etc... and with the treatment of dogs in Wuthering Heights(3). Some parallelisms are made with the description of animal abuse and domestic violence in the novel, but the issues are discussed superficially without deviating too much from the biographical narrative. We attribute this not to a failure of the book but to the aforementioned accessible approach(4).

The Brontës are present in all the other chapters as well, save the one devoted to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the chapter on Emily Dickinson(5) her love of Emily Brontë's poetry is obviously mentioned. In the chapter on Edith Wharton, Henry James's readings of Emily Brontë's poetry in The Mount are featured (check this old post of ours) and in Virginia Woolf's chapter too.

(1) All of them born in the 19th Century, all of them women, all of them with distant or absent mothers, etc...
(2) Some of the contents of the book appeared previously in scholar journals. Concerning Emily Brontë: Emily Brontë and Keeper, Brontë Studies 29 (March 2004) 43; Emily Brontë and Dogs: Transformations within the Human-Dog Bond, Society & Animals 9, no. 1 (2000) 152.
(3) Given that Emily Brontë and Keeper are the main subject of the chapter it's logic, but also a pity, that other interesting Brontë dogs are not analyzed: Rochester's Pilot, for instance. It's also regretable that Patrick Brontë's very funny letter to Charlotte dated January 1853, where he impersonated Flossy is not mentioned.
(4) An obvious mistake has to be mentioned nevertheless. The author confuses William Smith Williams with George Smith several times in the chapter. Particularly when she relates the visit of Charlotte and Anne to London in August 1848.
(5) The suggestion that Emily Dickinson's dog was named Carlo after St. John's dog in Jane Eyre is not mentioned. (See Wendy Ann Powers, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson: Parallel Lives on Opposing Shores, Brontë Studies, Vol 32, (July 2007 )145).

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