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Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson,…
by Maureen Adams
No current Talk conversations about this book.
Most interesting (to me) for the basic biographical sketches. The focus on the writers' dogs was a moderately interesting twist. ( )
The short review: A pleasant overview of several important female writers and their canine companions. If you're not a dog person, you still won't be one after reading this book, but you may understand them a little better, even if you still think they're insane (because they are).
The details: Bear in mind that this was written by a woman whose idea of trauma is being wealthy, happily married, and the mother of two normal, well-adjusted children, and then moving from Kansas City, Missouri to Sonoma, California.
I am not wealthy and am stuck in a city I can't stand and can't afford to leave, so I'm in no position to sympathize with this kind of "problem." Specifically, my response to the autobiographical introduction to this book was to feel pretty sure that I'd read incorrectly and that Maureen Adams had actually been traumatized by having to move from the beautiful wine country of California to, no offense, freakin' Missouri. Which I'm sure is absolutely lovely, but I'm also pretty sure there's a reason you can still buy a huge house there for well under six digits, whereas just visiting Sonoma can set you back seven.
Anyway. Once the reader gets past the terrifying tale of being forced to move to a place so beautiful people are willing to pay big bucks to take even a brief vacation there, the book is an enjoyable enough read. I admire all the writers Maureen Adams discusses – in fact, they're all authors I singled out for study at some point in my reading career. It was great fun revisiting Emily Brontë's relationship with her huge dog Keeper, and learning additional details of the London dognappers who did such a brisk trade in ransoming the pets of the wealthy during Elizabeth Barrett Browning's life there with her beloved Cocker Spaniel, Flush.
I have to ding this book a couple of stars, though, because Adams gets a lot wrong when it comes to Emily Dickinson. When I saw Dickinson included on the list of women who, according to Adams, were "inspired" by their pet dogs, I thought, "Wow. That's strange. All the biographies I've read so far have hardly said a thing about Dickinson's dog."
It turns out there's a reason for that. Dickinson's relationship with her dog just wasn't all that intense, especially compared with the bonds between the other writers and their canine companions. She loved Carlo, and she mentioned him in her letters, and dogs certainly pop up in a few of her poems; but she loved almost all animals (saving cats), and she wrote far more poems about birds than dogs. Heck, she talks about mice in several of her poems, and you don't see anyone writing a book called Mouse as Muse: Vermin in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Which is a shame. I would read that so hard.
Anyway. Adams flubs a lot of facts in the section of this book devoted to Dickinson, which really makes me wonder what I didn't catch in the other chapters. Some of these mistakes are fairly inconsequential. It doesn't matter much that the book Emily and her brother Austin hid from their father in the piano (not the bench, Ms. Adams) wasn't Ik Marvel's Reveries of a Bachelor but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's novel Kavanagh. Then again, maybe it matters a little. Kavanagh is the story of a friendship between two women so intense that some reviewers have insisted their love was an erotic one. (I read it. I yawned. But I digress.) Many writers have speculated about whether or not Dickinson was erotically attracted to women, based on letters she wrote that sound an awful lot like the conversations between the young women in Kavanagh.
There are larger mistakes than this, however. Adams describes Dickinson moving with her family to a house they called the Homestead. She claims this was a traumatic move "from her first home." Actually, the Homestead was Dickinson's first home. She was born there. She lived there with her family for about a decade. Then she and her family moved down the street; and then, about a decade later, her father was able to purchase the house that not only "had once belonged to Emily's grandfather," but that had been built by him. Yes, the move back to this home was undoubtedly an unsettling one to Dickinson; but any move is unsettling, and describing this as the first move of her life to a house she'd never known is incorrect and highly misleading.
Equally misleading is Adams' assertion that Dickinson used the death of her dog Carlo as an excuse not to take a trip to see a friend:
In response to some question from [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson, perhaps his oft-repeated urging "You must come down to Boston sometimes? All ladies do," Emily reminded Higginson that she was still mourning her dog: "Thank you, I wish for Carlo."
First of all, the standard collection of Dickinson's letters leaves no doubt that Higginson was indeed inviting her to come to see him in Boston, so it's odd that Adams would present this as a "perhaps."
Second, Dickinson made no such reply. She did say "Thank you, I wish for Carlo" in the letter in question; but only after her real refusal to visit Boston, which was phrased thus:
I must omit Boston. Father prefers so. He likes me to travel with him but objects that I visit.
The fact that Adams twists the facts to fit her own ideas makes this book a lightweight and not entirely reliable overview, rather than the insightful study it might have been. The end of the chapter about Dickinson is awkwardly abrupt because it has to be to suit Adams' purposes. Carlo died twenty years before Dickinson did, and Adams needs Carlo to be more significant than he really was, so she closes by suggesting, "The last twenty years of Emily's life were quiet."
Excuse me, but they weren't. Not any more quiet than the rest of her life had been, anyway. Those last two decades included the one confirmed romance of Dickinson's life -- a relationship so tender and passionate that her sister-in-law didn't want to cross the street to pay a visit in case she caught Emily on the sofa in the arms of her suitor AGAIN. (The man in question's niece later accused Dickinson of being "a hussy" and chasing "all the men." I love that so much.)
Those years also included her brother engaging in an extramarital affair that would directly impact how and when Dickinson's poetry was posthumously published. (More about that in another review.) That affair was conducted in Emily Dickinson's very own flippin' house, during the day. Hey, her brother couldn't go to his own house – his wife was there! And he couldn't have liaisons with his lover at night -- how would it look? So he met his mistress several times a month at the Homestead, and, um, visited with her while Dickinson sat upstairs trying to write poetry, or possibly plugging her ears and saying "LALALALALA." Maybe both at the same time, which would explain why she wrote so comparatively few poems in those last few years.
I'm not saying any of this belongs in an essay about Dickinson and her dog. I'm saying, stop implying, for authorial convenience, that Dickinson's life was boring and uneventful after her dog died.
I did enjoy the chapters about the other writers, especially Emily Brontë and Edith Wharton. But the afterword, "The Dogs," is intensely annoying, in part because once again Adams makes up facts. Like this one:
Unlike other domesticated animals – such as cows, sheep, or horses – dogs made the first move toward living with people. This occurred when a wolf ancestor, a bit less wary than other wolves, discovered it was easier to survive on food discarded by humans than to hunt.
I don't remember there being a consensus on that. And Adams doesn't cite a source. So I call shenanigans. That might be what happened, but it might not. Putting a hypothesis forward as a fact is not cool.
I do think this is a valuable book because the short biographies of each writer include a lot of engaging quotes that are sure to pique the reader's interest in learning more about that author's life and work. Full points to Maureen Adams for that. But – maybe try a little harder to get the facts right next time, please?
So wonderful I read it straight through at one setting. Highly recommended to anyone who loves literature or dogs or who is interested in the lives of writers or in women writers: Woolf, Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte. It's also a lovely celebration of the therapeutic benefits of dogs as companions. Quotes: Virginia Woolfe: "Half the horrors of illness cease when one has a book or a dog or a cup of one's own at hand." kl 4496 "Like many creative people, she [Emily Dickinson] depended on someone else to oversee the balance between having time alone against the need for connection with others to avoid being engulfed by the work." One "someone else" was her dog.
This book is subtitled "The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte". *whew* I found it quite interesting, although the subtitle is a bit misleading. The dogs in question were not so much inspiration to, as emotional support for, the women who cherished them, helping the women to compensate for lack of love and attention, or the wrong kind of attention, from mothers, siblings, lovers and spouses. Each section is a mini-biography of one author, with the focus on how her dog(s) featured in her life. Although written by a psychologist, the main text is blessedly free of psycho-babble, while the afterword does go into some analysis of concepts such as limbic resonance, attachment figures and (god-help-us) psychopomps.
An interesting look at how dogs influenced the writing of 5 different female authors. I'm not sure how to rate this, I found the writing a bit uneven, but as a female book-loving dog owner, interesting. A plus for this book was that it did not just focus on the womens' relationships with their dogs, but also gave an outline of the their lives and writings for those unfamiliar with the authors.
Coaxed through a depression by her golden retriever, Adams, a psychologist and former English professor, was drawn to five women writers who relied on their dogs for emotional support. Flush distracted Elizabeth Barrett after her favorite brother's death. Formidable, eccentric Emily Bronte, who once savagely beat her fierce mastiff, Keeper, for sleeping on her bed, refused to sentimentalize the human-dog bond in Wuthering Heights. Carlo, a Newfoundland, comforted Emily Dickinson in a dark time--when she may have been in love with a married man--and Edith Wharton mourned the death of one of her pooches more than the death of her mother. And Adams suggests that Virginia Woolf, depicting a dog's trauma in her biography of Flush, who was dognapped for ransom, dealt with her own childhood molestation. Lovers of both dogs and classic writers will identify with this sweet, quirky book.--From publisher description.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)820.99287Literature English & Old English literatures English literature in more than one form History, description, critical appraisal of works in more than one form
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