Shaggy Muses

Ballantine Books, 288 pp, 2007; $24.95
By Maureen Adams
Reviewed by Kay Elliott, November 2008, Updated March 2021

When Maureen Adams experienced a bout of depression after moving her family from Kansas City, Mo., to Sonoma, Calif., her dog Cody adjusted his role from family pet and children’s playmate to calm, supportive presence for the distraught Adams. In fact, the basic tenet of her book stems from this relationship, with Cody—and hence all dogs—serving as attachment figure, witness, source of limbic resonance, bringer of the silly and playful, and guide between the (symbolic or literal) living and dead. Through “mini-biographies” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, Adams illustrates that dogs are sympathetic beings capable of diminishing the suffering of the people who love them.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was chronically ill and for years, barely ventured outside her bedroom. Her dog Flush, a gift from a close friend, was her constant companion. She wrote early on, “He and I are inseparable companions, and I have vowed him my perpetual society in exchange for his devotion.” Adams argues that rescuing Flush on three separate occasions from a notorious band of dognappers is what caused Browning to overcome her anxieties so that she could ultimately escape from the control of her domineering father and elope with Robert Browning.

Emily Brontë’s dog, Keeper, a large Mastiff mix, was a constant and devoted companion, but a power struggle existed between the two. Though there is much in this chapter that one would prefer to look away from, the relationship between Brontë and Keeper was deep and abiding. Adams writes that, upon Brontë’s death, “According to Mrs. Gaskell: ‘Keeper walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion after her death.’ Charlotte [Brontë] often spoke about how Keeper, ‘to the day of its death, slept at her room door, snuffing under it, and whining every morning.’”

The sweet descriptions of Emily Dickinson with her dog Carlo, a Newfoundland, will delight. Carlo gave Dickinson security, as well as a way to express herself to others. As Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf would also do with their dogs, Dickinson often spoke “through” Carlo to express difficult feelings, as in this note to Samuel Bowles, a married man with whom some biographers speculate that Dickinson was in love: “I tell you, Mr. Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea—no care how Blue—between your Soul, and you … and the puzzled look—deepens in Carlo’s forehead, as the Days go by, and you never come.” Dickinson wrote almost nothing in the year following Carlo’s death. She never had another dog, but believed, as she wrote in a note to a friend, that “the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful, old friend Carlo.”


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The habit Edith Wharton developed early on and would keep throughout her life was to write first thing every morning, in bed with her dogs. Dogs were one of the few shared interests in her unhappy marriage, and they helped her, as they helped the other women in this book, connect with others. Wharton’s mini-biography also offers an interesting glimpse into the phenomenon of the lapdog as it grew out of the industrial revolution; she seemed always to have novel-at-the-time breeds, including Chihuahuas, Papillons and Pekingese.

Dogs, particularly one special dog named Pinka, helped Virginia Woolf through her bouts with mental illness. Woolf wrote that “Half the horrors of illness cease when one has a book or a dog or a cup of one’s own at hand.” Dogs served an important role in Woolf’s creative process, as she liked to compose out loud while she walked with Pinka, as well as in her romantic process, serving as a vehicle for the erotic feelings Woolf expressed in letters to her lover, Vita Sackville-West. Dogs represented, as Woolf saw it, the private, “play side” of life.

With this book, Adams has created a niche that will thrill those who love literature, biography and dogs. She combines bodies of knowledge from her first career as a professor of literature and her second as a psychologist to explain the importance of canines in the lives of these five inspired and inspiring women. Presented through her psychological and literary lens, the biographies of these celebrated literary figures open up facets of these women’s lives with dogs never before fully explored, and open up to us dog lovers an occasion to see how dogs helped shape the writings and lives that have in turn shaped and inspired us.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 43: Jul/Aug 2007

Kay Elliott is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and owner of Handful of Hounds. She lives with two rambunctious rescued Rottweilers in Petaluma, Calif.