Rachel Carson once wished that the good fairy would endow each child with an indestructible sense of wonder. Barring such ethereal intervention, she argued that a child “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” But what if a young person isn’t blessed with a passionate, enlightened, and, especially, available adult companion?
For me, there were horses. It never seems to have occurred to my city-bred mother to take her children hiking, star-gazing, or even gardening. But when we moved to an outer suburb of Kansas City, an empty pasture across the street called to my sister and me to animate it with horses. Lucky Charm and his successors became my ambassadors to the outdoors, drawing me away from my books and literally carrying me into the woods and fields. On Lucky’s back, I chased foxes, watched a snake swallow a frog, and developed my first hostile relationship with an invasive species--—bull thistle—due to its impact on bare legs. While Lucky didn’t tutor me in the names of birds, insects, or plants we encountered, his easy familiarity with the acres we explored gave me confidence to venture farther and more often than I ever would have alone.
Women writers seeking literary adventures often need similar sources of support. Carson herself relied on the calm presence of cats to buoy her spirits during late nights of solitary research for Silent Spring. But an insightful new book--Shaggy Muses--focuses on the canine companions of five literary lionesses: Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte. Author Maureen Adams, a clinical psychologist, investigates the diverse powers of human-animal bonds through intimate portraits of each author’s relationships with friends, playmates, protectors, and guides who happened to be dogs.
In some cases, the four-legged personalities Adams depicts clarify aspects of an author’s public work. Emily Dickinson’s black Newfoundland, Carlo, was her “Shaggy Ally” in a private refuge behind the hedges of Amherst, and imagining her gentle compatriot adds depths to her poem describing a hummingbird sipping her garden’s flowers: Til every spice is tasted-/ and then his Fairy Gig/ reels in remoter atmospheres-/ And I rejoin my Dog . . . .
More often, the women’s dogs appear in diaries, letters, and other private writings that reveal vital supporting roles played by each pet. Emily Dickinsons’ faithful Cocker Spaniel nestled by her side through years when illness and an oppressive parent cloistered her in a dark bedroom. Edith Wharton’s Pekinese thrived under her intense pampering, providing an outlet for her thwarted dreams of motherhood. More than one of the woman used pets as go-betweens or symbolic surrogates in romantic entanglements.
The story of Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper, spoke most personally to me. Emily’s reclusive nature segregated her from both friendship and employment. When her sisters left home to attend church, study abroad, or work as governesses, Emily usually stayed behind, running her father’s parsonage. But Keeper pulled her away from the kitchen fires onto the moors, into vast, wind-blown spaces that freed her imagination. Could she have written her bleak, disturbing masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, without those hours striding across the heather beside Keeper? Adams thinks not, asserting that caring for the dog also grounded her when passionate imaginings might have swept her sanity away. Says Adams, “. . . she needed structure for her life while she was writing Wuthering Heights. And Keeper provided that structure. Emily had to take care of him—feed him, give him water, and exercise him—no matter what was happening in the nightmare world she was creating.” For Emily Bronte and the other writers insightfully portrayed by Adams, dogs functioned like Carson’s proverbial fairy, endowing not just wonder but also boldness, independence, and love. These shaggy muses allowed each woman to find freedom through connection with dogs, words, and the world.