Unusual Muses

BTW, I’m starting this post with something totally unrelated to my topic, but I wanted to share this pic! I found it on a film costuming blog I sometimes visit, and it’s the first glimpse of the Keira Knightley film The Duchess! Even though I wish they had cast someone else as Georgiana, I’m always excited about a chance to look at 18th century costumes.

And now for my regularly scheduled post! A few weeks ago I read a fun book by Maureen B. Adams, Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolfe. While not exactly deep. ground-breaking scholarship, I loved the way it illuminated this aspect of the writers’ lives, their very different relationships to their pets, and how their dogs provided not just companionship and distraction, but grounding during times of intense creativity and psychological upheaval.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush seemed to be a sort of conduit for her own emotions when she was confined to home as an “invalid”; in letters she often ascribed her own feelings to Flush, and thus made them safe to express. But he also made her feel more empowered when he was kidnapped by a band of evil dognappers and she went out herself and got him back! (I HATED those dognappers). Luckily for Flush, he got to end his life in Italy, running around the piazza with all the wild Italian dogs.

Emily Bronte’s mastiff, Keeper, was weird dog for a fascinatingly weird person. He was enormous and often bad-tempered, fighting with the village dogs and such. But he wandered the moors with Emily at all hours, and was sweet as a kitten when she subdued him by beating him up when he got on the parsonage furniture. (Her sister Anne had a small spaniel, Flossy, who it seems was allowed to get on the furniture with impunity…) Keeper stayed close to Emily as she was dying, followed her funeral cortege to the church, and then spent the rest of his life lying outside her empty bedroom door.

Emily Dickinson also possessed a very large dog (“as big as myself,” she wrote in a letter), a Newfoundland named Carlo that her father bought her for protection. He was too gentle for that, but he proved an excellent, laid-back, affectionate companion for the Very Intense poet. In my Google searches, I found that the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst even has Carlo Look-Alike Contests once a year!

Edith Wharton, on the other hand, had a pack of very tiny dogs, Papillons and Chihuhuas and Pekinese. Link was the last one, and he often sent invitations and letters in his own name to Edith’s friends and guests. They traveled everywhere with her, a little, dancing, yapping pack.

Virginia Woolfe’s attitude toward dogs seems to have been more prosaic than Wharton’s! They weren’t like her “babies,” they often ran off or got into trouble, but they were still an important part of her life. Most of them seem to have been large hounds or mutts, but there was one expensive spaniel, a gift of her lover Vita Sackville-West. Woolfe even wrote Flush: A Biography about Barrett Browning’s dog!

So, if you love pets and poetry as I do, this is a fun book! I showed some of the illustrations to my own dogs (Victoria the Pug, and Abigail the poodle) and they enjoyed it immensely. Though they now want to travel all over Europe with me, as Wharton’s dogs did. 🙂 I suppose I can’t say my dogs are my “muses”–I’ve never written a story about a bluestocking poodle falling in love with a French poodle comte, for instance. But they ARE a huge comfort when I’m blocked in a story and feel like I Will Never Write Again, or when I’ve gotten a bad review and am feeling down. They sit on my lap and give me kisses, assuring me that they love me and think I am a great writer and fabulous mommy no matter what that nasty reviewer says. I couldn’t do without them.

Do you have your own pets? Or know any good Pets In History stories (I always love those!)?

Happy Saturday! Take your dogs for a nice long walk (maybe not your cats, though–my cats would never let me put a leash on them, but they are excellent companions and comforts, too)

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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18 Responses to Unusual Muses

  1. Tracy Grant says:

    What great stories, Amanda! Anyone who’s seen my author photo knows my pets are an important part of my writing life :-). I’m currently typing this with a cat curled up next to the keyboard, and my dog was demanding I throw a toy for her a little bit ago. I like to put animals in my books, too, and I often base the personalities of my characters’ pets at least in part on my own pets.

  2. doglady says:

    Let me see. Do I love and am I inspired by my pets?? My yahoo ID pretty much answers that question!! I cannot sit down at my computer to write without my chihuahua, Frodo and my dachshund/basset hound mix, Adelaide, literally sitting on my feet. My two male cats have the hard duty of making sure the foot of the bed does not run away. (At 23 lbs and 17 lbs, Tigger and Pooh can hardly do anything else.) My female cat, Rebecca, sits on the stack of books by my desk and pats me on the knee for a head rub from time to time. I recently lost one of the great dogs of all time, Glory – my deaf Great Dane – to bone cancer. She was almost ten. I learned so much from her. She moved through life with such grace and goodness. She was so gentle and funny. She did not know she was deaf, you see. She simply accepted and she accepted flaws in people as well. Even in the last part of her life when her vets and I fought so hard to keep her with us, she never complained. She was a truly amazing creature and I feel privileged to have had her in my life for a while.

  3. doglady says:

    Oh and for those of you who don’t know it already, prize packages from Amanda are a real treat!! Mine arrived in the mail a few days ago and wow!! Of course the autographed book will go on my treasure shelf next to Julia Quinn! The bookmark is exquisite and far to lovely to use except at home. Then as an extra treat there were two opera CDs, both of which I did not have! The operetta CD is so much fun, but oh the Strauss is amazing. I’ve done a couple of the pieces and Strauss is a particular favorite of mine, both to perform and to hear others perform, especially the divine Renee! Are you all jealous?? LOL Thank you so much, Amanda. I received at the end of a bad work day so it REALLY made my day!

  4. “I recently lost one of the great dogs of all time, Glory – my deaf Great Dane – to bone cancer.”

    It is so tremendously hard to lose our friends. I lost a darling cat, the Smartest Cat Ever, Diana, to cancer a few years ago and still miss her! But I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.

    Tracy, my dogs also demand attention when I’m trying to write! 🙂 For a while they’re good, they nap or chew their rawhide sticks, but then they decide “We’ve been without love long enough!” and start squeaking toys or jumping on my lap. Or one of my cats climbs up on the printer or walks across the keyboard. She’s my editor.

    Doglady, I’m so glad the package arrived! I had ordered the CDs from my music club, then realized I already had them (happens a lot with books, too). So I’m very glad to find someone who enjoys them! I’m actually going to get to see Renee Fleming in concert next month, I am soooo excited! Hope she does some of the Strauss that night.

  5. BTW, I meant to put in a link to that costume site, in case anyone is interested, it’s http://www.costumersguide.com. Today she has pics from an upcoming Queen Victoria movie, “Young Victoria,” starring Emily Blunt…

  6. Tracy Grant says:

    Amanda, have a fabulous time at the Renée Fleming concert. I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform several times (incuding in “Der Rosenkavalier”) and she’s also so wonderfully emotionally engaged in everything she does. I particularly love her doing Strauss.

  7. Diane Gaston says:

    doglady, your story about Glory was very touching.

  8. What a great post Amanda. I’d never even thought of the roles that animals played as muses for authors. As for Keira, I could totally see her playing the young duchess, but I can’t see her playing the older stout woman who died relatively young. Lovely costumes though. I wonder who’s playing the Duke and who’s playing Lady Elizabeth Forster.

  9. Deb Marlowe says:

    Oh, so many good movies coming up!

    Just think, Amanda, someday you and Victoria might be included in a book like that! 🙂 My kitty is more of a Daddy’s girl. They are currently engaged in the Great Mole Hunt of 2007.

    So sorry to hear about Glory, doglady. I know your animals are so lucky to have you.

  10. Cara King says:

    I live with a megalomaniac stuffed cat that I got in a cheapo tourist shop in Leicester Square, and many of his stuffed animal friends. My flesh-and-blood cat, who may not have been the Smartest Cat Ever, but was very smart, and very cute, and deathly afraid of bananas, went to cat heaven a few years ago now.

    And I’m going to get a new kitten any day now. Honest.


  11. Cara King says:

    I wonder who’s playing the Duke and who’s playing Lady Elizabeth Forster.

    According to imdb, Ralph Fiennes is the Duke (yay! I love him) and Hayley Atwell [Mary Crawford in the new Mansfield Park] is down as playing “Bess.”


  12. Santa says:

    Great Danes are great animals. I am so sorry to hear of your loss. My best friend has a German Sheppard who is feeling all of her thirteen years and may not be with us for much longer. I call her every day is to see how our ‘Mantha is doing. She’s given her such love and joy that I consider her my dog as well even though we live six hours apart.

    Barbara Metzger always has a dog in her stories. Sometimes they are an important part of the whole tale. I think it was a great homage to her dog, Hero, many years before he passed on.

    We have a white Boxer my oldest daughter named Blizzard. She is the best thing since sliced bread. The dog that is. My daughter rocks too but that’s a different post. Blizzard adores her people as much as we do. She stations herself by the front door at 3 every day and waits for the kids to come home. It’s like she knows it’s three o’clock!

    To date I haven’t been inspired to write about a dog in a book but I have several friends who have a dog in their books and it works. Wonderfully so.

  13. Well, I had to take Abigail to the emergency vet clinic this evening, and we just got home! The samp ate something that made her sick. Sigh. She’s fine now, thankfully, but I’m going to have to take the fee out of her allowance. 🙂

    “Amanda, have a fabulous time at the Renée Fleming concert. I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform several times”

    Oh, lucky! I have only seen her once before–here in the “middle of the country” we don’t get very many top-notch classical performers (though I did see the Eroica Trio last spring). But once in a while I can sneak down to Dallas or Houston, and I got to see Fleming in “La Traviata” there a few years ago. Wonderful!

  14. Todd says:

    It’s terribly sad when a beloved pet died. One reason that it’s taken us so long to get a new kitten is that for a couple of years after Mousie died (I know, a very undignified name for a cat) I couldn’t bear the thought of going through the same thing again.

    I didn’t know Barbara Metzger had a dog named Hero, though I’m not surprised that she had a dog. 🙂 To me, Hero is a female name (as in Much Ado About Nothing). So I suppose one could have a heroine named Hero, which would be a bit confusing…


  15. Tracy Grant says:

    My sympathies, doglady and Cara–it’s so hard losing a pet! I lost a cat after a long bout with kidney disease last spring. It took my mom ten years to get a new dog after we lost the dogs I grew up with, but the dog we finally got (who I still have) is definitely worth it. After we got her I think we all wondered why we waited so long.

    Amanda, I envy you seeing Flemming in Traviata. She hasn’t been in San Francisco for several years, but I have friends who saw her in Traviata in L.A. who said it was wonderful.

  16. Cara King says:

    So glad that Abigail is okay, Amanda!!!!

    And tell her to lay off the hot wings. 🙂


  17. How fitting that Emily B. had a dog who “was enormous and often bad-tempered, fighting with the village dogs and such.” Just like Heathcliff!

  18. Georgie Lee says:

    I have to read this book. I have a Cairn Terrier mix, Wiggins, and I often use him for inspiration. I always have one character in my stories who has a small dog. Wiggins watches me when I write and I think he really hates my laptop because it keeps him out of my lap.

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