By Allison Scheidegger, PhD Student, Department of English, Baylor University
This spring, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “Puppy Love: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships,” an exhibition on dog ownership and depictions of dogs in the Victorian period, with a focus on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. January 15, 2022 – August 15, 2022.
“Puppy Love: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships” will close on August 15th, 2022. Come and see it before it’s gone!
One of my favorite parts of curating the “Puppy Love” exhibit has been uncovering networks of connection between writers that are founded on pet ownership. Two major kinds of networks come to mind: between writers who are fellow dog owners, and between writers who give one another dogs. In this blog post I will share some avenues I’ve found for further exploring these doggy networks.
The shared experience of owning a dog can create a bond between strangers. The first case of the exhibit, “Flush and Friendship,” showcases a pair of letters between E. B. Browning and fellow poet Thomas Westwood. Browning and Westwood forged a letter-writing friendship that was founded on a shared interest in poetry and dogs. In the first letter in the exhibit, Westwood reaches out to Browning to ask for a copy of one of her poems. Westwood’s tone is that of a star-struck fan: in this letter, he admits that he only found courage to write to Browning after reading her “To Flush, My Dog.” Because Browning loves dogs so much, Westwood reasons, she must be kind. This letter is available in full on the Baylor libraries digitization page: https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/5-august-1843.-westwood-thomas-to-browning-elizabeth-barrett./339971?item=339972. Click the “Transcript” tab for help decoding the handwriting!
Browning’s response (available in Baylor’s digital collections: https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/ca.-8-august-1843.-browning-elizabeth-barrett-to-westwood-thomas./339976?item=339977) is kind and sympathetic—she is more than happy to talk about dogs! In her reply to Westwood, Browning includes an imaginary response from Flush to Flossy. Overjoyed at her response, Westwood then sends a flurry of letters. Although in his anxiety to make a good impression, Westwood comes across as flattering and awkward early in the correspondence, the two manage to talk about their shared interests. See this letter from Browning to Westwood (https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/2-september-1843.-browning-elizabeth-barrett-to-westwood-thomas./340099?item=340100) for a discussion of the writing of Tennyson and Robert Browning (E. B. Browning’s future husband). Westwood and Browning would continue their correspondence for over ten years, connecting over the common ground of poetry and dog ownership.
But there is an even more significant kind of canine connection: the connection between friends who give one another the gift of a dog. Mary Russell Mitford made her friend Browning a dog owner when she sent her a spaniel she had bred. Mitford sent Flush the spaniel to Browning to comfort her after the death of her favorite brother Edward. Flush succeeded in rousing Browning from debilitating depression and inspired several poems. Browning acknowledges in the footnote in “To Flush,” her spaniel was “the gift of [her] dear and admired friend Miss Mitford.”
Mitford was a fellow author who encouraged Browning in her writing. Although today Browning’s work is more prized, at the time Mitford was the more established author.
As I researched Woolf’s writing of Flush: A Biography, I realized that the story of Browning and Flush must have fascinated Woolf because in many ways it paralleled Woolf’s own story with her cocker spaniel, Pinka.Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, who was herself a popular poet and author, gave Pinka to Woolf. Completing the parallels between the Mitford-Browning and Sackville-West-Woolf stories, Pinka posed as Flush for the frontispiece of the first edition of Woolf’s Flush (Steele xvii).
Mitford and Sackville-West were the more established and popular writers when they became friends with Browning and Woolf, respectively. In honor of these mentors’ literary and canine contributions to the development of Browning and Woolf, I unearthed some dog writing of their own. Mitford wrote several short stories about dogs, including “The Widow’s Dog,” a story about a spaniel named Chloe (read on Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22842/22842-h/22842-h.htm), and one about a heroic hound (read “Scotland: Sir Allan and His Dog” from Findens’ Tableaux on Google books: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Finden_s_Tableaux_A_Series_of_Picturesqu/cttJAAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1). Sackville-West, meanwhile, wrote Faces: Profiles of Dogs, which pairs humorous commentary with photographs of dogs by Laelia Goehr. Visit Goehr’s official site (available at: https://www.laeliagoehr.com/dogs) to see some of these striking dog portraits. Although the “Puppy Love” exhibit delves into the world of animal writing, there is much more to discover.
Sackville-West, Vita. Faces: Profiles of Dogs. Daunt Books, 2019.
“Scotland: Sir Allan and his Dog. In Finden’s Tableaux. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. 1838.
Steele, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” In Flush: A Biography. Edited by Elizabeth Steele. Shakespeare Head Press, 1999, pp. xi-xxxi.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Letter to Thomas Westwood. [ca. 8] August 1843. Browning Correspondence.
Westwood, Thomas. Letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 5 August 1843. Browning Correspondence.
Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships”:
- Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships in the ABL’s Archive (March 16, 2022)
- “Puppy Love”: Inside the Process (April 13, 2022)
- Victorian Print Culture and Pet Culture (May 18, 2022)
- Reception of E.B. Browning’s and Virginia Woolf’s Dog Writing (June 15, 2022)
- “Puppy Love”: What I Learned Through the Process (July 13, 2022)