Reception of E. B. Browning’s and Virginia Woolf’s Dog Writing

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.

Although “Puppy Love” considers Victorian dog ownership and depictions of dogs more broadly, the exhibit concept began with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush, and the literature he inspired. Elizabeth Barrett Browning to wrote two poems and multiple letters describing Flush’s appearance and antics. Nearly a century later, the modernist author Virginia Woolf revisited this celebrity dog in the novel Flush: A Biography, which retells Flush’s story through his own perspective. This blog post explores how Browning and Woolf viewed their own dog writings, how their popular and critical audiences received them, and how these perspectives illuminate cultural attitudes about female authors and animal writing.

In the nineteenth century, prejudice lingered regarding female authors’ ability to produce great literary works. In 1850, a writer for The English Review lamented,

Female Poetry! this scarcely seems to us, ungallant as we are, a delightful theme, or a glorious memory; for is it not, generally speaking, mawkish, lackadaisical, and tedious? To us, at least, it is. Look at the “Literary Souvenir,” or “Book of Beauty,” if you want to see the kind of thing we mean: what people denominate poetry of the affections.  (Gurney)

In this reviewer’s mind, female poetry is associated with mediocrity, dullness, and sentimentality: it is not true poetry. The reviewer explicitly exempts Browning from this critique and even counts the poem “To Flush, My Dog” among his favorites in the recent edition of Browning’s Poems. But despite this ultimately positive verdict, the threat of being dismissed as a “poet of the affections” would have been a real concern to Browning as she considered how the inclusion of such a “light” poem might affect her literary reputation.

Displays the poem as published in The Poetic Album.

Browning’s “To Flush” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

“To Flush” is certainly a poem of affection and sentiment, as Browning recognized. But Browning was determined to keep “To Flush” in Poems, despite the cautions of a few of her friends, because Flush was important to her.

Writing about animals as a female author was doubly dangerous. As still holds true today, animal stories were frequently written for the purpose of entertaining and educating children. By comparing and contrasting themselves with misbehaving pets or loyal and brave pets, children could learn a moral lesson. One of the most popular examples of this sort of book is Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Lessons for Children, which E. B. Browning grew up reading.

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Animal writing after Barbauld tended to target children, a trend of which the “Puppy Love” exhibition displays several examples. Because of this intended audience and the desire to teach moral lessons, animal writing was often highly sentimental and moralizing—harsh critics might lump animal writing with female poetry as “mawkish, lackadaisical, and tedious.” Despite this risk, and despite their budding reputations as serious female authors, both Browning and Woolf experimented with animal writing for the sake of Flush.

Authors’ Self-Perceptions and Critical Reception

Perhaps because of the common perception that animal writing was didactic, sentimental literature for children, both Browning and Woolf seemed to assume that their writings about Flush could not be serious literature. Browning dismissed “To Flush, My Dog” as light poetry and Woolf found Flush an embarrassment. When Browning shared “To Flush, My Dog” with friends before publishing it, she often described the poem critically. When Browning’s friend and mentor Hugh Stuart Boyd critiqued “To Flush,” she wrote in reply that she was “humbled” by his “hard criticism of [her] soft rhymes about Flush.” She admitted, “As for Flush’s verses, they are what I call cobweb verses, thin and light enough” and their significance is not “worth a defence” (Letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd). But Browning’s belittling of her work may be a kind of self-protection, a way to show that she is aware that animal poems are not serious and also to suggest that she is capable of greater things. Browning seems to want to set herself apart from the stereotypical female author who writes only such “cobweb verses.” Yet these supposedly “soft” verses grapple with interspecies relations, the death of a brother, and Browning’s mourning process.

The same is true of Flush: A Biography. Woolf was even more dismissive of her work: “I wanted to play a joke on Lytton – it was to parody him. But then it grew too long, and I dont think its [sic] up to much now” (23 February 1933, Virginia Woolf to Ottoline Morrell, Letters 5, 161–62). Lytton Strachey, the author of Eminent Victorians, wrote biographies in a detailed psychological style, commenting on Victorian culture through the study of individuals. Woolf thought it would be delightful to give as much (mock) serious attention to the life of an eminent Victorian dog. Woolf’s inspiration to write Flush came from reading the correspondence between Robert and Elizabeth Browning: “I was so tired after the Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life” (Woolf to Morrell 161). Following the Browning correspondence, Flush traces the story of the Brownings through their courtship, marriage, and escape from London to Italy, but with the difference that the events are filtered through the perspective of Flush. This perspective shift enables Woolf to engage in social and psychological exploration. The first meeting of Browning and Flush, for example, does not read like a lighthearted pet story for children.

Although Woolf says that Flush is a “joke,” the mock biography deals with serious issues such as animal psychology, eugenics, and fascism. Woolf’s self-evaluation of Flush and her judgment that it is “not up to much now” seem to overlook its significance.

Ultimately, such postures as Woolf’s and Browning’s are responses to a shared sense that they have jeopardized their literary reputations by dabbling in animal writing as female authors. Woolf worried that the publication of Flush would ruin her reputation as a serious author. She counseled herself in her diary to remember that she produced quality writing and that Flush was a rare aberration:

Flush will be out on Thursday & I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say its “charming” delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. . . . And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush. No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a rill of water; & so create, hardly [?] fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (Diary 4, 181)

“Charming” was, at least in Woolf’s mind, the most offensive praise for a female author to receive. Both Browning and Woolf did in fact receive this critical verdict on their Flush pieces. An American reviewer, for example, characterized “To Flush” as “a charming little copy of verses to the Poet’s Dog” (Mathews). In general, critics judged Browning’s “To Flush” more favorably than Woolf’s Flush, perhaps due to the passing of a century and shifting expectations for female authors. Browning’s cousin John Kenyon reported that “To Flush” was one of John Forster’s favorites from Browning’s recently released Poems: “Dog Flush was a great favorite of his from the mixture—he says—of humor and tenderness” (Kenyon). Although some critics bewailed sentimental “Female Poetry,” writers of “charming” poetry in the mid-nineteenth century were not quite so despised in the mid-nineteenth century as they were in the mid-twentieth.

Popular Reception and Economic Considerations

Although Browning and Woolf (and some of their critics) disparaged the Flush writings, their readers felt differently. Both “To Flush, My Dog” and Flush: A Biography enjoyed significant popular success. “To Flush, My Dog” first appeared in the Athenaeum, then was included in Browning’s Poems (which was appeared in multiple editions), in addition to being frequently selected for inclusion in poetry collections like The Poetic Album above. Woolf’s Flush-focused novel earned still more significant popular (and therefore financial) success. According to Anna Snaith, Flush sold almost 19,000 copies within six months, thus becoming Woolf’s “best-selling novel in Britain” (618).

Given Woolf’s intense dread of Flush being popular, it is ironic that she needed Flush to be popular. After the failure of her previous work, The Waves, Woolf hoped that her “little escapade” of writing Flush could provide some financial support (16 September 1931, Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, Letters 4, 380). While Browning, who relied on her father’s comfortable means, did not have to support herself by writing popular poems, other female authors were not so fortunate.  In this awareness of the financial pressures of authorship, Woolf resembles E. B. Browning’s friend Mary Russell Mitford, who served as editor of and contributor to Findens’ Tableaux in order to support herself and her father. These may not have been the prestigious works she wished to write, but they sold well.

However, commercial success was a third strike against animal writing by female authors. As Woolf recognized, a work’s popularity and feminine “charm” nearly guaranteed an icy critical reception. A look back at the past century reveals why Woolf made this assumption. The Victorian and Edwardian era was marked by the proliferation of ornate collector’s albums of sentimental poems and stories, often written by and for women. Mary Russell Mitford’s Findens’ Tableaux is an example of such an album. The critic from The English Review who condemned “Female Poetry” also specifically castigates poets who contribute to sentimental collections. About the poet L.E.L, he rants,

This woman undertook for years to fill a large annual with nothing but her poetry, in illustration of certain prints to be furnished her, whatever they might be! Now this fact alone expresses far more than any condemnation of ours could do. What a vista of dreary, morbid, boundless common-place does this disclose to us! And contemporary criticism could applaud, could think this annual undertaking perfectly natural, and rather sublime.

Although the reviewer heaps shame on L.E.L. while excusing E. B. Browning, Browning’s poems would also appear in such contexts. “To Flush, My Dog” and “Flush or Faunus” both appear in The Poetic Album (1854), a collection which places decorative engravings of ladies’ heads alongside poetry, with little regard for relevancy. The social and economic pressures on female authors, particularly when compounded with the lowly status of animal writing, often placed them in the difficult position of risking their literary reputation because of financial need or (in the case of Browning) because of their real affection for the subject of their work. Perhaps saddest of all, existing stereotypes made female authors reticent to consider their animal writing worthwhile.

 

Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd. 6 [or 8] September 1843.

—. “To Flush, My Dog.” In The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Gurney, Archer Thompson. “Poetesses—Mrs. Browning and Miss Lowe.” The English Review, December 1850, pp. 320–332. As reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 16, 325–329.

Kenyon, John. Letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 4 October 1844. Browning Correspondence.

Mathews, Cornelius. “A Drama of Exile.” The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review, October 1844, pp. 370–377. Reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 9, pp. 340–345.

Snaith, Anna. “Of Fanciers, Footnotes, and Fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 48 no. 3, 2002, p. 614-636.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann, vol. 4: 1929-1931, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

—. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann, vol. 5: 1932-1935, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

—. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie, vol. 4: 1931-1935, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

—. Flush: A Biography. Hogarth Press, 1933.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships”:

Victorian Print Culture and Pet Culture

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.

A stack of 4 books on a ladder.

Victorian Print Culture and Pet Culture

Both print culture surrounding pets and pet ownership in the Victorian era reflect a hunger for status in the midst of increasing affluence. As the middle class became more able to afford luxuries, print culture and pet ownership experienced corresponding economic trends. Middle-class pet owners purchased dogs with carefully documented bloodlines from dog breeders (sometimes called dog “fanciers”). These dogs could become ladies’ lapdogs or gentlemen’s sporting dogs; either way, they offered their owners more than usefulness or affection: they offered prestige. Pedigreed pets became status symbols—no one wanted to be seen walking a mutt! Like owning a lapdog, owning a gilded album revealed the owner’s wealth. The nineteenth century saw the flourishing of ornate collector’s books featuring—or even dedicated to—more frivolous topics like pets. Just as a lady’s lapdog was considered a frivolous pet, such collections would not have been considered serious literature. This blog post highlights some of the ornate artifacts included in the “Puppy Love” exhibit, along with some not included, reconsidering them in the light of Victorian print culture and pet culture.

 

The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Back board, spine, and front board of a green cloth bound books with gilt title and ornamentation.

The Poetic Album. 1854.

The Poetic Album is an excellent example of a collector’s album meant to be a status purchase. The Poetic Album is a collection of “minor poems” (in this case meaning shorter poems) by Tennyson, Browning, and Smith. The covers of The Poetic Album are ornate, and it is extravagantly illustrated with eight engravings of fine ladies. These engravings, which are modeled after illustrations by “the best artists,” according to the book’s title page, have no clear connection with the poems they accompany. In the preface, the publisher Willis P. Hazard classifies these three poets as “three of the best poets of this century.” Hazard also adds that the poems in the collection were selected by “a lady of taste”—a word choice which suggests that purchasing this album could be a way of asserting one’s own gentility.

In a decorative collection like this one, there is room for pet poems which might be considered frivolous elsewhere. Both of E. B. Browning’s Flush poems—“Flush or Faunus” and the earlier “To Flush, My Dog”—appear in this collection, whereas in many collections of Browning’s work only “To Flush” is included. Browning’s note below “To Flush” acknowledges both the personal and monetary value of Flush.  Customers who could afford to purchase this ornate gift book likely could also afford the expenses of buying and caring for a purebred dog, and therefore would be interested in such poems.

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Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

Findens’ Tableaux is a collection of illustrations and stories edited by Mary Russell Mitford, the friend who would give E.B. Browning her spaniel Flush in 1841. Like The Poetic Album, Findens’ Tableaux presents ornate illustrations. Each engraved illustration becomes a tableau, or still picture, that acts out, in freeze-frame, the story or poem it accompanies. The 1838 volume of the Tableaux focuses on stories set in various countries of the world. “Scotland: Sir Allan and his Dog,” the story featured here, was written by Mitford herself. Although the buyers of such a collection would have been very comfortably wealthy, Mitford herself struggled financially (Taneja 131-2). For “ladies of taste” who lacked money, editing collections like the Tableaux and The Poetic Album became a helpful source of income.

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I considered Findens’ Tableaux for inclusion in the exhibit, but ultimately had to omit it due to space constraints: the book is 15 inches tall by 11 ½ inches wide.

 

Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not. London: Thomas Nelson, 1849.

On my trips to the ABL stacks, I noticed that ornamental books—much like prized breeds of dog—tend to be either very large or very small. On the opposite end of the size spectrum from Findens’ Tableaux is Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not, measuring 4 ¾ inches tall by 3 ¼ inches wide. Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not was designed to be a memento given to a friend upon parting. This book was not included in the exhibit because it reprints E. B. Browning’s most frequently anthologized dog poem, “To Flush, My Dog”—a very appropriate choice for a collection of poems sharing the themes of friendship and gifts. Like this ornate gift book, Flush was an extravagant gift between friends.

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As the detailed description of the poem establishes, Flush is a highly decorative spaniel: Browning revels in his “fringed” feet, “tasselled ears,” and “silver-suited breast.” In a similar way that the gilding of Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not can indicate the quality of a friendship, Flush’s beauty serves to demonstrate the quality of Browning’s relationship with Mitford and, in turn, to enhance Browning’s relationship with Flush. Although linking friendship with consumerism in this way might seem problematic, in “To Flush” at least Browning affirms that love, not appearance, is the primary thing.

While Mary Russell Mitford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote dog literature for adults (albeit “light” literature), the majority of animal writing throughout the 1800s is written for children. The “Puppy Love” exhibit highlights several examples of animal writing in children’s literature. The following two collections (which appear in the exhibit) focus exclusively on animal stories and target an audience of children rather than adults. But as with the ornate collector’s books written for adults, publishers marketed these colorfully illustrated and gilded books in the hope of inducing rich parents to buy.

 

Aunt Louisa’s Choice Present: Comprising Famous Horses, Noted Horses, Famous Dogs, Noted Dogs (or Horses & Dogs). Illustrated by John Frederick Herring, Sr., and Sir Edwin Landseer. Twenty-Four Pictures Printed in Colours by J. Butterfield. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876.

This decorative collection presents 24 color pictures of horses and dogs, printed by J. Butterfield from illustrations by Herring and Landseer, who were prominent animal painters of the Victorian period. Although as the preface notes, these paintings were not originally intended to be paired with text, the accompanying narratives comment on society through the stories of these animals, with the intent of making these images interesting and educational for children. The displayed story questions whether the “high life” of a lady’s pet is the life this dog would choose.

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Mary Louisa Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

Book's front board is blue with title in gilt and author's name in red. There is an illustrattion of a young woman feeding several ducks in a field.

Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. 1891.

Mary Louisa Molesworth’s story of the pampered, naughty dog Dandy parallels the story of Fido in Horses and Dogs: a lady’s dog must live in confined circumstances when he would like to run in the countryside and chase geese. Though Molesworth invites children to notice how pets’ desires and emotions might differ from their owners’, she characterizes Dandy’s actions as naughtiness rather than natural canine behavior. She does not acknowledge that perhaps Dandy’s “lapdog existence” is not best for him, and thus tacitly affirms the upper-class treatment of lapdogs. Although Molesworth herself was born into middle-class circumstances, she tended to write about upper-class concerns (Avery). For a generation of middle- and upper-class children, Molesworth’s animal stories reinforced popular assumptions about status, class differences, and the treatment of animals.

 

Works Cited

Aunt Louisa’s Choice Present: Comprising Famous Horses, Noted Horses, Famous Dogs, Noted Dogs (or Horses & Dogs). Illustrated by John Frederick Herring, Sr., and Sir Edwin Landseer. Twenty-Four Pictures Printed in Colours by J. Butterfield. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876.

Avery, Gillian. “Molesworth [née Stewart], Mary Louisa (1839–1921), Novelist and Children’s Writer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-37776

Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

Friendship’s Forget-Me-Not. London: Thomas Nelson, 1849.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Taneja, Payal. “Gift-Giving and Domesticating the Upper-Class Pooch in Flush.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 49, no. 1, 2016, pp. 129-144.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships“:

“Puppy Love”: Inside the Process

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.

When friends asked me what I was doing this past summer, and I replied, “I’m curating a museum exhibit about dogs,” I always got one of two responses: “How cool!” or “How odd!” Both have been accurate. I should admit it: I’ve never been a pet person. I’ve kept a safe distance from dogs all my life, but I love the Brownings, and came to Baylor intending to write my dissertation on Robert Browning. When I saw the opportunity to spend time browsing the ABL archives and immersing myself in the Browning atmosphere, I immediately applied for the internship. I figured I could tolerate the dogs for the sake of the Brownings. I’ll tell the story of my personal puppy love journey in a later blog post, but for now, I want to share a peek into my process of researching Victorians’ interactions with their dogs.

Female PhD student seated at a table with several books in front over her.

Inspecting an edition of E. B. Browning’s Poems.

“Puppy Love” began with the idea that it would be fun to do an exhibit on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. As I explored Flush’s story alongside secondary sources on pet ownership, I realized that Flush’s story reflects major themes of nineteenth-century pet ownership. And once I expanded my focus to include Victorian dogs more broadly, I realized how much we have in common with the Victorians.

Two women seated outdoors with their backs to one another. The woman facing the reader is petting a dog.

“Scotland,” from Findens’ Tableaux. 1838.

Our modes of expressing our affections have morphed—the Victorians wrote poems; we make posts on doggy Instagram accounts—but the sentiments haven’t. We own “fur babies,” call ourselves “dog moms/dads,” and, like the Victorians, lavish time, money, and energy on our pets. We also face similar social, economic, and ethical issues as a result of the large role of pets in our lives: we have to carefully evaluate if we can make the commitment to caring for a dog; we lament the inhumane breeding practices of puppy mills and worry about dogs left unadopted in shelters. As an increasingly wealthy middle class became interested in the companionship and status that dogs could offer, dog ownership spiked in the Victorian era, leading to the emergence of these same issues.

Because I tend to become bogged down in the details, I tried to keep long-term goals in mind in order to maximize my research time. I first read secondary articles about Flush to get a broad view of his story and the current scholarly conversations surrounding him. Instead of beginning by working through all of E. B. Browning’s letters looking for mentions of Flush, I used the digitized letters database, which provides both scans and transcripts of the Browning letters. Using the database greatly reduced the number of artifacts that had to be brought out of the archives: I could quickly isolate and evaluate relevant letters with simple keyword searches for “Flush” or “dog.”

Once I’d identified and retrieved potential artifacts, it was time to do mock exhibit layouts!

My initial layouts were very rough, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions to be made. But in the end, doing physical layouts was the most challenging and exciting part of curating the exhibit. In most of my academic projects, I only arrange words. I enjoyed working with objects that have texture, color, and shape, and I learned so much about effective communication through the process of designing the physical layout. So many factors have to be considered: the space constraints of the exhibit cases, the fragility of the artifacts, the best way to display artifacts. Often, I would come to a layout with a plan in mind, only to realize that my plan wouldn’t work in the exhibit space. The practical limitations of my space and my materials kept my project grounded in practical communication concerns: I had to consider, above all, what would be most interesting and accessible to my audience. Thinking within the genre of the museum exhibit has trained new communication muscles. Often in writing for an academic audience, I don’t think about whether I am expressing myself as clearly as possible, but this project has taught me that clarity and accessibility should always be a primary concern. If my audience isn’t engaged by my writing, why write?

While curating this exhibition has challenged me as a thinker and writer, it will challenge me most as a teacher. I teach English composition at Baylor, and will teach British literature in the future. Curating this exhibit has made me rethink the way I structure my classes, forcing me to ask questions like “Am I stating the main point as clearly and simply as possible? Are the time blocks, sequencing, and activities in a class period all contributing to meaningful student interaction with our learning objective?” My internship also made me aware of opportunities for connecting students with the resources the Armstrong Browning Library offers. Many students who are accustomed to using only online resources are intimidated by the prospect of walking into a library and requesting physical artifacts. This summer, I learned that the ABL offers instruction sessions and teaching fellowships for faculty and graduate instructors who want their students to work with rare items relating to their class theme. I plan to use these resources when I begin teaching British literature next year.

 

Work Cited

Findens’ Tableaux: A Series of Picturesque Scenes of National Character, Beauty, and Costume. Edited by Mary Russell Mitford. Engraved by William and Edward Finden. 1838.

 

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

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.

Curious about what their pets were thinking and feeling, Victorian authors lent animals emotions, thoughts, and even voices in their writing. Elizabeth Barrett Browning tried twice to represent Flush’s thoughts and emotions in poetry, and included tales of his antics in her letters. Although nineteenth-century literature about pets was often dismissed as frivolous, the issues raised were serious. As the increasing wealth of middle- and upper-class Victorians enabled them to purchase pets, a surge in dog ownership brought accompanying problems of misguided canine care and the use of pedigreed dogs as status symbols. Meanwhile, dognapping rings sought to profit from owners’ emotional and economic investment in their dogs. The stories of Flush and other Victorian dogs reveal both the possibilities and problems of pet ownership. Interacting with pets as fellow-creatures can increase humans’ capacity to give and receive love; however, the relationship is always imperfect. Like Victorian pet owners, we struggle at times to understand and meet our pets’ needs.

Flush and Friendship

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on E. B. Browning’s relationship with Flush and how that relationship fostered other friendships. Flush became a living symbol of the friendship between Browning and fellow author Mary Russell Mitford. When Mitford sent Flush as a gift to comfort Browning after the death of her brother Edward, Flush succeeded in rousing Browning from deep depression. Although as an invalid Browning lived a secluded life, she communicated with Mitford and other friends through letters in which she described Flush’s looks, emotions, and antics.

E. B. Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog,” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

E. B. Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog,” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

Browning first shared Flush with her reading public through the poem “To Flush, My Dog.” After reading “To Flush ,” one of Browning’s fans, fellow poet Thomas Westwood, took courage to begin corresponding with Browning. In the first section of the exhibit, a pair of letters between Browning and Westwood reveals how Flush became a mediator between Browning and the outside world—owning a dog was a shared experience that enabled Browning to connect with others.

Social Issues: Breeding and Dognapping

The second section examines cultural issues that arose from the pedigreed pet craze in Victorian England. As more middle- and upper-class citizens became dog owners, interest in dog breeding grew exponentially. Although authors like Eliza Cook insisted that a mutt without a pedigree could be as lovable and loyal as an expensive spaniel, for many Victorians, a pedigreed pet was a status symbol. Valuable ladies’ pets like Flush led lives of luxurious confinement, eating sweets and lying on couches nearly all day. In addition to their unhealthy lifestyles, on their brief walks, these pets faced the threat of dognapping. Because the rich lived alongside the poor in London, poorer Londoners watched the rich parade their expensive pets along the sidewalks. London dognapping gangs grew wealthy by capturing pedigreed dogs and threatening to kill them unless their owners paid a ransom. E. B. Browning’s spaniel Flush became a victim of these socioeconomic trends, as Browning announces in a letter to her cousin John Kenyon.

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Depicting Animals

The third section considers broader trends of animal writing in the nineteenth century. In the Victorian period, stories about pets were often written for the purpose of teaching children. Because to Victorian pet owners, pets seemed nearly human in their personalities and emotional responsiveness, many of these stories engage in anthropomorphism, the imagining of animals as human. Writers of animal stories experimented with giving animals voices and perspectives that tend to resemble human voices and perspectives. While many nineteenth-century authors like Mary Louisa Molesworth seem confident in their ability to accurately portray pets’ unique personalities, modern authors such as Virginia Woolf still struggle with the question of how to represent pets’ thoughts and feelings.

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Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Letter to John Kenyon. 2 September 1846. Browning Correspondence.

—. “To Flush, My Dog.” In The Poetic Album: Containing the Poems of Alfred Tennyson, Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alexander Smith. Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1854.

Molesworth, Mary Louisa. Lucky Ducks and Other Stories. Illustrated by W. J. Morgan. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891.

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1933.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Puppy Love’: An Exploration of Victorian Pet-Owner Relationships“: