Perspective: The Female and Male Gaze in Pre-Raphaelite Artistry

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By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate, Department of Museum Studies

Currently at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) I have an exhibition entitled Mythic Women which explores the theme of the male gaze in Robert Browning’s (RB) poem “Fifine at the Fair” (Fifine). However, this blog post will briefly explore a counterpoint to this theme which I call the female gaze. RB and his corpus of work are firmly situated in the Victorian era which was a time of constraint but also exploration and evolution in art. A subgenre emerged called Pre-Raphaelite which reinterpreted and explored through painting, photography, and poetry classical Roman mythology and other timeless themes such as death and beauty. Many Pre-Raphaelite artists were men who explored via canvas paintings the stories of classic literary characters such as Helen of Troy. These men often illuminated the femininity of their canvases’ subjects using models who in their perception epitomized female beauty. These painting exemplify the male perspective of female beauty and desirability which is contemporarily called the male gaze. However, during this time there was a countermovement of Victorian women artists who were also exploring the themes of death and beauty and reinterpreting classic myths. This post highlights two of these women, mainly Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn De Morgan.

Evelyn De Morgan (De Morgan) was born in Great Britain to an upper middle-class family and was privately tutored alongside her brothers, an unusual occurrence during this time. She proved to be an adept artist however her mother and father disapproved of her goal to be an artist. Interestingly, her father allowed her to travel to France and Italy with her uncle to study Old Master paintings. She eventually enrolled in art school in England and developed her skills and won several prizes for her skills in life drawing and composition (De Morgan Collection). During my preliminary research for this exhibition, I came across the works of Evelyn De Morgan and was inspired by her attention to detail in her subjects’ facial expressions and the vividity of colors in her paintings. I then envisioned my exhibition would compare the female and male gazes of Pre-Raphaelite artists and authors and use Fifine as a conduit to explore this era of creativity. However, in the end I decided against this because it took me farther away from Fifine and RB. Evelyn De Morgan was a later contemporary of RB, and it should be noted that while RB may not be considered a Pre-Raphaelite he did move within their broader cultural and professional circles and was a source of inspiration for many of them. As with many artistic movements there is always overlap, a genre or its subject does not belong to a single artist or a single professional group. Artists such as De Morgan were often painting the same subjects as their male counterparts, an example of this overlap can be seen in De Morgan’s rendition of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan

Her interpretation is of a beautiful, blonde statuesque woman draped in a bright pink dress surrounded by doves and white roses. Helen appears to not have a care in the world aside from her own vanity. This rendition is an example of the female gaze, and it is subtle. The way Helen looks at herself in a handheld mirror as she plays with her long, silky hair in a relaxed stance speak to an inner understanding of femininity that only a woman could accurately portray. The paintings composition also evokes a female gaze, Helen does not look at the viewer nor does she look upon Troy, which is in the background; Helen is looking at herself in a beautifully adorned mirror and she is not concerned with history’s opinion of her. As a woman I see and understand De Morgan’s rendition of Helen, she is young and knows her beauty, yet she appears to not understand or recognize its power. Contrast this rendition with the famous male Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Rossetti’s interpretation of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

From composition to coloring, everything in Rossetti’s rendition is opposite of De Morgan’s. This Helen of Troy is facing the viewer, she is young and wears a heavily draped golden garment, her lips are red, her skin white, and she has voluminous blonde curly hair, her two hands play with a pendant attached to a necklace. The background is blurred with faint outlines of buildings behind her. She is painted from the waist up and appears seated. While she faces the viewer, she does not appear to look directly at us, and her expression gives the appearance of shyness or disinterest. Yet, she appears innocent. Unlike De Morgan’s Helen, this Helen does not seem to be self-aware, she is almost doll-like. This depiction is characteristic of a male gaze perspective on femininity and female beauty, it is something observed from afar and the woman is unaware, inactive participant. Rossetti’s painting is beautiful, and his skills are undeniable but there is no personality nor interest in Helen’s self-beauty. The viewer sees and interacts with his perspective. Although it should be noted that De Morgan also presents her own perspective but, because she is a woman she consciously or subconsciously painted personality and self-awareness into Helen. Both paintings are excellent examples of their era’s trends. As a 21st century woman when I think of Pre-Raphaelite Helen, it is De Morgan’s and not Rossetti’s that comes forth in my mind’s eye.

While De Morgan and Rossetti were sketching and painting other artists were experimenting with the then new technology of photography. Julia Margaret Cameron (Cameron) was an English photographer during the Victorian era and the ABL has ten of her original photographs along with some accompanying correspondence. Cameron subjects were diverse, she had her maid pose as the Virgin Mary/Madonna and she also photographed fellow Victorian artists such as Robert Browning, Tennyson, and Rossetti. This blog page has featured her life and works in several posts linked here and here.

Cameron, like De Morgan, was experimental with her subjects’ composition, while they are clearly modeling for the camera the viewer feels a sense of rawness and excitement when analyzing the photo’s subjects. Sitting for the camera and sitting for a painting are two different experiences for a model, the former allowing for experimentation and vulnerability the latter requiring control and stability. Cameron’s photographs are less adorned than both De Morgan’s and Rossetti’s paintings and she takes multiple shots of the same subject. An example of this is the photograph entitled “Sappho”. The MET Museum and the V&A Museum have original copies but Cameron’s model, Mary Hiller, is posed differently in each photo. The subject is posing to the side and the viewer can see her profile, she wears a necklace and an embroidered top, and her hair is loosely tied back. This style of photo is simple and is opposite of the heavily adorned photographs which were popular during the Victorian era.

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This simple style of composition can also be seen in Cameron’s photographs of Robert Browning. The ABL has five original photographs taken during the year 1865. They all appear to be taken during the same sitting, but RB is posed differently in each photo. There is also an intimacy and vulnerability seen in the subject that is evocative of De Morgan’s Helen, Cameron knows her subject and captures his personality and self-awareness without being intrusive. These photographs exemplify the female gaze in artistry, the artist attempts to create relationship with their subject as opposed to imposing their perception of the subject upon the subject.

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The male and female gaze are perceptions, as such they are subjective and contemporaneous to their unique culture and time. My own female gaze perceives society and culture through the lens of a 21st century woman who has her own biases, opinions, and experiences. Given this I still appreciate the artistry of Rossetti, De Morgan, and Cameron as people who, like myself, are attempting to understand culture and society from a unique perspective.

Works Cited

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Robert Browning. 1865. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Waco. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/photograph-of-robert-browning/768790. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Robert Browning. 1865. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, Waco. The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/photograph-of-robert-browning/768778. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. Victorian & Albert Museum, London. Victoria & Albert Museum,  https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O130461/sappho-photograph-cameron-julia-margaret/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sappho. 1865. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/282044. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Daher, Nadine and Katzman, Lily. “The Women Behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Jan 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/revisiting-women-behind-pre-raphaelite-band-brothers-180974035/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

De Morgan, Evelyn. Helen of Troy. 1898. De Morgan Museum, Canon Hall, Barnsley. De Morgan Museum, https://www.demorgan.org.uk/collection/helen-of-troy/. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

“Evelyn De Morgan.” De Morgan Collection, https://www.demorgan.org.uk/discover/the-de-morgans/evelyn-de-morgan/ Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti Archive. Exhibits and Objects, http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s163.rap.html. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Helen of Troy. 1863. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg. Hamburger Kunsthalle,  https://online-sammlung.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/objekt/HK-2469. Accessed 15 Oct 2022.

 

Introducing the Mythic Women in “Fifine at the Fair”

by Anna Clark, Master’s Candidate in History and Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum is hosting “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair,'” an exhibition exploring the topics of sexual desire, social class, and the male objectification of women in Robert Browning’s 1872 poem “Fifine at the Fair.” This exhibit was curated by Katrina Gallegos, a Master’s student of Museum Studies at Baylor University. Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in honor of the poem’s 150th anniversary from August 17, 2022 – February 15, 2023* (date extended).

The Victorians are remembered for being conservative—in their dress, their customs, and their culture. Therefore, it is surprising to see provocative subjects explored in Victorian art, literature, and poetry. Victorians explored topics such as desire, infidelity, gender, and sexuality, and used their art as an expressive outlet in response to a restrictive society.

Because of the conservative nature of the dominant social culture, authors and artists used coded language to express their inner desires, thoughts, and emotions. This coded language often employed classical symbols from Roman and Greek antiquity. Victorians also used this coded language to prove their intellectual prowess among their peers. For modern readers and viewers, these examples may not seem provocative because the authors and artists used complicated language and obscure references. Some memorable authors and artists who employed provocative language and themes were Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lord Byron, and Julia Margaret Cameron. 

Katrina Gallegos’ exhibit Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in “Fifine at the Fair” decodes the complex language found in Browning’s poem, “Fifine at the Fair,” specifically, examining the themes of sexuality, desire, the male gaze, and social class on the poem’s 150th anniversary.

Gallegos is a graduate student at Baylor University pursuing her Master’s degree in Museum Studies. Employing her interest in symbology, Gallegos’ exhibit explores Greco-Roman symbols she uncovered through her analysis of Browning’s poem and how these symbols connect to the topics of sexuality, desire, and male objectification of women in the late 19th century.

Helen of Troy, one of the mythic women symbolized in the poem

Particularly, Gallegos explains the symbols Robert Browning employs to describe the three central characters of the poem: Don Juan, Don Juan’s staid wife Donna Elvire, and Fifine, the exotic gypsy woman who is the object of Don Juan’s sexual desire.

Gallegos’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from August 17th through February 15th, 2023. We invite you to visit this exhibit to explore the symbols in Browning’s work and reflect on the enduring legacy of “Fifine at the Fair” 150 years after its publication. 

If you are not familiar with the poem or would like to refresh your memory, we have attached a hyperlink to a first edition copy of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair” for your convenience: #3 – Fifine at the fair : and other poems / By Robert Browning. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library. 

Frontispiece of the 1872 edition of Browning’s “Fifine at the Fair”

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair'”:

“Puppy Love” Closing Announcement

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!

Illustration from Horses and Dogs. 1876.

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.”

Mary Russell Mitford, by Benjamin Robert Haydon (d. 1846). National Portrait Gallery.

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.

Lady with a Red Hat [Vita Sackville-West], by William Strang. 1918. Oil on canvas. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

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).

Frontispiece of Woolf’s Flush. 1933.

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.

 

Works Consulted

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.

—. Letter to Thomas Westwood. 2 September 1843.

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”:

 

“Puppy Love”: What I Learned Through 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 I began the summer internship of curating the ABL’s “Puppy Love” exhibition, my motivations had little to do with a deep love for dogs. On the contrary, I came to the “Puppy Love” exhibit as an outsider. Because I didn’t grow up with pets, I’ve never been sympathetic to affection for dogs. The mess, the fur, the noise, the smells—dogs to me were a recipe for inconvenience and annoyance. Instead, my goals coming into the internship were academic. I knew that I would need to use the ABL’s special collections for my dissertation research, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the ABL’s resources and databases ahead of time. But in the process of curating this exhibit, I researched my way into liking dogs! This blog post tells the story of my evolving feelings about dogs, as well as how I am integrating the experiences gained into my teaching roles.

Illustration by W. J. Morgan of two girls walking, one is carrying a dog, in Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks (1891).

Illustration by W. J. Morgan in Molesworth’s Lucky Ducks. 1891.

I’ve already begun to see how my experience curating this exhibit will enhance my teaching. This past fall, after spending the summer working on this exhibit, I taught an honors colloquium session on Browning’s Flush poems and Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. I enjoyed pushing students not only to consider how the social issues raised in Flush persist today but also to bring personal experiences of pet ownership to bear in the conversation. Channeling my audience’s natural enthusiasm about a topic, rather than insisting on a purely academic discussion, is a skill I developed in this internship.

In the future, when I teach British literature, I also plan to involve my students in the process of archival research. Special collections can be intimidating for the student researcher—they certainly were for me! They tend to use different organization methods and require different procedures for requests. I want to equip my students with strategies for using the ABL’s special collections and for approaching special collections in general.

“Dignity and Impudence,” in Horses and Dogs. 1876.

As one of my fellow English graduate students aptly expresses it, “I recognize that my dislike for dogs is a deficiency in my soul.” After spending the summer perusing dog stories of all kinds, I’m convinced that one of the functions of literature is to train us to love good things (in this case, dogs). The poems, letters, and stories I read this summer retrained me to have an appreciation—even a fondness—for dogs. The “Puppy Love” exhibit showcases several collections of animal stories written for the purpose of early childhood training, alongside a few unusual animal stories that prompt adults to reconsider their pets in a new light. One of these animal stories for adults, E. B. Browning’s poem “Flush or Faunus,” was particularly meaningful for me.

Text of E. B. Browning’s “Flush or Faunus,” in The Poetic Album (1854).

E. B. Browning’s “Flush or Faunus,” in The Poetic Album. 1854.

As Flush comforted Browning after the death of her favorite brother, Browning was surprised by the emotional capacity of what she had considered a “low creature.” In comparing Flush with Faunus, a half-man, half-animal god of revelry, Browning suggests that pets offer an unconditional, inter-species love that mirrors God’s transcendent love. This poem taught me not to dismiss people’s love for their dogs as empty sentimentality or the projection of emotions, but rather to appreciate the ways in which pets offer a unique type of friendship and comfort which human friends can’t provide. The physical and emotional bond between Browning and Flush is fascinating: they are so close that at times they resemble each other!

Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on either side of Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different! (Woolf 26)

The difference between them is equally important. While Flush is sympathetic to Browning’s sadness, he also manages to cheer her with his cuteness and his antics, which Browning describes in “To Flush, My Dog”:

Leap! thy broad tail waves a light;

Leap! thy slender feet are bright,

Canopied in fringes.

Leap —those tasselled ears of thine

Flicker strangely, fair and fine,

Down their golden inches (The Poetic Album 235)

In my reading, I’ve been struck by how deeply Victorian pet owners like Browning celebrate the physical presence of their dogs. In “Flush or Faunus,” Flush interrupts Browning’s grief by invading her space. He pushes his head against Browning’s face and flaps her with his ears to wipe the tears from her cheeks. E. B. Browning’s and Virginia Woolf’s depictions of Flush taught me to appreciate dogs for their doggy-ness, and for how, by their presence and their unconditional love, they forge a close bond with us. This project convinced me to pet a dog and let him lick me instead of recoiling in horror as I would have in the past! A few weeks later, I was ecstatic when a friend’s dog jumped up beside me on the sofa and rested his head on my lap. I experienced this summer how stories can train—or re-train—us to appreciate animals.

Illustration by Vanessa Bell, in Woolf’s Flush. 1933.

 

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. Printed by J. Butterfield. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1876.

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.

Woolf, Virginia. 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”:

 

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“:

Hair Relics and Victorian Death Culture

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By Katrina L. Gallegos, M.A. Candidate Museum Studies Graduate Assistant Armstrong Browning Library and Museum Origins This blog post is in conversation with and inspired by a mini exhibit, And It Was All Black featured last semester in the Hankamer … Continue reading

“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“:

 

Reflections on Installing ‘The Brownings In Our World’ Exhibit

by Joy Siler, Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant

A sculpture of a man and woman's hands clasped together.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, 1853; Plaster, 3 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, I was very excited to work closely with Dr. King’s English senior seminar, The Brownings In Our World. I was just beginning my work as a graduate research assistant at the ABL and it was a great way to introduce me more intimately to the Brownings, to the excellent collections here, and to the role of being a research resource for the students. I truly enjoyed handling the objects and provided digitization services for the course. This specifically was needed for the images the students utilized in an online exhibition they created during the semester. The exhibit displayed the analysis that they had conducted about certain pieces in the ABL collections and used themes found in the Brownings’ works for application to current societal issues.

Book open displaying two pages.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children” in ‘Blackwoods Magazine’ (August 1843).

Being familiar with the materials that they used in their class exhibit and the details of the course, I was a great fit to help transition the digital exhibit into a physical one for display at the ABL. I had never created an official exhibit like this before, so it seemed like a large undertaking to organize it and write all of the official text. The most difficult part of this process was making edits that remained true to the student’s original work while also preparing it to the professional standards of the museum. The students made their dialogue accessible and appropriate for the digital platform of the class exhibit as an academic work; however, there are specific ways that the explanation for the physical objects must change to fit a face-to-face medium for a museum. Though a professional exhibit, the information has to be appropriate for a diverse audience with a wide age and educational range. The pieces also require 3D spacing and labels that provide context for the research. For someone who is unfamiliar with what they are looking at, having that additional information in plain language is crucial for fully understanding the object and its significance.

A very exciting moment was finally arranging the objects in their cases in the Hankamer Treasure Room. No matter how much you prepare an exhibit, it can’t truly work until you know if it will all fit and be arranged properly in your space. If something is too large, if your amount of text becomes overwhelming, or the flow of the exhibit does not feel natural, then it is back to the drawing board! Multiple arrangements were tested before the final day to avoid any major last-minute changes. Once it began to take shape, I began to truly feel excited about the end result!

Exhibit cases with items in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

Exhibit cases displaying artifacts from ‘The Brownings in Our World’ in the Hankamer Treasure Room of the Armstrong Browning Library.

As the last item was placed on the black velvet in the case, that moment was the ultimate culmination of the work completed by the students and I over the last several months. It was a satisfying feeling to see it all through to the end and to have completed my first professional exhibit! All of the details fell into place nicely and provided a very valuable and practical learning experience.

 

‘The Brownings in Our World’ exhibit will be on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room from April 1st through June 20th.