Taking Boswell to the vet today (itching, poor doggie) made me think of some comments that appeared here about Sharon Penman’s novel When Christ and His Saints Slept. Penman, as anyone who’s read her books knows, is fond of giving her heroes dogs. The fictional Ranulf in Saints and its sequel, Time and Chance, has a faithful canine companion. So, of course, does Richard in The Sunne in Splendour, a guarantee in itself that he’s a good guy. (Indeed, it’s clear that Buckingham is a villain; not only does he kill the princes in the Tower, he kills the younger one’s dog as well.)
I’ve been trying to think of some other historical novels in which pets play a big part. I just finished The Captive Queen of Scots, where Mary’s poor little Skye terrier has his famous scene of hiding under the headless Mary’s skirts, but other than that one scene, he doesn’t appear much in the novel. Dickens’s historical novel Barnaby Rudge features a raven, Grip, who plays a major role. (Indeed, I found him vastly preferable to most of the human characters, this not being my favorite Dickens novel.) In Michelle Moran’s recent Nefertiti, the heroine Mutny’s cat was a leading, and quite memorable, character. Barbara Hambly’s The Emancipator’s Wife has some endearing scenes with Lincoln and his cats. I’m sure there are others that I just can’t think of at the moment.
When authors do give their heroes and heroines cherished pets, it’s a device that humanizes them wonderfully. Writing this post made me think of a lovely passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, where the friends Caroline and Shirley broach the delicate subject of Caroline’s romantic interest in a young man:
‘If they are true oracles, it is good never to fall in love.’
‘Very good, if you can avoid it.’
‘I choose to doubt their truth.’
‘I am afraid that proves you are already caught.’
‘Not I: but if I were, do you know what soothsayers I would consult?’
‘Let me hear.’
‘Neither man nor woman, elderly nor young : – the little Irish beggar that comes barefoot to my door; the mouse that steals out of the cranny in the wainscot; the bird that in frost and snow pecks at my window for a crumb; the dog that licks my hand and sits beside my knee.’
‘Did you ever see any one who was kind to such things?’
‘Did you ever see any one whom such things seemed instinctively to follow, like, rely on?’
‘We have a black cat and an old dog at the Rectory. I know somebody to whose knee that black cat loves to climb; against whose shoulder and cheek it likes to purr. The old dog always comes out of his kennel and wags his tail, and whines affectionately when somebody passes.’
‘And what does that somebody do?’
‘He quietly strokes the cat, and lets her sit while he conveniently can, and when he must disturb her by rising, he puts her softly down, and never flings her from him roughly; he always whistles to the dog and gives him a caress.’
‘Does he? It is not Robert?’
‘But it is Robert.’
(Online version by the University of Adelaide here)
Now, wouldn’t you like Robert, even if you hadn’t met him earlier in this novel?
Is there a novel–historical or otherwise–that’s been improved for you by the protagonist’s pet?