Pets in Historical Fiction

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?

5 thoughts on “Pets in Historical Fiction”

  1. Good question! I remember reading a novel set in the slums of Elizabethan London where one of the characters had a pet rat. It lived in the wall of his room, and sometimes brought its family to see him. Can’t remember the title, though.
    Uhtred has a pet dog called Night-Goblin in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, but unfortunately it only has a bit part.
    Nice quote from Shirley. Someone said that the best test of a person’s character is how they treat others with less power than themselves, which I guess would extend to animals.

  2. I think it was in one of Jean Plaidy’s books that Richard II bragged about his dog being loyal to the king, and then there was some irony when Henry IV took on the kingship. I read that a while ago so the account is a little blurry.

    There was also a book, probably one of the many historical novels about Elizabeth I’s early years, where Thomas Seymour kills Edward VI’s dog to get to him, which turns the King against him decidedly. I really need to remember where I read these things.

  3. In Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky (one of the Royal Diaries Series), Marie refuses to give up her pet dog when crossing the Austrian-French border, although the French courtiers promise her she can have a French dog.

    I didn’t care much for Royal Harlot, Susan Holloway Scott’s novel about Barbara Villers Palmer and Charles II, but she wrote some nice scenes featuring Charles’s many beloved spaniels.

  4. Dear Ms. Higginbotham,

    I ran into your blog because of the reference to the cat naming contest for Honora Fitzpatrick’s cat for your upcoming book. (I’ve been a life-long student of the Lincoln assassination, and am currently doing research for a chapter on the assassination for a book for a University Press.) I really enjoyed wandering about your blog and hope to read some of your books when not doing research for my projects. I also got a kick out of your reference to Dickens’ crow Grip! I am a Librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia. We have a large Dickens collection in our Special Collections Library, which includes such things as one of his writing desks — and Grip! (We also have a large Edgar Allan Poe collection and Grip was suppusedly the inspiration for Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.”

    Please keep up the great work and much continued success!

    All the best!
    Steven Wright

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