Book Review: Shaggy Muses

Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte, by Maureen Adams

This book is both interesting and troubling. On the one hand, there is a great deal of interest in pet parenting in contemporary times and the author certainly has a likely market to appeal to in women who want to read about other women who were very fond of dogs who in part inspired and shaped their lives and writing. On the other hand, there are at least some obvious limitations with a work like this that the perceptive reader will be able to pick up on. For one, the author is only interested in writing about women who were inspired by the dogs in their lives. There is, for example, no story of Jack London’s love of dogs or that of a male author. This is strictly about women writers and the dogs in their lives. This leads to an additional problem, in that the personal lives of these female authors were not very good or worth emulating, and their fondness of dogs in part relates to their inability to deal well with people, and in the main these lives are pretty miserable, filled with all kinds of frustrated longings and loneliness and only one of the female authors even had any children, showing a major failure on their parts.

This book is a bit more than 250 pages long and it consists of lengthy chapters in which the author talks about the role of pets in the lives and writings of various women, whose lives she talks about in sometimes gossipy detail, dishing on their frustrated sexual longings, their quirks, their bad mental health, and their frequent early and miserable deaths. The book begins with a preface and an author’s note. After that the author talks about the love of Elizabeth Barrett Browning for her dog Flush. This leads to a discussion of Emily Bronte’s troubled relationship with her dog Keeper, with whom she had quite an abusive relationship. After that comes a look at Emily Dickenson’s relationship with her dog Carlo, a rare case of intimacy in a generally secluded life. After that there is a look at Edith Wharton’s relationship with a wide variety of dogs. This is followed by a discussion of the relationship between Virginia Woolf and a variety of dogs who may have but were ultimately unable to help the famously troubled writer with her terrible mood swings. The book concludes with a discussion of the dogs, acknowledgements, notes, illustration and text credits, and an index.

In the main, what do these shaggy muses say about the author and about the authors the author is writing about? The author, of course, finds it necessary to draw some feminist themes about the way that women were viewed as being similar to dogs in being ornamental but not particularly useful or well-respected. At times, it is likely that various authors included here were able to use discussion about their dogs as codes or as windows into their thoughts about intimacy and relationships and love and the like, as it provided a safe subject. By and large, though, the lives of these women authors was pretty wretched, and a significant part of that wretchedness appears to spring from dysfunctional family backgrounds. All too often, it appears that the cultivation of the artistic tendencies that lead someone to be a successful and/or prolific writer also tend to cultivate the quirks and eccentricities that make it hard to relate to others in love and marriage and other relationships or even to cope successfully with the demands of society. It is a shame that the author thinks of this as only a problem for women, though.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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