What creative, eccentric women. What affectionate, pampered dogs. I loved them all.
Shaggy Muses is
the first book by Maureen Adams, a married psychologist who also lives with dogs, about five famous authors and their own beloved dogs. It includes charming photographs and drawings of dogs and their mistresses. Each writer’s section consists of a brief biography, followed by a chronology, all focusing largely on the writer’s relationships with her dogs. The varied dogs were muses, surrogate children, and best friends. As a writer who adores dogs, I can attest that it is true that canines can stir creativity, silence sorrow, and make us smile and play.
Shaggy Muses is devoted to the dogs in the lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. All household names, yes? Without their dogs, they might not have been. They might have suffered more depression, more loneliness, less frivolity, fewer moments of pure joy. Whereas people often died early in these writers’ lives – and other humans let these writers down – the dogs did not. All these women had shaky relationships with their mothers. The canines of various breeds and sizes were often some of the most inspiring of their influences, and their truest friends. The writers all enjoyed writing about their dogs, as well.
During their respective historic times, it was not at all easy to be a woman writer – to gain recognition, to gain respect, or even to be able to write using one’s real name.
The two women whose stories most interested this reader were Edith Wharton’s and Virginia Woolf’s. I’m not sure if they interest me more because I know their work and/or their historic houses (The Mount, now a museum, where Wharton lived in the Berkshires in Massachusetts) or because their chapters
are most sympathetically written. Wharton clearly loved dogs more than she loved most people, and in her later years, on a list of her grand passions, right under “Justice and Order,” came “Dogs”
- before books! Wharton, who was unhappily married for more than 20 years, had several dogs throughout her life, mostly lap dogs who could easily travel as she lived much of her life in France.
I have long studied Virginia (Stephen) Woolf’s work and life, so of course I knew about Bloomsbury, Leonard Woolf, their Hogarth Press, and that she committed suicide by walking into the river Ouse with her coat’s pockets full of stones. But I had overlooked or forgotten important details about her early years. By the age of 22, “she had lost both parents and her half sister Stella; she had endured sexual molestation, two nervous breakdowns, and a suicide attempt.” Although Woolf was not the dog lover that some of these women were, she did live with dogs and felt they provided solace and a go-between in connecting her more strongly with various humans in her life. She wrote a “memoir” entitled
Flush, a Biography about a dog. Oddly, she did not have a dog called by this name, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning had Flush, a purebred cocker spaniel. Woolf did have a spaniel named Pinka, on whom she based her character, Flush. Woolf’s book was an experiment: she looked at the Barrett Browning romance through the eyes of Flush.
These women influenced each other and continue to influence modern female literary writers. For example, the novelist/memoirist/poet May Sarton, who died in 1995 and was a protégé of Woolf’s, named one of her dogs Grizzle; Woolf once lived with a Grizzle. Sarton titled her first novel
The Single Hound after a line in an early Emily Dickinson poem: “Adventure most unto itself/The Soul condemned to be--/Attended by a single Hound/its own identity.” Dickinson called her large canine companion, a Newfoundland dog named Carlo, “My Shaggy Ally,” among other endearments. Carlo is the “single Hound” in Dickinson’s poem.
I loved all of these stories and am impressed at this author’s first book’s smart writing, fine research and neutral tone about all things, including some mighty sad and what we now call dysfunctional human happenings in these women’s lives. These women are some of our most revered writers; their names live on in the literary canon. So, if literary longevity means anything to readers, as it does to me, I’d advise living with dogs, as well as with humans.
Although it does have a bit of a narrow focus, Shaggy Muses' audience appears to be made up of two distinct and perhaps overlapping categories: those who love and believe in the influence of dogs in our lives, and those who love and honor these historic women writers and appreciate the obstacles they had to overcome to be successful. Particularly with these two groups of audiences, I believe this book will be highly successful.