Among the Antimacassars

Alison Light

According to Baudelaire, fervent lovers and austere scholars have one thing in common, especially in their riper years. They share a love of household cats, who, like them, are ‘sédentaires’ and ‘frileux’ – sensitive to draughts. Baudelaire wrote many hymns to the friend of sensuality and learning, but it was another hundred years before cats reached their current popularity as pets. They have always had their followers but their association with paganism, with heresy and sorcery, made them a constant object of suspicion in Christian Europe. Condemned as the devil’s agents at witchcraft trials, burnt alongside Protestants by Mary Tudor and alongside Catholics by Elizabeth I, roasted at country fairs and persecuted for sport, cats were often given short shrift in Britain. Ancient symbols of fertility, they were commonly deemed lascivious (the female cat was especially lecherous), but feline stand-offishness was the real problem. The cat was of limited worth to humans since it only looked out for itself: ‘a useful but deceitful domestic’ possessed of ‘an innate malice’, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it in 1787.

It was as protomodernists, ideal familiars of the self-conscious urban individual, that cats came into their own. To the avant-garde their aloofness seemed introspective; their sphinx-like calm and hieratic inscrutability (that capacity to shutter their vision which had struck others as sinister) was at one with the Symbolist sense of the hermeneutic. Cats were nocturnal, reclusive, and much given to reverie. They were natural dandies, fond of grooming and preening themselves; aesthetes rather than philistines; cosmopolitan rather than alien. Avatars of Orientalism (breeds like the Abyssinian and Blue Persian made their way into European homes in the late 19th century), they could conjure the exotic or luxurious. The cat’s reputation for libertinism was championed by bohemians and artists as anti-bourgeois (a small black cat completes the erotic display alongside the prostitute and the negro maid in Manet’s Olympia). Decadents relished the feline: Swinburne, for instance, recognised ‘a friend of loftier mind’ in his cat’s lordly condescension. With their flat planes and sinuous curves, cats’ bodies were perfect formal subjects for the new graphic arts (Steinlen, who used them continually in posters advertising tea and milk, was obsessed with them; his Paris house, with its colony of strays, was known as ‘Cats’ Corner’). Smooth-contoured cats were discovered in Japanese watercolours, where the cat is an emblem of nobility, and their sculptural possibilities, as well as their gravitas, were further enhanced by the excavation of cat-deities in Egypt. Cats were suddenly stylish, as the sleek bronze creature who patronises the stairwell at Heal’s reminds us. They became the darlings of Art Deco. As pets they shared their owners’ passion for the comforts of a more private domesticity; and were, at last, valued, rather than vilified, for their independence.

If cats were modern, the past, especially in England, was canine. Dogs were the Victorians’ top domestic animal because – unlike cats – they were deeply attached to their masters. From the late 18th century the new benevolence towards animals, and commiseration with their sufferings, favoured the dog as an emotional creature. Feelings created affinities between animal and human; their lack of reason, formerly the sign of their difference, counted for less. ‘The perfection of an animal’, Buffon wrote in his hugely popular Histoire naturelle (1762), depends on ‘the perfection of sentiment’, and he judged the dog’s ‘interior qualities’ closest to mankind’s (Pliny’s Natural History had preferred the elephant for its intelligence). Dogs expressed themselves sympathetically; caterwauling was diabolical by comparison. They responded to their keepers, pining at absences, welcoming returns, growling at strangers, even howling at deaths. Not just symbols of human virtue, but superior sensibilities (as the young Byron insisted in his epitaph to Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog and ‘one friend’), dogs became fit matter for poetry.

Although these new ways of anthropomorphising animals were evidence of a more sceptical or secular mentality – ‘anthropomorphism’ had shifted from its original meaning of attributing human qualities to the Deity – they were nevertheless compatible with faith: a loving dog might exemplify a loving God whose ‘strength of feeling’, as Wordsworth wrote in ‘Fidelity’ of 1805, was equally beyond human estimate. Dogs were a tie. That was their point. They encouraged and anchored the affections; they set a limit to self-centredness, prompting reflection on the need, in an increasingly materialist culture, for social and personal bonds which put others first.

Caring for canines, much contemporary literature maintained, had a philanthropic effect. Dogs were natural altruists and ideal dependants. As dumb animals, their self-sacrifice was tinged with pathos because the canine gaze, the focus of so much Victorian painting and verse, was always a speaking look. In its more abject moments, the dog was the ideal victim, asking for assistance and yet making no complaint. Pet welfare was urged on children, while animal stories, the staple fare of children’s literature, asked them to identify with the helpless and learn the lessons of unselfishness. Full-length animal autobiography, of which Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) was the most popular, set the pattern for a series of animal ‘true lives’, waif novels in which homeless and traumatised creatures endured vicious treatment until finally restored to a loving domestic circle (in the US Mrs Marshall Saunders’s bloodcurdling autobiography of a tormented dog, Beautiful Joe, was the bestselling canine tribute to Sewell). If the dog was infantilised – ‘doggy’ is a 19th-century diminutive – the child stood to gain: ‘the child is an animal,’ Henry Bergh, founder of the American SPCC and SPCA, declared, arguing that children deserved at least the same freedom from abuse as some animals already enjoyed under the law.

Dogs came in all shapes and sizes; there was one to suit every walk of life, public and private, and establishing canine rank and station became a major preoccupation of breeders. Owning a dog purely for pleasure and showing it off to others was a national recreation for the Victorians. Pride in a dog’s appearance (its ‘points’), once the province of aristocrats or pugilistic male ‘fanciers’ in the older public house fraternities, was legitimised by the new dog shows which included every variety of dog – over seventeen hundred were entered in a Crystal Palace show in 1890. ‘Dog-breaking’, harking back to the taming of horses, gave way to ‘dog-training’, a domestication fitted to city life, making dogs more manageable with the introduction of collars and chains, and the routinising of ‘walks’. Advice from manuals on kennelling and grooming, on canine character and peculiarities, turned owners into benign parents attentive to ‘behaviour’ and strong on obedience. Proprietary dog-food, appealingly humanised – James Spratt’s ‘Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes’, for example – was added to the household’s grocery-list. No longer just a man’s best friend or a lady’s toy, the dog was a member of the family. And if dogs were the children who never grew up, they also always died young. They were bound to remain, if only in adult memory, umbilically tied to the past.

Virginia Woolf’s life of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, is part of that historicising, and usually disparaging, take on ‘Victorianism’ which was so much a matter of modern hindsight. Cooped up with his invalid mistress, Flush belongs, with the antimacassars and the firescreens, in those crowded interiors which Modernists now saw as cluttered with emotional as well as material lumber. Woolf was in some ways going back over old ground, into older forms of family and feeling, including her own. Putting the pet centre-stage meant writing more directly, but also humorously, about the idea of dependency, the heart of Victorian family and social life. When Flush was published in 1933, feminist reviewers (Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay among them) immediately drew parallels between the spaniel and Elizabeth Barrett, seeing his story as her psychological biography: she is petted and confined like him, always subject to the will of others. Flush marks the distance Woolf gave herself from Victorian femininity and from the ‘poetess’ whose literary excesses, as she saw them, were the result of an overwrought, hot-house life: ‘Mrs Browning could no more conceal herself than she could control herself,’ she commented tartly in an essay on Aurora Leigh, shortly before embarking on Flush.

But Flush is primarily the dog’s story. His escape from the civilised repressions of Wimpole Street to the promiscuous pleasures of Florence, where he accompanies the Brownings after their secret marriage, takes him further than it takes his mistress. Miss Barrett becomes Mrs Browning but Flush learns to stand on his own four feet, moving from mindless devotion to thoughtful independence. Flush is both an old story of mutual attachment and a modern tale of successful separation, a weaning from anxious emotionalism and the gaining of a new expansiveness. As a canine Modernist, Flush is freed to find a subjectivity of his own, though he must first experience a breakdown in Whitechapel, where he languishes in a dog-thieves’ den (melodramatic ‘low-life’ scenes in which Woolf’s fears about animality are displaced onto ‘hairy ruffians’ more brutish than Flush). In Italy he becomes a sensitive loner, sniffing at pavements and savouring sensation in a Paterian fashion; he shuffles off the fetters of his pedigree (much of his story satirises the English obsession with breeding), and gets beyond canine instinct and aggression, as well as passive pethood, to enjoy random desire without the trammels of possessiveness – Flush ‘embraces’ his mates, lying side by side in a most undoglike position. Ultimately he becomes a ‘nobody’, an ambiguous fantasy of physical emancipation which, like Woolf’s notion of androgyny, tries to transcend human sexuality and its relentless polarising of masculine and feminine. Flush, in other words, is a Woolf in dog’s clothing, and thereby hangs the tale.

Flush began life as a skit on Lytton Strachey’s biographical method. Writing the life of a dumb animal drew attention to the biographer’s claims to omniscience, and to the biographical tendency to ventriloquise much as pet-owners do. Writing from the spaniel’s point of view meant offering a history from below and Flush plays with the idea of biography relativising the historical record. Woolf was more nervous about introducing the life of that other dogsbody in the story, Lily Wilson, the Brownings’ maid, whose fortunes also followed theirs. An absurdly long and ambivalent endnote acknowledges her existence, pointing out the precariousness of her position, yet shrouding her life in a nostalgic fantasy of the days when the ‘glory of the British basement’ was apparently content with her lot. Flush’s difference of view was easier to incorporate. Like dogs throughout the ages, Flush is a reassuring stand-in for the human servant whose relations of subordination and dependency were far more fraught and antagonistic. Servants were liable to answer back; whatever happens, Flush cannot speak for himself.

Woolf tried to have it both ways in Flush: to enjoy an affectionate relation to the past while keeping it at arm’s length. She knew Flush would be popular and the prospect depressed her; she would be thought sentimental and dismissed as ‘a ladylike prattler’. Once the book was published she was quick to disown it, apologising for it to her friends as a ‘foolish witless joke’ and ‘a waste of time’. It was her bestselling book to date and perhaps the only one to reach her fabled ‘common reader’ right across the globe. It has also remained largely beneath the notice of Woolf critics and scholars. This edition, aimed chiefly at the Woolf industry within the academy, concentrates on producing a ‘reliable’ text, replete with lists of variants and emendations, and sees nothing amiss in claiming that, despite 21 new editions or reprints between 1933 and 1978, it is ‘the least read of her books’. It offers no comment on Woolf’s anxieties about mixing her markets, yet as a dog book whose low subject moves in elevated circles, Flush appealed hugely to the ‘middlebrow’ readership she so despised (how she must have squirmed to find it praised for its ‘marvellous insight’ and ‘singular charm’ by the Huddersfield Weekly Examiner alongside a review of one of Galsworthy’s novels). Woolf’s writerly desire to cross literary boundaries evoked an equally powerful fear of literary miscegenation, of the loss of control and definition, of a breakdown of those continuities that might shore up artistic identity and purpose. Flush, in its waggish way, invites discussion of the cultural politics of Modernism: of the tense relation between Modernism’s radical freeing up of the present from the forms of the past, and its resistance, and sometimes conservative reaction to, the mongrelisation of culture. At the end of the story, Flush joins ‘the many-coloured mongrels in the marketplace’ of Florence, but he does not become one of them. Instead he regales them with remembrance of things past, before returning home to die.

Flush is the history of a dog who makes it happily into an anonymous modernity. Its escapism let Woolf play with those relativising perceptions which elsewhere risked destabilising, even depleting the self as well as deconstructing the idea of a commonality – a risk-taking which impelled her to write. In the more threatening circumstances of the Thirties she frequently returned to the idea of anonymity, wondering whether it was possible to remain ‘immune’ (her word) to aggression and slavishness, to positions of mastery and subordination. Flush embodies the small hope, which was to surface even in the most fragmented moments of Woolf’s work, that the structures of attachment, within and without, could be changed without degenerating into conflict or an eruption of anger and violence.

One of the impulses of the Post-Modern, and perhaps one of its saving graces, is the desire to retrieve those modes of sociability and relatedness which Modernism meant to dismantle or diffuse. That thought might go some way towards a charitable reading of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, ‘a love-story’ between a dog and his master. Mr Bones is an all-American mongrel, ‘a hodge-podge of genetic strains’ (Auster compares him to other US immigrants), who’s also a model of purity, ‘wholly and incorruptibly good’. He’s the distillation of unadulterated feeling, selflessly devoted to his master, William Gurevitch, a poet-hobo about to die. As in Mr Vertigo, Auster’s previous novel, or his recent film-work – Smoke and Blue in the Face – sentimentality is self-consciously reclaimed as the makeshift means of achieving a benevolent intimacy, as an emotional and linguistic umbrella under which disaffected individuals, including readers, are supposed to shelter and find common cause. All you have to do is swallow the schmaltz. And Gurevitch, a.k.a. ‘Willy G. Christmas’, converted to saintliness by hearing the word of Santa Claus in a ‘tele-vision’, is full of it:

To make the world a better place. To bring some beauty to the drab, humdrum corners of the soul. You can do it with a toaster, you can do it with a poem, you can do it by reaching out your hand to a stranger. It doesn’t matter what form it takes. To leave the world a little better than you found it. That’s the best a man can ever do.

  OK, snicker if you like. If I gush, I gush, and that’s all there is to it. It feels good to let the purple stuff come pouring out sometimes.

Auster has a following in the UK as a writer who can mix high and low (The New York Trilogy was variously described as Beckett meets Chandler or ‘Kafka goes gumshoe’). He’s been a translator of avant-garde poetry (and a poet), he’s produced memoirs and screenplays – and a series of novels which knowingly rework popular genres. Timbuktu suggests how much this experimentation has tended towards the comfortably inclusive rather than the disturbingly dissonant. Mr Bones lays bare a longing for the unalienated and for reparation which surfaces at every level of Timbuktu. As a protection against attrition and loss, those entropic landscapes which have made up much of Auster’s terrain in the past, Timbuktu tries to generate a fullness of feeling and speech. Willy G. overflows in a series of ‘monologic free-for-alls’, Whitmanesque/Ginsbergian medleys of prophecy and tough-guy talk, lyricism, adspeak and homily. His rodomontades invest words and things with a talismanic presence, mystically celebrating the found objects in his mind – from doughnuts to Dentyne gum, tarmac to toasters. As in so much Post-Modern art, immanence attaches to the vestiges of the past; the nostalgic is the readiest form of the numinous.

Timbuktu wants to console and rehabilitate: it’s a pain-free zone. Mr Bones recovers from Willy’s death (which is deliberately robbed of its suspense), and attaches himself to a suburban family; he gets beyond ‘the posthumous life of the survivor’ (Willy G.’s parents are Polish Jews). ‘Timbuktu’, Bones’s master tells him, is where they will meet again – ‘an oasis of spirits’. It’s where Post-Modern mongrels will go when they die: a Never-Never Land beyond cynicism and capitalism where what is tired and empty and clichéd is restored to meaningfulness. It’s also where heterosexual masculinity, with all its flaws, will be made good. Auster’s view of sexual difference is pretty yin and yang: his female characters tend to be either maternal or seductive (or a mixture of both) but rarely as evolved as the male. His writing is dominated by the father-son relationship and Timbuktu is another Oedipal romance in which they are at once parted and reconciled. Mr Bones is both devoted disciple and the redeeming, sensitive part of the male. He belongs to that canine gallery who safely represent the way men feel about themselves, allowing them to express uninhibited emotion, especially towards the same sex, and unmanly fears to do with growing old and losing strength (those poignant images of old warriors brought low in Landseer’s dog-portraits, for instance), or taboo desires, like wanting to be looked after. Mr Bones, we’re told, ‘needed to be touched and spoken to, to be part of a world that included more than just himself’. Timbuktu is tenderly narcissistic, which is why it is so wearisome.

Writers have often had a soft spot for pets because pets help them change shape. The history of the different forms of human identification with other animals is also a history of the desire for physical metamorphosis, of the wish for another body with different possibilities and limits. For all her amused insistence on the similarities between herself and her floppy-eared spaniel, Elizabeth Barrett admired ‘Mr Flush’s’ lusty animality as much as his sensibility, fancying him, in one of her sonnets, a ‘Faunus’ to Pan. A pet’s sex life is the most problematic part of its alterity, which may in part be why late 20th-century accounts focus on a shared mortality rather than a different vitality. A pet’s death may also be the only one its owners witness. The motley crew of ‘vets’n’pets’ programmes on prime-time TV – Vets in Practice, Animal Hospital, Zoo, Barking Mad, Badger – deal almost entirely with endangered, wounded, traumatised or dying animals, while Tamagotchis, those electronic pet-toys which need to be fed and played with by their child-owners, are programmed to ‘die’ if neglected. As internalised objects of self-love, all pets are in a sense virtual – and their loss can be felt whether they are ‘real’ or not.

According to the new hybrid science, anthropozoology, the idea of the pet is outdated. Today’s cats and dogs are ‘companion animals’ and we are ‘caretakers’, rather than owners, let alone masters or mistresses. Other animals are ‘free-living’, not feral. But the pet was always a go-between, a corrupt favourite singled out from its fellows, living in a halfway house. If pets matter because they give us the chance to make attachments, to rehearse and internalise separation and loss, they also allow us to enjoy their resilience. They are companions we expect to outlive, more vulnerable but also more fully themselves. They arouse mixed feelings in us – hilarity and amazement, envy even, as well as guilt and pity. Their dependence may protect us against desolate human solipsism but their indifference is at least as cheering. If we still need friends in fur, we also need their animal spirits to survive.