Heartbeat at My Feet

Have you noticed the veritable explosion of  memoirs about dogs?  It would seem everyone has  a shaggy dog story to tell, and the reading public seems to be gobbling them up  quicker than a retriever can snatch up a bone. 

I have a confession to make.   I cannot read animal stories.  These true tales of “loving and losing” a pet are simply too much for me.  Against my better judgement, I picked up a copy of Good Dog. Stay, Anna Quindlen’s entry into this genre (I do so admire her writing, and I couldn’t resist a peek) but I was in tears at the first sentence.

The thing about dog stories – we know how they’re going to end.  It’s one of life’s cruelest gestures, I think, that dogs live such a short time, and yet become so emotionally important to their humans.  I have two dogs of my own, and no one is a firmer believer in the human animal bond than I.  But all these tales of great dogs and the impact on the lives of their owners – so sorry, I simply can’t read them.

However, I made an exception for Shaggy Muses, by Maureen Adams, a book that celebrates the connection between five famous women writers and their dogs- Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Flush; Emily Bronte, and Keeper; Emily Dickinson, and Carlo; Edith Wharton, and Linky and Foxy; Virginia Woolf, and Grizzle and Pinka. 

Adams has meticulously researched letters, diaries, and other contemporary accounts, and offers the reader perfectly lovely miniature biographies of the writer and her pet, illustrating their individual connections with grace and humor.  For each woman, her dog served a unique and vital purpose in her life.  Flush provided Browning with a will to live, and revived her from the depths of deep depression.  “He and I are inseparable companions,” she wrote of the little spaniel,” and I have vowed him my perpetual society in exchange for his devotion.”  Carlo, Emily Dickinson’s Newfoundland, became her witness, matching his steps to hers in endless walks through the garden, listening to her pour out her heart, and even conveying secret messages to her lover,  tucked into his collar. 

“A dog somehow represents…the private side of life – the play side.”  Virginia Woolf wrote those words about Pinka, her cocker spaniel.  Heaven knows, Woolf needed a playmate, and Pinka was the one who could coax her from the dangerous intensity of introspection, bringing a ball to toss, and “jumping on my bed every morning…and kissing me awake.”

A well written, thoughtfully prepared book, Shaggy Muses lends a new perspective to the lives of women the world has come to know through their literary accomplishments.  Adams capbably illustrates the notion that each author’s relationship to her pet was key in the development of her talent and in her artistic output.  These dogs, large and small, were indeed, as Edith Wharton put it,  “the heartbeat at the feet” of each of them.

Writing can be a lonely business, can’t it?  But as I write this tonight, two small white dogs are curled companionably at my own feet, sleeping so soundly their breathing is barely audible.   They are my own shaggy muses, my constant companions, my delightful playmates, and two very special friends. 

Shaggy Muses

by Maureen Adams

copyright 2007, by Random House

258 pages


5 thoughts on “Heartbeat at My Feet

  1. I could probably “try” animal stories but I really find it difficult to read them..they are always so sad!!! Or maybe it’s because I have lost 2 pets early in their lives and it has left me “wounded” so I avoid at all costs!

  2. Animal stories are a staple in my reading diet. I’ve enjoyed the many dog memoirs that have come out lately- but these are two I haven’t read yet. Must get the chance.

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