27 APRIL 2002, Page 30

Raining cats and dogs on to the pages of literature


Ihave been rereading Dombey and Son, and was struck again by what I consider the most moving line in Dickens's entire oeuvre, which occurs at the end of the last chapter: And an old dog is generally in their company.' This is Diogencs, whom poor little Paul Dombey loved. Dickens wrote the line at proof stage, after an argument with Forster. But he was always good on dogs, being emphatically a dog man, not a cat man. For dogs can be made both comic and pathetic, whereas cats, if symbols of wisdom and dignity (as the ancient Egyptians thought), know nothing of comedy or tragedy.

Dickens saw dogs not as seers, like cats, but as streetwise, cunning urchins. Hence the Sagacious Dog, early in Pickwick, who could read notices that concerned him. He had fun with a cunning New York dog which slipped into his readings in 1863 and fixed him with a knowing eye. Dickens stopped reading and accused the dog of not having a ticket. The next night the dog brought a mongrel friend, also gratuitously. At Gadshill, his house near Rochester. Dickens kept half a dozen dogs. There was a little poodle, Mrs Bouncer, a huge St Bernard, Linda, a terrier for ratting, and a trio of Newfoundlands. I am surprised that these wonderful big dogs are so rare nowadays. They were much prized in the 19th century and used as retrievers. The leading expert on shooting in the Regency, Colonel Peter Hawker, author of Instnictions to Young Sportsmen, described his favourite Newfoundland dog as 'of the real St John's breed, quite black, with a long head, and not the curly-headed brute that so often disgraces the name of the Newfoundland dog'. Byron had a dog of this breed, Bosun, his favourite, though he also loved his St Bernard, Munz, which he taught to open and shut doors. (But Munz stole a leg of mutton and was driven into a cowardly flight by a wild pig.) The Richmonds, who gave the famous ball on the eve of Waterloo, had a dog called Blucher, born in 1814. It became fond of a rabid pet fox and was responsible for the Duke's death from hydrophobia.

Dickens's Newfoundlands were a father, Don, and two sons, Bumble and Mark, the latter two sometimes harnessed in a dogcart. Don was sagacious too, and, according to Dickens, when Bumble got into difficulties in the river, Don instantly perceived the danger, plunged in and towed his son out by the ear. Dickens needed dogs for his long walks, part of the Gadshill routine. Literary bohemians invited there discovered to their horror that immediately after breakfast they were expected to work — writing books, correcting proofs etc. — until two, when they dined. Dinner over, they had (if male) to accompany their host on a ten-mile walk, dogs leading the way. Dickens walked at a speed not much less than four miles an hour, too. His walking was like everything else about him: all bustle, impatience, prodigal energy, driven. No wonder he suddenly conked out in his fifties.

I miss having a dog on my walks. You are never alone with a dog. A dog gives a sense of purpose to a walk. It ceases to be mere exercise and becomes an episode in a comic strip. Dogs banish boredom, often replacing it with farce. When the poet Thomas Hood asked Charles Lamb to mind his dog Dash for a few weeks, he introduced Lamb to a species of low comedy which finds a treasured place in his correspondence. Dash was probably the commonest name for a dog in the second quarter of the 19th century, used for both sexes, and exported to France — George Sand had a dog called Dash. It succeeded Bounce, a felicitous name for a dog, first coined by Alexander Pope, In youth Queen Victoria had a spaniel called Dash, a much-loved creature whose death provoked a dress-rehearsal for the demise of the Prince Consort. Lamb's Dash was described as 'large', and, I rather think, must have been a Newfoundland.

Lamb did not have his own dogs, as he was scared that they would die on him. He had quite enough death and tragedy in his life already. I sympathise. I have never quite got over the death of my beloved Parker, now nearly 20 years ago, and have never dared to have a dog since. 1 take seriously Kipling's warning in 'The Power of the Dog':

Brothers and sisters. I bid you beware Of Riving your heart to a dog to tear.

Prince Rupert was much put down by the death of his dog Boy at the Battle of Marston Moor, and thereafter was never again the dashing cavalry commander he had been, albeit he continued to fight gallantly. Sir Walter Scott, of whom Lockhart wrote the memorable line He was a gentleman even to his dogs'. suffered greatly when a dog died. He had a black greyhound which he called Hamlet, for his 'sable suits', and wept bitterly when the 'Angels and Ministers of Grace' took him. Black greyhounds were fashionable then. Lord Rivers, the famous sporting peer, had a magnificent one with a solitary white spot on his chest, called Snowball. This amazing creature won every race in which he was entered and not only fathered Young Snowball, another prize hound, but is the distant forebear of countless winners since. He often had his portrait done by the great Swiss animal painter Agasse, who got the likenesses of beautiful English dogs with extraordinary fidelity, raising his work to the level of Stubbs and Landseer. The latter, incidentally, had another black greyhound called Brutus, who figures in some of his canvases.

But I am rambling on, as I tend to do when I get on to the subject of dogs, one historical mu.771e leading to another. What I wanted to probe was the mystery of why some writers prefer dogs, and others cats. It's true, of course, that a very few, Shakespeare included, liked both. Kipling, too, penetrated the secrets of both, as we gather from his story `The Cat that Walked by Himself. But most seem to choose, usually with emphasis. Montaigne was a cat man; so was Francis Bacon, and Coleridge. And Dr Johnson, of course. His cat Hodge was a famous beast. Johnson treated his cats with the greatest possible consideration, assuming that they could understand what he said about them and that their feelings could be hurt. (No dog author does this.) He fed them on oysters, but would not send out his servant to buy them, believing it improper to make a human being subject to pets. His hated contemporary, Rousseau, was also a cat man, as Boswell discovered when he called on him. Indeed, Rousseau's remarks about the nature and intelligence of cats, which Boswell recorded, are extraordinarily penetrating. This would have disturbed and irritated Dr Johnson, which is no doubt why Boswell did not pass them on.

Matthew Arnold, surprisingly, was not a cat man, having been brought up on Lake District holidays to need dogs. So he always kept one or more, usually with German names such as Geist or Kaiser. But he did write a poem about a cat, 'Poor Matthias', comparing the creature 'Cruel, but composed and blandiDumb, inscrutable and grand' to the Emperor Tiberius. Mark Twain, whom one would expect to be a dog man from his Mississippi childhood, was an out-and-out cat man. His portrait of Tom Quartz, the Nevada cat which was an expert on silver mining, is one of his finest creations. Twain never missed a chance to slip in a sentence implying that cats were as intelligent as humans, if not more so. And why not? As Montaigne puts it, 'When I play with my cat, who is to say that she is not playing with me?'