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Beryl Gray, The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination

Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, 259 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3529-3
Fabienne Moine
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Beryl Gray, The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, 259 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3529-3

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1‘Dickens was fascinated by dogs’ (1). With this straightforward introductory sentence, Beryl Gray underlines the important role dogs played, both in the novelist’s life and in his works, and points out that dogs will be at the very centre of her book. Much like his fellow Londoners, Dickens lived surrounded by animals. But when Gray introduces readers to Timber, Turk, Linda, Mrs Bouncer, Don, Bumble and Sultan, all presented in very individualized ways that highlight the specific relations they had with their master, her aim is to show that Dickens’s beloved dogs were not mere dumb companions. They helped the novelist build his imagination.

2Gray’s monograph is not a biography even if she follows Dickens’s life and shows that the dogs, present in his fictional works or incorporated as metaphors, emerged from real encounters. Her interest lies rather in analysing how the dogs in Dickens’s life were integrated into his imaginary world as characters and contributed to shaping his discourse in his fiction, his journalism or his autobiographical fragments. Furthermore, it is through the specific traits they were given that they had a hand—or rather a paw—in composing Dickens’s persona as the novelist staged his own literary self through his relations with dogs. Gray’s book is composed of two sections: the first one is about the real dogs in Dickens’s life and the second deals with dogs in his fiction.

3Gray starts the first part, A Life With Dogs, with ‘Dog Fancy’, a chapter that presents Dickens’s first memories as a youth, often associated with an ‘unforgettable childhood dog-encounter’ (18) and incorporated into his autobiographical fragments from Household Words and All the Year Round. One great asset of the book is that it revives less well-known pieces of journalism. His encounter with stray dogs during his London night strolls had a significant effect on the tireless walker’s depiction of the city’s ‘underdogs’, animals and humans, that were portrayed in his fiction.

4In the following four chapters, we follow Dickens’s life through the different canine encounters. We learn that Timber, his 12-year-long terrier companion, was first called Boz and had been given to him on his trip to America. His constant interaction with and close observation of Timber helped Dickens engage with dogs in his writings. As often in his fiction, dogs bring elements of comedy that counterbalance sentimentalism. Moreover, Timber enabled him to tackle sexual issues in his letters, while sexual inclinations are absent from his fiction.

5Gray then explores Dickens’s major events through his relation with dogs when he was in his forties. His family life, the disintegration of his marriage, his love relationship with Ellen Ternan and his life at Gad’s Hill Place near Rochester in Kent take on a new significance when seen through Dickens’s interactions with his dogs. For example, St Bernards were particularly significant in Dickens’s life. Linda was offered by the mountaineer and writer Albert Smith, whose performances in the Egyptian Hall had the audience experience the illusion of travelling with St Bernard dogs in the Alps. While Dickens never wrote the story of the courageous St Bernards saving lives in the great passes of the Alps, he nevertheless incorporated one into Little Dorrit and into his Christmas story ‘No Thoroughfare’, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins. The rest of chapter 3 relates Dickens’s interactions with Turk, a mastiff, Don and Bumble, two Newfoundlands, and Sultan, a Spanish mastiff, given by Percy Fitzgerald who ‘shared his fascination for dogs’ (55) and contributed dog stories to Household Words and All the Year Round. Gray shows that dogs were instrumental in creating social and friendship bonds in Dickens’s life. Yet Gray’s book also reveals the novelist’s ambivalent relations with dogs like when he was determined to have Sultan put to death after he bit a little girl. Through these anecdotes, we learn a lot about the history of Victorian human/animal relationships and about animal sentimentalism and ethics. Gray also makes very interesting developments on some popular breeds during the Victorian era such as Newfoundlands and St Bernards.

6In chapter 4, entitled ‘Dogs encountered’, Gray analyses how Dickens’s phase of dog observations in the 1860s helped him develop a more acute perception of humans. Indeed his observation of street dogs led him to describe the underprivileged in a more accurate and poignant way while the attention he paid to fashionable dogs helped him build his sense of comicality. These multiple canine encounters were also helpful to awaken Dickens’s concern for animal rights.

7Several dogs in Dickens’s stories are modelled on Mrs Bouncer, a Pomeranian given to Mamie, his daughter, in 1859. This dog is associated with Dickens’s domestic pleasures more than his other dogs. Yet ‘the anthropomorphizing elements in the depiction detract nothing from canine individuality’ (88). Indeed Dickens was always cautious to preserve the individuality of each dog he depicted, however strong his personal engagement with them may have been. Mrs Bouncer is particularly significant in Dickens’s private life as proved by all the references to the small Pomeranian in Mamie’s autobiography, in Nelly Ternan’s elegy for the dead dog and in the epitaph of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Georgina, engraved on its headstone. According to Gray, Mrs Bouncer allowed the expression of emotions from the women Dickens loved: ‘Mamie’s adoration of her father was entirely reconcilable with her absolute devotion to her dog’ (96).

8In the second part of her monograph, Gray explores how Dickens translated his canine observations and expertise into his work. She starts by a study of canine evil in man in Oliver Twist. She follows the itinerary of the murderer, Sikes, through his relations with Bull’s-Eye, his dog companion and double. She makes very convincing remarks about the diverging representations of the dog in the novel and in the illustrations by George Cruikshank. She also pays attention to the divergences with the readings Dickens gave in 1868-1870, making the death of the dog even more tragic. These micro-readings will certainly be very valuable for Dickens scholars. Gray analyses how characters are constructed through canine metaphors in The Old Curiosity Shop and in Hablot Knight Browne’s vignettes. Not only is Quilp, the villain, assimilated with a ferocious dog, but Jerry, the performing-dog exhibitor, subjects his dogs to inhumane treatment. For Gray, these poignant depictions illustrate ‘man’s capacity for terrorizing those over whom he holds dominion’ (146).

9After rapidly considering the circus dog Merrylegs in Hard Times and concluding that ‘the ways of the dogs are unfathomable’ (161), Gray moves to the analysis of dogs in Bleak House and particularly in Browne’s title-page vignette that proves Dickens’s passion for stray dogs and his attempt at reading what is in a dog’s mind. Dickens’s unflagging interest for animals is obvious in Dombey and Son through Diogenes, Florence Dombey’s loyal companion. The presence of Diogenes in the novel and in Browne’s illustrations is crucial to understand Florence’s sentimental and psychological development.

10In Little Dorrit, Gowan’s dog, Lion, helps build the brutal character of his owner by being presented as an ‘unwitting surrogate’ (198). Gray also examines how the construction of other villains in Dickens’s novels, Blandois, Sikes and Murdstone, coincides with the dogs they encounter. Gray’s study of Gowan as a negative version of Landseer, the animal painter and Dickens’s friend, is efficiently conducted. For Gray, the name of Lion is a probable allusion to Landseer’s painting of the lion and lioness in Regent’s Park’s Zoological Gardens.

11In the chapter dedicated to David Copperfield, Gray concentrates on Jip, Dora’s lapdog. She examines Dickens’s notes which prove to be extremely relevant when it comes to analysing the strength of the relation between Dora and Jip and their intertwined lives: ‘Present little Dora's death, through Jip’s Death [double underscore]’ (225). Dickens’s absorption in the ludicrous pair proves David Copperfield is ‘a superlative study of a relationship’ (227).

12There is no dog in Great Expectations, the last novel examined in Gray’s monograph; and yet they are overwhelmingly present in the novel through the character of Magwitch, who behaves and is treated like a dog. The dog comparisons contribute to restoring the convict’s humanity at the very time when convicts were treated like dogs.

  • 1 This is an allusion to The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the Nation (...)

13By choosing to look at Dickens’s works through the small end of the microscope, Gray is certainly not barking up the wrong tree. Indeed, considering canine idiosyncrasies as the gateway to Dickens’s imagination is a very original approach to Dickens’s works. Gray also very shrewdly compares Dickens’s texts with the original illustrations and plates. The analyses that Gray makes of the thirteen plates by Hablot Knight Browne and the four plates by George Cruikshank show that ‘the faces in the corner’1 are not insignificant details. It proves it is now necessary for Dickens specialists to move the cursor of interpretation and zoom in for a closer look at the little dogs, for instance in Browne’s title-page vignette of Bleak House.

14Gray is very well acquainted with Dickens’s life and novels, but she also demonstrates her thorough knowledge of letters, notes and little-known pieces from the magazines Dickens edited, as proved by the myriad exciting anecdotes illustrating and enriching every chapter. Yet one sometimes gets side-tracked by intricate details as well as by too many dogs that come in pack, for example in chapter 3. Gray’s dogs certainly help track Dickens’s path in his London walks as in his sentimental and professional life; nevertheless, the reader sometimes loses the trail of the original argument.

  • 2 ‘Ladies pets and the politics of affect: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush’, Australian Literary (...)

15Gray’s book is in line with other recent contributions by Victorianists who embrace the potential represented by the animal companions of eminent Victorians in their study of the Victorian imagination and culture. Her book joins the growing list of contributions by researchers in cultural and literary studies who consider that animals are meaningful when it comes to understanding their owner’s literary or artistic production. Take, for example, Emma Townshend’s Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution (2009), John Simons’s Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London (2008) and Jennifer McDonell’s work on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Flush.2

16Beryl Gray’s Dogs in the Dickensian Imagination is an essential contribution to the critical canon on Dickens but will also most certainly please scholars working on 19th-century literature and culture.

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1 This is an allusion to The Face in the Corner: Animal Portraits from the Collections of the National Portrait Gallery (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1998) by Robin Gibson, a study of animal portraiture illustrated with paintings and pictures of the sitter’s favourite pets.

2 ‘Ladies pets and the politics of affect: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush’, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2010: 17-34. See also her study of Jane Welsh Carlyle's Nero in ‘A la lisière de l’humanité: Chiens, affect et division des espèces dans l’Angleterre du XIXe siècle’, Aux frontières de l'animal 2012 (n° 218), 119-41.

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Fabienne Moine, « Beryl Gray, The Dog in the Dickensian Imagination »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 85 Printemps | 2017, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2017, consulté le 27 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Fabienne Moine

Université Paris Nanterre

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