Stick with me on this one guys; this is a post about the Brontës and their animals, but also one which discusses the love I have for my own rescue dog, and the happiness he has brought to us over the years, in addition to his love of Haworth!
Seven years ago today, an unloved, scruffy and mistreated mutt was taken from a house in Potters Bar by a young woman and her father. The little dog didn’t look back as he rushed over the threshold of the front door, nor when he arrived at the train station a short time later. Over the next few hours the dog travelled with them to Islington where the young woman lived whilst she was studying at university, and from Islington to London Euston before boarding a train to Warrington. On disembarking from the train at Warrington, the little dog and his human companions were greeted by three other people who had come to collect the trio after their long day. I was one of the three people at the train station that night and I’m not ashamed to say that I thought the dog was scruffy and dirty, and in rather a sorry state. In fact, with his matted and dirty fur, he looked nothing like the bichon frise he was supposed to be. I was not a dog person and I’d had to Google the term “bichon frise” to see exactly what my sister was bringing home from London. My sister was the young woman and was training to be a vet at the Royal Veterinary College. She was the dog person, the cat person, the you-name-it-she’ll-want-it-person. I still wasn’t sure about getting a dog but she’d twisted my arm; Bob was sad, Bob was lonely, Bob needed a home or… Well, I won’t finish that sentence.
When she got off the train with my dad and Bob that night, I wasn’t exactly sure that he was a bichon frise and I wondered if she’d conned us into thinking he was in order to persuade us to take him in or if she’d been conned herself. He also looked more like thirteen than three years old so I thought she’d been doubly conned. He was so much bigger than we’d been expecting, and like I said, so full of dirty and matted fur. As we bundled him into the car, I watched as he sat on my sister’s knee and tried to peer out of the car window at the lights and the stars. He tried his best but the fur covering his eyes was just too long for him to be able to see properly. Following the relatively short drive to his forever home, my sister proceeded to snip the hair out of his eyes so that the poor thing could see where he was going and where he was. It was a small but remarkable difference for now we could see not only those beautiful coal black eyes exclusive to bichons, but also the anxiety behind them as he tried to adjust to his new surroundings.
It took a while for Bob to settle. He didn’t like being left alone and stood whimpering at the bottom of the stairs when we all attempted to go to bed that night. For a week or so somebody slept downstairs with him at night until we decided to move his bed upstairs to be closer to his humans. He also didn’t like closed doors and his separation anxiety was terrible. To be honest, it isn’t much better now, but that’s a trait of the breed, and he knows he’s never alone. He also didn’t like water bottles, and more worryingly, water itself, telling us that somebody had been very cruel to him using water at some point. For weeks we had to feed him pieces of crushed ice in order to get some fluids into his system. The week after his arrival he was groomed and emerged from the salon looking every inch the beautiful bichon frise. He gradually got used to the fact he didn’t have to scrounge in the bins for food and would in fact be supplied with perfectly good dog food. He also quickly attracted the notice of the neighbours, and their dogs, allowing Bob to socialise and form doggy friendships, but also allowing us to meet and interact with neighbours we previously knew nothing about.
We didn’t (and still don’t) know too much about Bob’s origins. My sister had seen him advertised as being unwanted through her university, and for some reason she’d been drawn to this particular dog and managed to do what she’d been attempting to do for two decades; convince us to get a dog. At the same time, we’d said yes when we’d said no for so long. There was something about this dog that was drawing us to him and vice versa. We weren’t looking for a dog but Bob found us anyway, and in doing so he sought out the family who would love and cherish him in good times and bad, through the allergies, the bone diseases, the arthritis, and the bouts with cancer. In being re-homed, Bob found a family who would support him through his illnesses and troubles, and in re-homing him we found the perfect family companion and I can honestly say that Bob has changed all of our lives for the better.
Whilst I could never stand cruelty to animals, before the arrival of Bob, I never went out of my way to raise awareness of it, or the fantastic organisations which actively fight and prevent animal cruelty. Now I champion institutions such as the Dog’s Trust and the RSPCA in addition to smaller and/or local animal welfare charities such as Freshfields Animal Sanctuary in Liverpool and Tyr Capel Sanctuary in Wales. I don’t eat meat anymore thanks to my fluffy friend and I try to ensure that my carnivore of a boyfriend consumes responsibly sourced meat (if indeed, there is such a thing) and that the animals have been treated as animals rather than objects during their lifetime. I have no problem with people eating meat, life is about choice after all, but these animals should be treated with respect and kindness. In addition to this, the cosmetics and toiletries I purchase (either for myself, or as gifts) have to be certified cruelty free. Before Bob I didn’t give a damn because I didn’t realise just how bad things still are, and just how many companies still unnecessarily test products on animals. The good thing about this is that I’ve introduced people to brands and shops they wouldn’t normally try, proving that cruelty free products are just as good as cruel ones.
In the seven years we’ve had Bob, he’s travelled with us all over the country. Our philosophy is that if the dog can’t go, then neither can we. He’s been North and South, to both coast and city, rambled amongst ruins of stately homes and abbeys, pelted through our local Quaker House, he’s attended weddings and funerals, holidayed in cottages, caravans and pods, he’s been shopping for spectacles, bath bombs, craft supplies, and of course, dog treats. You name it, Bob’s been there and bought the t shirt. One of his favourite places just happens to be one of mine too though; the village of Haworth in West Yorkshire, which is of course, the home of the Brontës. There’s nothing he loves more than jumping out of the car in Haworth, making his way down Main Street, mooching on down to the park before heading back up and stopping off at the Black Bull (he’s rather partial to that these days), before circling round by the church and up past the school rooms and towards the parsonage before climbing back into the car and sleeping all the way home.
It wasn’t until Bob’s arrival that I really paid much attention to the Brontës’ animals but I’m sure he can sense their spirit as he saunters around the place. Although Charlotte is “my Brontë” her indifference to animals is apparent in her letters and fiction. I also don’t think that Branwell was especially connected to animals despite his childhood sketch of a sleeping cat. Instead, it is the two youngest Brontës, Emily and Anne, who had the deepest connection with and respect for their furry and feathered friends.
It is mainly through the pictures and diary papers of Emily and Anne that the Brontë animals are known to us. The most famous Brontë pet is Emily’s rather terrifying bull mastiff, Keeper, who according to Charlotte, joined the mourners at Emily’s funeral and frequently cried at the former bedroom door of his deceased mistress. Only a deep connection and companionship between human and animal could provoke a reaction such as that. Despite his fearful reputation, Keeper was clearly deeply attached to Emily and despite the enigma still surrounding her, I believe Emily was deeply attached to Keeper and the other animals that passed through the parsonage over the years. There have been accusations that Emily was cruel to Keeper, but I’m more inclined to believe she was strict and firm with a large and powerful dog to prevent either an accident or the dog’s removal from the parsonage, or both. Keeper was famously drawn by Emily, but also found his way into Charlotte’s novel Shirley as Tartar, a fierce mastiff-bulldog cross. However, Emily and Keeper can both sleep easily as their final resting places are not too far from one another; Emily lies in the church vault with her family and Keeper, who died in December 1851, three years after Emily, slumbers peacefully in the garden of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Other Brontë pets include Grasper, who was probably an Irish Terrier, Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, and a pheasant called Jasper, who were all possibly wild birds that were fed regularly by the family. Emily also became rather attached to a Merlin falcon named Nero although he is normally referred to as a hawk, sketching him as she had done with her other animals. There were also cats named Black Tom and Tiger, two geese named Victoria and Adelaide and a bird, Little Dick, who is referred to in Anne’s diary paper for 1845. In 2018 Emily Brontë remains as enigmatic as ever, but I can’t help feeling that her connection to animals was one of her defining characteristics, after all, how often did Charlotte and Branwell take the time to sketch the animals around them or discuss them in their letters? Although so little of Anne and Emily’s has survived the centuries, their mentions and depictions of animals is telling. Despite my own focus on the early writings of Charlotte and Branwell, which curiously began with the perusal of Charlotte’s The Green Dwarf a week or so after the arrival of Bob, I am drawn to the younger Brontës due to their love of animals.
Although Anne and Emily shared a love for animals that their older siblings did not, their own pets were as different from one another as they were. Anne’s own dog, a spaniel named Flossy, was given to her by the Robinsons of Thorp Green, for whom Anne had been a governess. The dog was by all accounts gentle and loving, and outlived Anne by five years, living (and dying) happily in 1854, just a year before Charlotte, the last living Brontë sibling. Wildly different to Keeper, but Flossy shared a close bond with his mistress (historically Flossy has been labelled female but in all probability was actually male; Anne referred to him in her 1845 diary paper as male although Charlotte referred to Flossy as female in her correspondence).
Whilst Emily appears to have had a wild and enigmatic relationship with her animals, Anne has a more straight forward respect for her pets, and indeed all animals. The strongest evidence of this is in her novel, Agnes Grey. You can read my thoughts on Agnes by clicking here. Anne’s (and Agnes’s) stance on animal rights and feelings is remarkably ahead of her time, and this is the part of the narrative which resonates with me so strongly. A 19th century novel which depicts animals as sentient beings deserving of kindness and respect is refreshing, uplifting, and revolutionary. If you want an early champion of animal rights, look to Anne Brontë. Don’t get me wrong, this is no animal rights novel; it’s the tale of a governess’s struggles with her place in the world, her unruly pupils, cruel employers, and of course, romance but her points about animal rights are explicit enough to make an impact, and subtle enough not to dominate the narrative.
I love the fact that there are so many different aspects of the Brontës to enjoy and appreciate, from their writings to their childhood games, to their art, and their animals. In particular, the younger Brontës’ love of animals speaks to me across the centuries and although Charlotte seemed to soften towards the parsonage animals after the deaths of her siblings, in one respect, she definitely isn’t “my Brontë.” Perhaps it is not possible to claim a single Brontë as your own as every Brontëite seems to do. Perhaps the Brontë responsible for your some of your favourite literature not just within this family, but of all time, may not actually be your Brontë after all. Or maybe they are all “my Brontës.” There are so many aspects of this extraordinary family to appreciate both on and off the page that it is impossible not to be enthralled by all four of them (yes, I am once again including Branwell in this due to his Glass Town/Angrian stories and remarkable poetry). Click here to access my post about the writing of the Brontë boy.Maybe we can learn something from them all. I, for one, hope that Anne’s work introduces her readers to the kindness and respect that our animal friends deserve, but sadly, still cannot always find even in the 21st century.
And don’t be fooled, it isn’t just a stroll around Haworth that Bob enjoys; he’s really quite partial to their literature as well.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
I’d also love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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