The post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 25 May 2021. Enjoy!
Although (just like servants) they are often little remarked upon, dogs are everywhere in Jane Austen’s novels.
In the Regency, dogs were an essential feature of countryside living: we might as well imagine their incessant barking in the background when we read Austen’s stories, particularly during hunting season or when the men head outside.
Most dogs were seen as working animals, such as aids to hunting or shepherding, although sensibilities were rapidly changing. Here’s what Jane Austen’s stories tell us about pooches and their owners two hundred years ago.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s brother-in-law Charles Musgrove owns several hounds. We are even told that one of Musgrove’s hunting sessions with Captain Wentworth is spoilt by a young dog, presumably because it was too excited or tired to keep up with the sportsmen.
A good hound was invaluable to huntsmen. In Sense and Sensibility, Sir John Middleton is incensed when he discovers Willoughby’s true nature, perhaps even more so because he has just given Willoughby a precious present: a puppy by Folly, his favourite hound.
“Such a scoundrel of a fellow! such a deceitful dog! It was only the last time they met that he had offered him one of Folly’s puppies! and this was the end of it!”
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 32
Later, when Willoughby is unhappily married to a rich woman, we learn that he breeds hounds for pleasure, and he sees them as one of the few consolations of life. (I wonder if one of the dams or sires he keeps is Folly’s baby?).
Sir John’s tender words towards Folly suggest that, beyond valuing their hunting prowess, some dog owners were particularly attached to their furry friends, something Jane Austen reflects in her novels.
In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney keeps “a large Newfoundland puppy and two or three terriers” in the parsonage. They are “the friends of his solitude”, the companions he shares his single life with.
And of course, there’s Pug, the most spoilt pooch in Austen’s works. Mansfield Park’s Lady Bertram is extremely fond of the dog, and Jane Austen cleverly uses the relationship between the two to convey Lady Bertram’s newfound interest in her niece. The woman sees Fanny so much improved that she makes her an unthinkable offer, one that corroborates her affection:
“And I will tell you what, Fanny, which is more than I did for Maria: the next time Pug has a litter you shall have a puppy.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 33
Lady Bertram’s attachment to Pug always stood out to me when reading Mansfield Park. What if Lady Bertram had paid less attention to her pet and more to her daughters? And, alas, dogs have shorter lives than humans. What would the woman do when Pug was no longer there? (My musings made it to Miss Price’s Decision, and spoiler alert: Pug is getting on…).
So What did Jane Think ?
We have little evidence of Jane’s actual thoughts regarding dogs. We know that, ten years after Jane’s death, Cassandra got a dog to keep her company, but we have no indication that the sisters owned a dog during their life together.
Jane Austen was a busy woman. She had to fit in her novel writing around housework and childcare for her brothers, and she also travelled a fair bit. Perhaps a dog wasn’t the ideal pet for her (I can sympathise! As much as I’d love a pooch, now it’s not the right time).
However, I do wonder what Jane would think of our relationship with dogs. I imagine she would find the industry built around catering to their every need highly amusing!
What other dogs do you remember noticing in Jane Austen’s novels? Would you say you are a dog person, and if so, do you have/have had any pooches you’d like to tell us about?