An Affection Altogether Ignorant of Our Faults: The Canine Romance

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Waikiki, HI

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx)

Often I find myself buying romances on the strength of a recommendation from someone I really trust.  As with all other genres and art forms, my taste doesn't run so much towards particular sub-genres, tropes, and tones as it does towards innovation, quality, and complexity within a particular form. (This is how I got looped into romance reading as a literary scholar at all, not to mention comics, horror films, anime, reality dance competitions, curling, etc.) So from time to time I just take the risk and buy while thinking that the less I know about what I am about to read the better.

And then I open up the ebook, and it has an adorable puppy on the cover, and I think, "Oh Jesus.  What have I done." (I can't even make this last a question, so heavy is the weight of dread upon my soul at the sight of that cheerful furball.)

Jean-Honore Fragonard "Girl with a Dog" (c. 1770)
Dogs and erotics
Seriously: what's this about?
I don't know why I have such an entrenched bias against dog-themed romances, but I encountered it again when I cracked (clicked?) the e-spine of Nikki and the Lone Wolf*.  I think it is the feeling that the text I'm reading has been so heavily engineered to fit within a marketable trope.  ("Banksia Bay," goes the tag-line for this series, "where lost dogs heal lonely hearts.")  I feel the burden of the commodification of literature particularly heavily when I see that I'm being manipulated by an adorable mammal.  But also, as an inveterate cat-person, I feel alienated by this creaky, ubiquitous association between dog ownership and romantic healing:  why dogs, I find myself asking?  Why associate dogs, of all creatures, with romantic (or, more unsettlingly, erotic) triumph?  Why not cats? Too on the nose?  I suppose the same must be true of snakes.  When are we going to see a rash of romances (a phrase that I should really put on my "never use again" list) about people brought together by their mutual love of ferrets?  Judith Ivory's already laid out the seminal text for that movement in The Proposition, a Pygmalion tale about a rat catcher and his linguist love. [And see Laura Vivanco's excellent note below on the continuing role ferrets have had to play in the scandals of romancelandia.]

I'm troubled by the idea that dogs have an entrenched role to play in a certain genre of romance because they set out a silent, adorable and adoring model for love as faith.  What the routinely skittish protagonists of a dog romance see in their canine companions is love that is patient and kind, love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud, love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking or easily angered, and that keep no record of wrongs.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Beautiful, Biblical stuff - the love of dog as a model for romantic love, which itself becomes a model for love of god.

But, curb the canine and call me Darcy, I myself prefer romantic love with a touch of pride about it. Not love as self-abnegating devotion.

There's a certain irony here: despite my initial stomach-churning sense of dread, I often quite enjoy a good dog-themed romance.  One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, frequently features dogs in her  books, and they are fully-fledged characters, with as much personality and autonomy as any of the human players in the drama. And certainly I am a sucker for the sentimentalization of animal-owner relationships, and perhaps this is why I so resent being manipulated by them when they are in less skillful hands (or more blatantly mobilized by publishers) - I will snuffle into my drink about an ill-treated animal, but I'll also resent you for exploiting this empathy cheaply.

In Nikki and the Lone Wolf, Marion Lennox draws a vivid portrait of Horse, a massive and mistreated wolfhound who draws the hero and heroine from their homes one gothic night by howling inconsolably at the ocean.  His owner threw him overboard to drown, but still he's faithfully waiting for this abusive scoundrel, and will be until the hero can persuade the heroine to take a dominant tone with the poor misguided soul (and thereby provide a new home, a new bond of love).  Horse is a great character, as are his owners, but the resolution [SPOILER], which comes by way of a massive community-wide oceanic search for the beast, after he goes swimming off into the ocean like he's Edna Pontellier, desperate to find his mistress (who has herself, with irksome parallelism, stormed off in a fit of romantic pique), seems not just implausible but also exasperating.  Is this the model of love we're looking at, I found myself asking, suicidal, irrational devotion that takes a village to soothe?  If so, the hero and heroine are right to resist it.

*Is it piling on to talk about these silly titles?  Admittedly this one is less egregious than the previous two in the series, Misty and the Single Dad and Abby and the Bachelor Cop, but it's the formula that gets me.  Heroines get a name - a diminutive, early 90s identity - while heroes get a social role.

23 Responses so far.

  1. When are we going to see a rash of romances (a phrase that I should really put on my "never use again" list) about people brought together by their mutual love of ferrets? Judith Ivory's already laid out the seminal text for that movement

    After what happened to Cassie Edwards when she included ferrets in one of her romances, I think authors might be a bit wary of ferrets. The ferrets did well out of it, though.

  2. The poor innocent black-footed ferret, now a by-word for intellectual theft. I smell another paper for our mink/mongoose panel.

  3. Liz Mc2 says:

    You and Laura are on a rodent-romance roll! Was it me or Sunita who was responsible for this? (If it was me, it was really Sunita, because she hooked me on Lennox). I have only read the first in this series so far (Abby), but I bought more in the HQN 50% off sale. I liked it but the ending had some of the same OTT issues you mentioned here. My favorite Lennox so far is Dating the Millionaire Doctor. Oh dear, there is a dog, and it's symbolic I think but not in the doggy devotion way, which I agree is not a good model for a romantic relationship. And there's a koala. But it's a really great book. I very much enjoyed your discussion of dogs in romance. Hmm . . . I quite liked all the dog-training stuff in Nora Roberts' The Search. Unsentimental.

  4. I can't remember where I heard about this one, but I did actually enjoy it. I'm afraid it just got hijacked as the platform for my dog rant. I think the OTT ending is a function of the short space, but it definitely short-changed the actually conversational relationship-building, in my opinion.

    Often canine romances are much less sentimental than their covers promise they'll be - it's a case of the authors being committed to fullness of characterization, while the publishers see only niche. (Perhaps?)

    Also, I am totally ready for koalan romance to be the next canine romance. Just sayin'.

  5. Also, can we talk about that Fragonard painting? I first saw it in Munich with my parents, and there followed an uncomfortable familial conversation about whether there was any doubt at all about that girl was doing with that dog.

  6. another paper for our mink/mongoose panel.

    "Ferret" doesn't begin with an "m", so perhaps we should keep them for another panel. What about "Of Mice and Men: Three Blind Mice, Cinderella's Mouse-trap and Two Bad Mice"?

  7. I first saw it in Munich with my parents, and there followed an uncomfortable familial conversation about whether there was any doubt at all about that girl was doing with that dog.

    That reminds me of a novel that was on the syllabus of a course I took on Spanish literature. I think it was a selection of novels by fairly recent women writers but I've forgotten their names. Anyway, one of the female characters used a soft-toy dog in the way I think you're suggesting.

  8. It's just so unlike what I expected from the painter of parasoled ladies in impeccable gardens - so direct and utterly without recourse to symbolism (or underwear) - but I see now that it's just an extension into the boudoir of a whole aesthetic of sensual abandon. All those women kicking up their heels on flower-bedecked swings....

  9. I went off to find out more about the painting and found this in the notes Christies gave relating to Fragonard's "Young girl holding two puppies":

    Throughout the 1770s, Fragonard made something of a specialty of painting beautiful, scantily clad young women fondling or playing with pet animals. The present painting, in which the young girl fixes the observer firmly with her gaze while cuddling the two puppies to her flirtatiously exposed breasts, possesses a gentle and somewhat equivocal sensuality. This places it somewhere between an apparently innocent pair of roundels - formerly in the collection of Batsheva de Rothschild, of a Girl Holding a Dove and a Girl Holding a Cat and a Dog (Cuzin, nos. 302 & 301) - and more overtly erotic paintings, such as Two Women on a Bed Playing with Two Dogs (Cuzin, no. 202; Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills), and the explicitly sexualized Young Girl Playing with a Dog in Her Bed (Cuzin, no. 282; Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

    In "Sexual Encoding in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Art" (Sexuality & Culture 8.2 (2004), 3-23), Philip Stewart writes that:

    The lap dog--the very term suggests its favorite niche--frequently carries sensual overtones, especially since its nervous temperament serves as a foil for sexual tension. Such is the obvious function of the renditions in various media of Fragonard's La Gimblette, in which a partly unclothed girl lying on her back on a bed dangles a poodle on her tibias over her head while teasing him with the ring-shaped cookie or toy called a gimblette. In another (the only one known to be by Fragonard himself), the dog looks down at her from between her knees with his
    long, luxuriant tail tickling her sexual parts. There are at least two extant sculptures of the same subject attributed to Clodion (Claude Michel) which, being three-dimensional unlike the canvas, depart from decency by exposing her genitalia to full view.

  10. And on the topic of rodents whose names begin with "m":

    A small animal peeps coyly out from under the lid of a [...] wooden box held by A Girl with a Marmot, c. 1780-88, painted by Fragonard (fig. 7). From medieval times, there had been a more earthly side to iconography—earthy symbols were divised for the profane as well as the sacred aspects of human life. A bird was a polite euphemism for the male member, and a small furry pet (usually a lap dog) referred to its female counterpart. In the more complete French dictionaries, one can find the souris or mouse listed as a synonym for prostitute, young woman, or mistress. Knowing Fragonard's fondness for erotic themes, his flirtatious Girl with a Marmot may indicate that the tradition of erotic imagery was still alive. (Dunifer 177)

    Dunifer, Vada. "Two Veterans Playing 'Piqueť: A Genre Painting with Disguised Political Content." Konsthistorisk Tidskrift 54.4 (1985): 170-180.

  11. You are brilliant, Laura.

    Tickling, but also, crucially, censoring her sexual parts.

    I'm also intrigued by how light and shadow work in this painting - the emphasis is on the dog and her nether regions, while her faced is flushed and in shadow.

  12. This puts that famous portrait of Leonardo's of the Lady with an Ermine (a rather terrifyingly intense ermine, and a rather tightly controlled lady, at that) in new perspective - apparently if it's in fact an ermine, it symbolizes the purity of the sitter (who was the teenaged mistress of Leonardo's patron), but if it's a weasel, it points to the fact that she's pregnant.

    You say ermine, I say weasel, let's call the whole thing off!

  13. I'm also intrigued by how light and shadow work in this painting

    It could well be that I'm now seeing sexual symbolism everywhere, even where it wasn't intended, but the shadows in the folds of the curtain at the top right-hand side of the painting look to me like a round-headed object entering a narrow passage.

  14. My dissertation advisor, a scholar of the long 18th C, always had much to say about what was indicated by the folds of fabric in the lap of the actress Fanny Abington in this portrait: .

    And lo and behold, not only is she suggestively caressing her lip, erotically draping her body, and downright seductively folding the fabric of her dress, but she is also ignoring the adorable white lapdog sharing a chair with her. Symbol of fidelity, my foot.

    There's just no getting away from it.

  15. if it's a weasel, it points to the fact that she's pregnant

    Really? All I know about weasels is that in the Middle Ages it was thought that weasels conceived via their ears, so they were used to represent the Virgin Mary, who conceived after an angel spoke to her, giving her the message that she would conceive the son of God. However, my searches did turn up both alternative routes of conception and symbolisms.

  16. My favorite line in the first of your links is, "Richard de Fournival, however, makes of the weasel a figure for the recalcitrant lady: she receives her would-be lover's request through the ear and gives birth through the mouth to her refusal."

    Also, I'm desperately longing for this book ( -Giving Birth: Stories of Weasels and Women, Mothers and Heroes. And look at that cover! Everything I resent about a romance cover, I apparently adore on an academic treatise.

    "The weasel is an animal connected to the world of birth, and is also connected to ancient beliefs about the
    female body as a tube running from mouth to uterus. Moreover, the weasel's ability to slip in and out of
    tight places resonates with the process of childbirth."

  17. "The weasel is an animal connected to the world of birth

    Maybe we need a paper on "Weasel Words: Medicine, Maternity, and Mary Toft's Rabbits"?

    Seeing as you're in Hawaii, it seems semi-relevant to point out that "Ferrets are strictly prohibited as pets under Hawaii law because they are potential carriers of the rabies virus" (Wikipedia) but I feel sure we can still discuss them at the conference.

  18. Actually, make that "Weasel Words: Miracles, Maternity and Mary Toft's Rabbits" because that means we get (a) more alliteration and (b) it more accurately describes the topic of the paper, which absolutely has to include at least some discussion of the ways in which weasels conceive.

    Inspired by this video at YouTube, I think we also need a paper on Fear, Ferret Fanciers and The Phallus.

  19. I know we've been joking about these paper proposals, but by coincidence, this has appeared, which is very real. The Call for Papers for Animals and/in Romance (for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies) has had its deadline extended to January 6, 2012 because "submissions [...] have been getting bounced back to their authors as undeliverable!" They're asking:

    How and why do animals mediate, complicate, or facilitate romance narratives? What role do animals—both real and imagined--play in courtship rituals or the articulation of sexual desire?

    The papers don't have to be about romance novels. The full (original) CFP can be found here.

  20. Interesting that ferrets are prohibited in Hawaii - I feel this might be connected to the fact that the mongoose infestation is an imported ill. Apparently they were brought to take care of the rat infestation that arrived with ships from the mainland, but no one considered that mongeese and rats have completely different sleep cycles and are rarely awake at the same time. Or so I've heard.

    I really can't decide whether we need to call our conference panel (nay, whole conference and accompanying collection of essays) "Weasel Words" or "Fear, Ferrets, Phallus." And, oh man, if only I had time to write an article for that issue of JPRS. Clearly I'm all over this topic.

  21. the mongoose infestation is an imported ill. Apparently they were brought to take care of the rat infestation that arrived with ships from the mainland

    That reminds me of the song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. Do you know it? She keeps consuming animals, in the hope that each new one will catch the previous one, until at last she dies. It is with great regret (from an academic point of view, naturally) that I note the total absence of rodents from the lyrics.

  22. Yes! And that story about the Crystal Palace becoming infested with sparrows, to the extent that they had to bring in a regularly-employed set of sparrow-hawks....

  23. I hadn't heard that story! Given the way that birds have been known to fly into windows, you'd think that they might have had problems flying inside it. This owl left a trace of its visit which reminded me of the Turin Shroud.

    There have been quite a lot of reports over recent years of hawks/falcons being used to deter pigeons and gulls. Here are a couple of them:

    Hawks and a falcon have been brought in to reduce the number of pigeons at Royal Derby Hospital.

    The hospital said between 500 and 1,000 pigeons had settled at the site, making a mess on the outside of the buildings.

    Staff said they had seen a big decline in the number of pigeons since the introduction of the birds of prey.

    Pest controller Ray Fretwell said the birds did not kill the pigeons but their presence was enough to deter them from nesting at the hospital.


    Hawks are to be flown over a Pebsham land fill site during daylight hours in a bid to deter seagulls from the area.

    Lyn Markwick, who lives on nearby Magpie Close, said: "There are thousands of gulls at times.

    "They come and go as they feed, then they settle on our roofs."

    Biffa, who operates the site, said it already flew hawks over the site but was hoping the new measures would stop gulls from visiting the tip.

    I have actually written (and had published) a couple of papers about birds of prey so I'd prefer to stick (not literally or in a predatory fashion) to rodents for this conference ;-)

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