There is something about a dog that is very easy to identify with, perhaps more than any other animal. Maybe it’s because they are entirely honest, refreshingly transparent - they can’t help it. They express all their feelings – through their eyes, their ears (drooping, alert, flying in the breeze), their tails, of course, and their body language that is instantly readable. They do the things that we would do if we didn’t have such impeccable manners. They howl, they wag, forgive and adore and they enjoy everything as much as they can. But most of all – they break our hearts.
I find literary dogs hard to resist, especially when illustrated. I have loved many – from Kind Dog in Ant and Bee to James Thurber’s low-slung hounds - Thurber’s Dogs, who appear to have the weight of many human worlds on their slouchy shoulders. I’ve loved many other heart breakers in between. Perhaps the first most upsetting was Kashtanka, by Anton Chekov. She was tragic because she was so loyal and dogged. Having escaped her hopeless drunk of a master and his cruel son, Kashtanka finds someone who is kind to her and begins a new life, but when her old master reappears, her innate sense of loyalty drives her, almost unconsciously, back into their fold. She is much too good for them and we know it and there’s nothing we can do. We know what will happen. We know about human nature and we know about dogs and we feel helpless and ashamed.
The next dog I fell for was Genevieve, the brave creature that rescued Madeline in Madeline’s Rescue, from the Seine. I’m not sure what kind of dog Genevieve is – maybe a retriever – but Ludwig Bemelmans’s line drawings give her a fluid vitality and glamour. There’s hardly any drawing there – a few fast strokes, deftly accurate in the sentiment they express, from courage to contentment – the beloved pet of the little girls, before the horror of being banished and defeated, and then, eventually, happiness again. She lives and breathes and tears your heart. I was horrified by the injustice of her treatment by the trustees. When they send her away, I almost couldn’t bear it. That Genevieve, a dog and a heroine, should be treated so badly was shocking and terrible. I remember how desperate I felt when the little girls were searching for her, all over Paris, and it seemed she would never be found. Even though it all turned out well, it worried me for a long time afterwards that the trustees would, one day, return.
There is a charming spaniel in a book by Brian Wildsmith called Hunter and His Dog. He is another rescuer and again, although created in a very different style, his apparent simplicity provokes deep feelings that are hard to forget. He is supposed to retrieve birds for the hunter, but instead he carries the wounded birds to an island where they can heal, and brings them bread each day. The hunter discovers the truth and regretting his actions, he learns compassion through the kindness of his dog. This gentle story is led by a wholly believable character that is behaving unconventionally, disobeying his master for the best of reasons - yet again shaming the reader for being human- but we have forgotten that we are human by now because we are so much a part of the rescue mission, and we are thriving in the wild, ravishing landscapes, which are intensely beautiful.
Another heart wrencher is Simp, by John Burningham: “Simp was what most people would call an ugly little dog.” She is a black blob of a dog – stubby, short, lumpy, with an enormous nose and tattered ears, but when you see her – it is love at first sight, inevitably. And inevitably, she has a miserable tale to tell of mistreatment and misunderstanding – another horrible human doling it out to a blameless dog. Her courage and ingenuity save her in the most serendipitous way, rewarding the kind clown that helps her and, thank goodness, life for Simp is happy ever after.
My last favourite is by William Steig: Caleb and Kate. Reading anything by Steig is an immense pleasure. His writing is delicious. It’s full of surprises, quirky tendernesses expressed in an unusual way with unusual words. There is nearly always some magic – someone being turned into someone else – a terrible spell, or an unfortunate wish. In Caleb and Kate, who are the most loving but quarrelsome couple, a witch called Yedida turns Caleb into a dog.
“’What a darling spell!’ she crooned” and she leaves “swollen with pride” at the result of her efforts. Caleb, as a dog, goes home to Kate, but he can’t talk, so can’t explain what has happened and Kate doesn’t recognise him.
Kate is “dizzy with dread” about her husband’s disappearance and as weeks turn to months, the dog does his best to comfort her. I won’t tell you what happens, but everything is all right in the end… that is, if you think that the dog becoming the man, Caleb, again, is a good thing. Personally, if I’d been Kate, I’d have been more than happy for him to remain a dog – and such a nice, kind, and helpful dog at that.
Plumdog by Emma Chichester Clark is out now from Jonathan Cape for £16.99.