Bronteana: Bronte Studies Blog Archives

November 14, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — by bronteana @ 7:57 pm

Canine Conflations…

It is a sad thing to see a good article go bad, to sink into absurdity. I speak now of ‘Canine Familiars of Masculinity in Three Brontë Novels’. Things are going quite well, it seems, until the argument is made that the dogs symbolise male power- always- in all of the novels. The leap from dog as companion to dog as extension of power leads down some very very strange roads indeed… Mr. Ben P. Robertson sites the ‘wanning’ symbolic masculine power of Pilot- Mr Rochester’s dog, and exemplifies this wanning with Jane’s assistance with Mr Mason.

Now, if Mr Rochester should call on Pilot to give Mr Mason volatile salts and sponge his wounds… as much as I love Miss Bronte, I would have to agree with the critics saying the novel was ‘untrue’!

The horror! A fearsome black and white Newfoundland- some modern Newfoundland’s are a little stockier than their Victorian counterparts.

“Do you need help, Sir?”
“All’s right, all’s right, Miss Eyre- Pilot has the situation under control.”

Oh dear… “Rochester begins to accept Jane as a replacement for Pilot”. Okay, so she’s clever but can she play fetch? This is the crutial point to be decided in the third volume! Now that’s drama… He also implies that Rochester views Pilot as his son. Didn’t know things were quite so disturbing at Thornfield, did you?

And it could have been such a good article! It sadly also suffers from one of my academic pet peeves- that of not proving the main point but simply restating it preceeded by some variant of ‘clearly,’ ‘surely,’ ‘undoubtedly’ etc. It is true that the men in the Bronte novels are associated with dogs. And at least in jane Eyre we are encouraged to see this connection- Mr Rochester draws attention to this at least twice, and Jane sometimes refers to him as reminding her of a sheepdog.

Yet another area of interest for me just happens to be the dogs of the Bronte novels, surprise, surprise. This began when a friend pointed out how there seemed to be correspondences between the dog breeds used in films of Jane Eyre, and the relative instability of their masters. Usually the dogs are fearsome creatures when their masters are glaring, striding types who wear capes perpetually flapping in the wind- martial marches blaring as they walk across the lawn… Michael Jayston gets an upgrade from a dog to a wolf-hound; far more impressive looking perhaps but incredibly docile. Mrs. Fairfax leans on him at one point, as though he were a bench, while she talks to Jane. At the end of the film, as he gets up to greet Jane, he takes some of the carpet with him. Never utters a sound. There is also this:

That’s Mr Rochester on the left. I wonder if Pilot is brooding too. Hard to tell.

Some more …shall we say, pertinent observations can be made, in the case of Pilot for example. Charlotte is very clear that he is a Newfoundland dog. Being from Canada, I’m familiar with these and with their immanent identity as a breed. Newfoundland dogs are immediately associated with rescue. They have a peculiar desire to assist people- especially people drowing at sea. This association goes back at least to the period of the Brontes when paintings of black and white Newfoundland dogs- in particular- were so commonly painted by the painter Lanseer that the dogs of this colouring are now known as Lanseers. Pilot is a black and white Newfoundland. Other characteristics that are significant are that they often exhibit exactly the behaviour we see of Pilot in the novel- when unable to assist (ie, Hay Lane) they instinctually seek help from others (Jane).

From my perspective the most interesting aspects are that they demand a certain type of master. They are not easy to train- they are sensitive dogs and need to be won over to a degree. They are especially sensitive to tones of human voices. It takes a great deal of sensitivity and care to gain the loyalty of a Newfoundland. Once you have their trust, they are extremely loyal companions. In the Victorian era they were also considered ideal companion dogs for children, despite their imposing size. It does debunk, in a subtle way, the idea that Rochester is a cruel man- a view sadly common in articles I’ve come by.


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