Charles Dickens’ creature comforts

  • Themes: Books

Charles Dickens' fondness for animals animates his fiction.

Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven Grip.
Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven Grip. Credit: Iconographic Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Charles Dickens wasn’t just a people person. His good friend and first biographer John Forster wrote that his interest in animals was ‘inexhaustible’. This interest stoked his imagination. In his fiction, among his teeming casts, several memorable animals stalk, snarl, slumber and even speak. None of them power his plots or determine the course of his narratives; instead, they enliven his scenes and flesh out his characters.

In Oliver Twist there is Bill Sikes’ Bull’s-eye, ‘a dog of misanthropical temperament’, whose bite is worse than his bark. Sikes keeps the white-coated, red-eyed ‘born devil’ in a perpetual rage by administering many a kick and a curse. Eventually the animal witnesses his master bludgeoning Nancy to death. Dickens shocks with his description of a brutal murder; his depiction of the grisly aftermath, in which Sikes surveys the scene of his crime, is rendered all the more disturbing by a tagged-on detail: ‘The very feet of the dog were bloody.’

Dickens’ more good-natured canines include Jip, Dora Spenlow’s spoilt dog in David Copperfield. When not yapping his disapproval of the eponymous hero, he is expressing his satisfaction of being pampered by making a noise ‘a little like a tea-kettle when it sings’. And Boxer from Dickens’ third and most whimsical Christmas Book, The Cricket on the Hearth, makes his energetic presence felt at home and on the streets: ‘He had business everywhere’, Dickens writes; ‘going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame-Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer.’

On the feline front there is Bleak House’s Lady Jane, the terrifying cat belonging to Krook, the rag-and-bottle shop owner (whose later death by spontaneous combustion is, depending on the reader’s take, the most sensational or the most farcical in all Victorian literature). The cat, a large, grey ‘brimstone beast’, obeys Krook’s command and tears up rags with ‘tigerish claws’. And not just rags. ‘She’d do as much for any one I was to set her on,’ remarks Krook.

Then there are the birds. In Barnaby Rudge, the title character’s pet raven, Grip, is capable of crowing like a cock and talking like a parrot. In Bleak House, there is Miss Flite’s collection of larks, linnets, goldfinches and other small birds, all of which she promises to set free when the verdict is heard – or ‘the Judgment’ is announced – of the interminable court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Animals come and go in Dickens’ non-fiction, too. In his essay ‘Gone Astray’, published in his weekly magazine Household Words on 13 August 1853, Dickens looks back on his younger self, aged eight or nine, separated from his guardian and wandering lost in London ‘like a child in a dream’. He encounters, and believes he has befriended, a stray dog which he names Merrychance, but when he buys a sausage the dog growls at him and runs off with it. The young Dickens is left feeling lonely and let-down ‘on account of Merrychance’s disappointing me so cruelly; for I had hoped he would do every friendly thing but speak, and perhaps even come to that’.

The older Dickens had numerous pets that proved to be more loyal to him. A new exhibition at the Dickens Museum in London focuses on the animals found in both the homes and the books of the celebrated writer. Faithful Companions: Charles Dickens & his Pets throws light on a little-explored aspect of Dickens’ life and work. Through the variety of objects on show we learn about the menagerie of pets in Dickens’ household and how some of them came to be fictionalised, and indeed immortalised, in the pages of his books.

The exhibition provides necessary context. Dickens wasn’t alone in his fondness for keeping animals. The Victorian period saw a proliferation in pet-ownership and with it the burgeoning belief that pets made a house a home. Hedgehogs and squirrels constituted common-or-garden pets. Wombats, monkeys and other exotic animals found their way into the homes of the very wealthy. Birds were kept by rich and poor alike in small cages or grand aviaries. Dogs became man’s best friend, and in Victorian art, theatre and fiction they were portrayed as dutiful, intelligent, heroic and wise (one character in The Pickwick Papers tells a tale involving a ‘sagacious’ dog). Cats, considered sly and confined to the streets at the start of the 1800s, gradually underwent a change in reputation and came to be regarded as a woman’s companion and an integral component of a cosy fireside scene.

Dickens, that dedicated chronicler of society, captured a lot of this in his writing, and did so while tending to his own collection of pets. The publisher, James Fields, noted that Dickens’ home always had ‘quite a colony of dogs’. That colony included Dickens’ beloved mastiff, Turk, who features in the story ‘The Mortals in the House’, and Linda, a St Bernard, who always gave her owner a warm welcome. ‘Linda was greatly excited’, wrote Dickens to Fields after returning from America in 1868, ‘weeping profusely, and throwing herself on her back that she might caress my foot with her great fore-paws.’

Among the many dog photos on display, and the illustrations of dogs from books (George Cruikshank’s picture of Bull’s-eye suffering Sikes’ wrath, Hablot K. Browne’s image of big shaggy Diogenes providing emotional support in Dombey and Son) we find some intriguing curios. A poster dated 26 December 1866 advertises ‘Christmas Sports’ entertainments at Dickens’ last home and country residence, Gad’s Hill Place, one event being a race for his troop of dogs. Tickets for Dickens’ reading tour feature an image of Boxer by the painter Edwin Landseer, famous for his artworks of dogs. (The accompanying caption explains that due to the prominence of dogs in his books, Dickens was described in an 1863 article as the ‘Landseer of fiction’.) Two dog-related exhibits would have been sought-after collectibles: a figurine of Bull’s-eye in a bell jar, and a carte de visite by the photographer Robert Hindry Mason, which shows Dickens looking quite the country squire next to Turk.

In the cat section we view the rushlight holder that stood on Dickens’ desk and which his kitten, Bob, learned to turn off to secure his attention. On a wall dedicated to horses we see a colour print of the Pickwickians setting off in a horse and carriage from the Bull Inn in Rochester, and alongside it a picture of Dickens and a friend about to ride home after drinking in Jack Straw’s Castle, the pub in Hampstead. A glass case displays a wooden name-plate for Dickens’ horse Duke. Dickens probably owned him before he moved to Gad’s Hill for the horses he kept there were named after characters in his books. There is a photo from Gad’s Hill in the 1860s of Dickens, his family and a smartly dressed groom holding the bridle of a horse called Newman Noggs, whose namesake appears in Nicholas Nickleby. (Newman Noggs’ stablemate had the even horsier name of Trotty Veck, after a character in The Chimes.)

Perhaps the liveliest and most interesting section concerns Dickens and birds. Dickens had a performing goldfinch, a miserable eagle and a canary that hopped about the breakfast table. In the 1840s, he also had three successive ravens, all named Grip. Like their counterpart in Barnaby Rudge, the birds could talk. An illustration from the book on display shows a man trying to buy Grip, and Barnaby and his mother refusing to part with him. Dickens would also have refused to sell his ‘dear bird’. ‘I love nobody here but the Raven’, he wrote from his later home in Devonshire Terrace, ‘and I only love him because he seems to have no feeling in common with anybody.’ The original Grip could be naughty (he was once locked in the shed for biting one of Dickens’ children and persecuting the coachman) but his intelligence and antics were an endless source of fascination for Dickens.

The bird section presents an article that Dickens contributed to Household Words in 1850. Supposedly written by a mocking raven who protests about being called ‘a glutton by nature and a thief by habit’, the piece offers a bird’s-eye view of human behaviours. Another key focal point is a round pencil and wash drawing by Daniel Maclise of Dickens’ four young children and, perched behind them, Grip. The artwork, created to accompany the author and his wife Catherine on their trip to America in 1842, provides a revealing glimpse of those who Dickens missed most while away from home.

Some exhibits are more tenuously related to Dickens and may only interest aficionados. There is a comic poem by his friend and fellow writer Percy Fitzgerald about Mrs Bouncer, the Pomeranian belonging to Dickens’ daughter Mamie – a dog that had its ‘own coquettish charms, / Knows no sorrows, no alarms’ and as such became a favourite member of the household. And there is a photo album compiled by Dickens’ youngest daughter, Katey, of cutesy cats and dogs in a variety of poses with family members.

Far more appealing, and worth the admission price alone, are the audio extracts from books read with customary brio by the museum’s patron Simon Callow, together with a wide selection of Dickens’ handwritten letters. It is in his detailed, often comic correspondence that Dickens shares his views of, and his escapades with, different animals. He seeks the advice of one of his oldest friends on buying a new horse after riding a ‘poney’ that was ‘too slight’ for him. He tells Lord Robertson about a horse that attacked him – tearing off his coat and shirt sleeve, badly injuring his arm and leaving him bruised and shaken and relying on pungent salts and herbal poultices to alleviate the pain.

He updates a friend on Timber the dog’s training, reporting that he ‘runs into a corner and stands on 2 legs, at the word of command’, and relays that on a trip to Italy the little lapdog had to be shaved all over after catching fleas. While in Italy he entrusted his eagle and Grip to Edwin Landseer. In a letter to him he sends his ‘affectionate protection to the Eagle and Raven. They sound like the sign of a Public House’. On his return, Dickens didn’t reclaim the eagle. Katey Dickens writes that her father didn’t know what to do with the poor bird. Chained up outside, the eagle refused to eat, even ‘the plumpest mice’, and ‘it was plain to see that he was breaking his heart in that sooty London garden’.

In contrast, Grip was allowed indoors, even though he misbehaved. ‘When you come again, I will shew you a Raven, alive and pecking,’ he writes to Ella, the young daughter of a friend. ‘He will peck little holes in your legs if you like, and make a complete cribbage-board of each of your stockings. He breaks all the kitchen-windows every day, and flies at everybody except Cook.’

There is no mention in the exhibition of one pet’s sad end. In 1866, Dickens was forced to shoot his dog Sultan because of the animal’s habit of lunging at anyone that wasn’t his master. As Peter Ackroyd puts it in his 1990 Dickens biography, ‘he was led ceremoniously out to the field, and there shot through the heart’. Dickens mourned his dead pets and even preserved some of them: the first Grip stood stuffed in his study; Bob the cat’s paw was turned into a letter opener. But all Dickens’ animals live on in this insightful exhibition.

‘Faithful Companions’: Charles Dickens & his Pets is at the Charles Dickens Museum until 12 January 2025.


Malcolm Forbes