Ladies Pets and the Politics of Affect: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush

On the death of her beloved dog, Nero, Jane Welsh Carlyle wrote to her friend, Lady Louisa Ashburton, that her famous husband, Thomas Carlyle was 'quite unexpectedly and distractedly torn to pieces'. She says that 'to some people' this may have seemed 'a fall from his philosophical heights', but for herself 'I liked him for it more than for all the philosophy than ever came out of his head' . Jane Carlyle draws attention to the gendered expectations surrounding affective relations with companion species, implying that Thomas shedding tears for a 'sentimental' pet may not be perceived by his friends and admirers to be behaviour befitting a man of reason. She was not alone among Victorian women in her assertion of the primacy of feeling with respect to dogs. The epistolary writing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning provides a valuable historical record of intense affective canine/human relationships in the nature-culture borderlands of the intimate domestic sphere, where dogs occupied a precarious and ambiguous status at best. This essay contends that Barrett Browning's writing about her dog, Flush, complicates dominant theories of pet keeping, revealing that positive as well as negative affect is an important mechanism by which the boundaries that organise the species divide are questioned and transgressed. Central to this investigation is a reconsideration of Victorian constructions of sentiment and sentimentality, the pejorative connotations of which have ensured that both pet keeping, and women's relationships to pets, have been downplayed in scholarly discussion.

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Published 1 June 2010 in Volume 25 No. 2. Subjects: Animal Studies.

Cite as: McDonell, Jennifer. ‘Ladies Pets and the Politics of Affect: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, 2010, doi: 10.20314/als.18c0ef3fdc.