A Dog of Flanders
by Louise de la Ramée (writing as Ouida)
I hope everybody stocked up on happy during January’s comic Adventure classics memoirs by Agatha Christie and Eleanor Lothrop. Because February is definitely a multiple-handkerchief month. It begins with Louise de la Ramée's 1872 weeper, A Dog of Flanders, featuring a young boy, his elderly grandfather, and a faithful dog getting on in years. The big question: who will be the first to die?
When I first slotted A Dog of Flanders into this month’s schedule, my memory was of one of the several movie versions, with a cute kid, a kindly old man and a big lug of a dog in a landscape of perpetual green summer. Either my memory was faulty or the filmmaker prettied up the story, because after finally reading it, I learned it’s a tearful tale from the first page, a boy and dog “both of the same age by length of years, yet one was still young and the other was already old. They had dwelt together almost all their days: both were orphaned and destitute, and owed their lives to the same hand. It had been the beginning of the tie between them…”
In fact, the denunciation of the work dog culture of the time, where dogs were “beasts of the shafts and the harness, creatures that lived straining their sinews in the gall of the cart, and died breaking their hearts on the flints of the streets,” starts out like a canine version of Black Beauty.
Still, as Black Beauty author Anna Sewell, writing at almost the same time as Ramée, decried the misuse of horses, she also sympathized with working people whose economic circumstances put them in a position little better than that of their animals. Ramée too could find humanity, even humanity toward a dog, in aged, crippled soldier Jehan Daas.
While hauling milk to sell in the market, Jehan and young orphaned grandson, Nello, find the dog Patrasche, “yellow of hide, large of head and limb, with wolf-like ears that stood erect, and legs bowed and feet widened in the muscular development,” abandoned by the side of the road to die.
The old soldier carries the dog home and nurses him back to health. It is a kindness the animal repays by insisting, as much as any Klondike sled dog in a Jack London story, on taking his place in the milk cart’s harness. As Jehan grows feebler with age, his grandson Nello and the dog will take over the trade.
But although Patrasche aspires no higher than to serve those he loves, Nello is entertaining other ideas. He dreams of becoming an artist. Obsessed with the legend of fellow Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, he longs to see the painter’s pictures in the nearby city of Antwerp but cannot afford the meagre admission fee. And though his grandfather has no money for teachers, Nello teaches himself by drawing everything he sees, including Alois, the young daughter of the local miller, the richest man in their village.
When the miller finds Nello drawing Alois’s portrait on a smoothed slab of wood, he is struck by the likeness and offers to buy it. “I could have seen (Rubens’ paintings) with that franc,” Nello tells Patrasche, “but I could not sell her picture—not even for them.”
Does the growing tenderness between Alois and Nello portend a happy future for both and maybe a well-deserved retirement for both Patrasche and grandfather Jehan? Stay tuned for next week’s installment at Adventure classics. Or if you can’t wait, read ahead or watch any of the several movie versions available online, keeping a box of tissues handy.