Friday, February 19, 2016

Adventure classics – Kids, dogs & the Victorian death cult

A Dog of Flanders
by Louise de la Ramée (writing as Ouida)
There I was, pecking away at my laptop’s keyboard last week when—I realized there was no Internet connection at my location in the old Mexican colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. Possibly because the city sits on a 6,000-foot high plateau between two major mountain ranges, Internet connectivity can be slow, problematic or even nonexistent. So be it. Or as the locals say, “ni moto.”

But now I’m back in the flatlands of North Texas and picking up where I left off two weeks ago with Louise de la Ramée’s story of a boy and his dog, the 1872 A Dog of Flanders .

Adventure classics left off the story of the young orphan Nello, his impoverished, crippled grandfather Jehan, and their milk cart dog Patrasche as Nello was nurturing a growing dream of becoming an artist. Self-taught Nello draws a picture of his friend Alois, daughter of the wealthy local miller. The girl’s father offers to buy the portrait. The money would have enough to let Nello pay the fee charged to view the paintings of his Flemish artist-idol Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings in a nearby town. Valuing friendship more than money, Nello gives Alois’s picture away to her father.

Meanwhile, he works on his boyish masterpiece, hoping to enter it in an art contest whose winner will be announced on the coming Christmas Eve. But things go from bad to worse. Alois’s father worries about the growing intimacy between Nello and his budding daughter. As old Jehan grows more feeble, he loses the customers who formerly paid him to cart their milk to the local market. When Jehan dies two days before Christmas, the last of his money goes for his burial, and Nello and the dog Patrasche are left without shelter. Can things get any worse?

Or will they perhaps get better? After all, there’s still the art contest to count on. And a lost purse full of money. . . 

If for Edgar Allan Poe the most poetic subject in world was the death of a beautiful young woman, for animal lovers the most heartrending is the death of an old dog. It’s a story trope at least as old as Homer, who broke his hero Odysseus’s heart with the death of his faithful old hound Argos. Fast forward a couple of millennia to the Victorian idealization of the innocence of both children and animals, and you’ve got a combination that was guaranteed to make tears gush from the eyes of nineteenth-century readers. Even this twenty-first century reader’s eyes grew damp reading A Dog of Flanders.

Then I wondered, is Ramée just manipulating my emotions? The answer apparently is yes, but. As Carol Christ writes in “A Victorian Obsession With Death,” the high mortality rates in Victorian England made mourning a way of life. “Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age,” Christ writes.

The rituals associated with mourning at least recognized the need for stability in the face of so much loss. It was a need recognized as much by Ramée as by her more famous literary contemporary, Charles Dickens, who was self-traumatized by his own writing of the death of his fictional character Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

For Ramée, writing about the sufferings of the cart dog Patrasche may have evoked a similar feeling. Although unmarried and childless, she was devoted to animals to a degree that might be described today as hoarding, sometimes keeping as many as thirty dogs. After her death, her friends memorialized her fittingly by installing a fountain for horses and dogs in her name, where “God’s creatures whom she loved (may) assuage her tender soul as they drink.”

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a February of animal adventures with Louise de la Ramée’s A Dog of Flanders.)

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