What fell purpose: JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip

JR Ackerley, My Dog Tulip. New York Review Books Classics, 2010. First published 1956

Last December I posted on JR Ackerley’s autobiographical semi-novel We Think the World of You, and was put off by the snobbish arrogance and petulance of the central character. The dog was ok.

My dog tulip coverMy Dog Tulip continues the story, with a change of the dog’s real name, Queenie. It tells how the narrator learns to cope with this boisterous, loving animal in a small London flat. The first book showed in graphic detail the unpleasantly confined conditions in which the German shepherd bitch had been kept for the first year or so of her life; she was rarely taken for walks, and regularly mistreated or beaten. Not surprising then that she was a handful to bring up when the narrator rescued her, with no previous experience of owning or training a dog (not that he makes much effort to train Tulip).

I’m afraid I found the same problem with this novel. The owner is cantankerous and aggressive towards anyone who has the temerity to question his methods. One of the early chapters deals in more detail than we need with the dog’s excretory habits. When Tulip defecates outside a grocery store, the narrator becomes belligerent when the grocer remonstrates with him. A passing cyclist yells at him to stop Tulip crapping on the pavement; again JR retorts with abuse.

He seems genuinely not to understand (or care) when people are dismayed with his besotted insouciance as far as Tulip’s animal behaviour is concerned. I was a dog owner myself; my dog Bronte was also ‘beautiful’, as JR frequently tells us Tulip was, and not always well behaved – but I hope I had the grace to acknowledge when she overstepped the mark of canine propriety. Ackerley insists that Tulip ‘knows where to draw the line’, but I feel that it’s his line, and it’s a pretty flexible one as far as Tulip’s misbehaviour goes.

He also tells us in doting detail how he tries to ‘marry’ Tulip to a male dog. Mostly he avoids such cringe-making anthropomorphism, but that’s more than twee. He’s trying to encourage her to mate and have puppies. Leave it at that. Spare us the gynaecological detail. Only a dog’s owner is interested.

When Tulip does whelp, our narrator’s first thought is to drown the female puppies, on the grounds that he ‘had gleaned that bitches were more difficult to get rid of than dogs’. He also intends to ‘liquidate’ (his word) these bitch puppies without Tulip’s knowledge. His excuse is that he’d read that animals ‘cannot count’. He waits for a call of nature to distract her, but she seems to detect his ‘fell purpose’ in his eyes – his ‘guilty conscience’ – and ‘let fly from both orifices simultaneously’ over his Chinese carpet. Good for her. He had it coming. And he decides to give the puppies away. This he does, but soon gets impatient and pays little heed to the likelihood of their new owners being fit for purpose.

He’s also not averse to corporal punishment, often hitting Tulip, and her new puppies:

 

They were charming whimsical little creatures, they were also positively maddening, and exasperated me to such an extent that I sometimes gave them a cuff for disobedience and made them squeak, which was both an unkind and useless thing to do, for they could not know what obedience was.

More to the point, they wouldn’t know why they were being struck.

Ok, so it’s 1948, and people didn’t clean up after their dogs as we do today, and expectations of their behaviour were different. Mrs TD tells me than when she was a little girl her mother’s dog Sweep was allowed to roam the area freely all day; he only came back in the evening when he was hungry.

There are some touching moments that show the mutual devotion of Tulip and her flatmate (‘owner’ doesn’t seem appropriate), and I’m glad he was able to enjoy her loving company for over 16 years (two more than my Bronte). But I fail to understand how this book has been praised so highly by the likes of EM Forster – a friendly correspondent of Ackerley’s.

The Introduction is by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog behaviour expert – but surely not one on literature, for she gushes that the story is ‘so delicate, so sensitive, so clearly understood, and so purely and delightfully composed as to rival an Elizabethan sonnet.’ Really. Take another look at the brief extracts I’ve quoted above. Ackerley is no Philip Sidney.

For a less negative view of the book I’d recommend John Self’s post at Asylum. I usually find his taste impeccable, but we disagree on Tulip.

An animated film of the book by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger was released in 2009.