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Defining Pets in the 18th and 21st Centuries: Pets as Surrogates

Array ( [0] => ENGL 6330 Spring 2018 [1] => no-show [2] => student exhibit )

The degree of intimacy shared with an animal may exceed that shared with parents, spouses, friends or siblings. People may develop an attachment with an animal that transcends any relationship they share with another human being.

— Anna Chur-Hansen, "Grief and Bereavement Issues and the Loss of a Companion Animal," 14-15. 


Girl in bed making her dog dance
Girl in Bed Making her Dog Dance (1770-1775) Oil Painting by Jean Honore Fragonard5


Both types of meaningful relationships are connected to notions of sexuality. Because women who keep pets were not afforded the opportunity to engage in sexual relations, they were forced to substitute intimate partners with pets. This concept of pets, lapdogs in particular, as sexual surrogates applied to females of every age. In youth, pets introduced girls to ideas of intimacy and sexuality and gave them outlets for these innate, carnal desires which Thomas O’Brien MacMahon vividly described as follows,

"The Virginal Mistress of our animal is a Maiden, not so much through choice as compulsion. She longs for the most intimate familiarities, with those of the other sex…she will not, at present admit them. However, as she really loves the amorous intercourse, and that vehemently, she is desirous of indulging a representation, however faint, of dalliances, which so constantly occupy her thoughts, and which it is not yet her convenience to enjoy in reality. The caresses then she lavishes on her dog…frequently bring to her mind, and entertain there, thoughts of the embraces of men, which her polluted imagination is for ever painting in colours the most rapturously engaging. Hence the delight she takes in incessantly giving to, and receiving from, a beast, embraces which would certainly be extremely disgusting to her, did she not connect them in her imagination with ideas of the lustful pleasures, that have engrossed so many of her faculties[5]."

Young Woman Playing with a Dog
Young Woman Playing with a Dog (1765-1772) Oil Painting by Jean Honore Fragonard6


In his long poem The Rival Lapdog and the Tale, Stephen Fox illustrates just how lapdogs enabled girls to act on those “most intimate familiarities” described by MacMahon,

Breast to Breast, incorporate

Almost,—He lay like Dog in State;

Fair-Lady, all in Raptures, to go

Be so caress’d by such a Beau;

She hugg’d, and kiss’d and cry’d, and clung,

And He return’d all with his Tongue;

Put Lady-Fair quite out of Breath,

And buss’t her, e’en a’most to Death;

Sir Lick Lips was so tir’d too,

He fell a sleep while One tell’s Two[6].

 As ladies, women with pets likely preferred them to males and any children resulting from a matrimonial union. However, as illustrated by Alexander Pope’s Belinda when she exclaims “not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,/When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last”; “Sooner let Earth, Air Sea, to Chaos fall,/Men, Monkies, Lap-dogs, Parrots, perish all!”[7] wherein she equates pets with men, the devotion to pets, while problematic, was to be expected from frivolous young females (113)[1].However, if such women acted on their preference for pets and did not marry then "the love of pets…became in old maids a demonstration of their failure to achieve full womanhood" (113)[1]

Portrait with a lady with lapdog
Portrait of a lady with a lapdog (18th century)
Oil Painting by Johna Henrik Scheffel7


These discussions of female sexuality and pets were tied to the boundaries between human and animal that governed foundational socio-cultural institutions. Women who were seemingly willing to break these natural barriers reflected new conceptions of the human-animal bond that pushed individuals, to move “further away from an awareness of the distinction between human and animal (98)"[1] into the realm of immoderate love.

[1] Tague, Ingrid H. Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

[2] Brown, Laura. Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination. Cornell University Press, 2017, 71.

[3] Henry Carey, Poems on Several Occasions. J. Kent; A. Boulter, and J. Brown, 1713, 25.

[4] Hanway, Jonas. Journal of Eight Days Journey. H. Woodfall, 1756, 71. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

[5] MacMahon, Thomas O’Brien. Man’s Capricious, Petulant, and Tyrannical Conduct Towards the Irrational and Inanimate Part of the Creation, Inquired into and Explained. G. Riley, 1794, 12-13. 

[6] Fox, Stephen. The Rival Lapdog and the Tale. W. Smith and G. Greg, 1730, 39.

[7] Pope, Alexander. A Key to the Lock. Or, a Treatise Proving, beyond All Contradiction, the Dangerous Tendency of a Late Poem, Entituled, The Rape of the Lock. To Government and Religion.Second ed., J. Roberts near the Oxford-Arms in Warwick-Lane, 1715, 3-4. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Image Credits

1Williams, Glenn Scofield. “Crazy Cat Lady, Mom Edition.” Flickr, 2 May 2011, www.flickr.com/photos/glennwilliamspdx/5495441340/in/photolist-bf8uez-9nBzfC-9iSrf5-uPMhbb.

2Istolethetv. “Lazy Corgi.” Flickr, 15 May 2010, www.flickr.com/photos/istolethetv/5624163644/in/photolist-3AfN5k-3AfFx2-3AfUmH-3AfZJP-9yZiUG-qZo4Y-aM2KZc-3AijEZ-3AnBLh-g5uur-g5uu1-6Yuw9b.

3Van Slingelandt, Pieter Cornelisz. “Lady with a Pet Dog.” Wikimedia Commons, 6 May 2011, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slingelandt,_Pieter_Cornelisz_Van_-_Lady_with_a_Pet_Dog_-_1672.jpg.

4Reynolds, Joshua. “Lady Delm and Her Children.” WikiArt, 5 Mar. 2012, www.wikiart.org/en/joshua-reynolds/lady-delm-and-her-children-1780.

5Fragonard, Jean Honore. “Girl in Bed Making Her Dog Dance.” Wikimedia Commons, 18 Dec. 2010, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1770_Fragonard_Maedchen_mit_Hund_anagoria.jpg.

6Fragonard, Jean Honore. “Young Woman Playing with a Dog.” Wikimedia Commons, 1 Sept. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Honore_Fragonard_Young_Woman_Playing_with_a_Dog.jpg.

7Scheffel, Johan Henrik. “Portrait with a Lady with Lapdog.” Wikimedia Commons, 11 Feb. 2018, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johan_Henrik_Scheffel_-_Portrait_with_a_lady_with_lapdog_-_S-2010-204_-_Finnish_National_Gallery.jpg.