In the arms of a fashion icon like Paris Hilton or Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, there’s no doubt that a well-dressed lapdog can be a charming fashion accessory. Yet older ladies who are inseparable from their little dogs, such as 84-year-old gossip columnist Cindy Adams, or socialite Leona Helmsley, who left $12 million to her lapdog in her will, generally seem absurd. Older women with lapdogs, according to popular opinion, are privileged, fussy, and indolent (as opposed to cat ladies, who are stereotypically disordered and unkempt). The lapdog is considered noisy and entitled, accustomed to riding in a designer carrier and eating gourmet food; it’s taken for granted that the ladies who dote on them are sad spinsters or lonely aunts.
Lapdogs, in other words, are usually associated with unfulfilled maternal instincts.
While most people accept dogs as part of the family unit, they often feel uncomfortable in the presence of a childless woman and a dog, as if only when a dog’s not really “needed” can it be loved appropriately. By implication, then, lapdog-loving mothers are felt to have ambivalent relationships with their children, and in many cases this is true. The French author Colette went nowhere without her French bulldog, but rarely saw her only daughter, whom she left in the care of an English nanny. The childless Edith Wharton would keep her little dogs about her at all times, letting them join her at meals and drink from her teacup.
Strip away the anxiety about unfulfilled motherhood, however, and there’s an older, darker fear lurking beneath. Consider Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in which the naked beauty’s silky little dog is painted in exactly the same fleshy tones as Venus herself. According to art expert Julian Mitchell, the dog in Titian’s painting represents the lady’s “politely concealed pubic hair,” a sleight-of-hand suggesting that the intimacy between the subject and her pet borders on bestiality. This, I suspect, is the unspoken taboo that underlies our anxieties about ladies who are inseparable from their dogs.
In visual art, this stereotype of women goes back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when small dogs represented both female inferiority and bourgeois decadence, which often took on erotic overtones. In the Renaissance, it became fashionable for portrait artists to paint wealthy ladies in the company of their lapdogs. Over time, the inclusion of these pets came to suggest a certain kind of sexual freedom; eventually, the depiction of a complacent creature in a lady’s lap came to seem naughty, even lascivious, especially when the lady in question was a famous courtesan (examples include Lorenzo Costa’s Lady with a Lap Dog, Girolamo Forabosco’s Lady with a Dog, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a Lady in Red, and Francesco Montemezzano’s Portrait of a Woman.) Some considered it distasteful that paintings of respectable matrons should include what had come to be seen as a symbol of coquettish idleness. In 1582, Cardinal Paleotti wrote a decree condemning the inclusion of lapdogs in women’s portraits—he regarded the creatures as indecorous, undignified frivolities that undermined the sitter’s dignity.
In Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock, the heroine, Belinda, has a lapdog named Shock. We meet Belinda’s pet in the poem’s first Canto, when the heroine’s morning ritual is described. She is still dozing at noon, when “Shock, who thought she slept too long, / Leapt up, and wak’d his Mistress with his Tongue.” The sexual suggestion here would come as no surprise to eighteenth century readers; it was common for love poets to regard lapdogs as little rivals, nestling gleefully on their mistress’s lap or between her breasts or thighs, the fortunate recipients of sexual favors permitted to no human suitor. In Henry Carey’s “The Rival Lap-Dog: A Song,” the poet-lover complains his mistress never grants him a single caress, yet Dony, her lapdog, “May Kiss without measure, / And surfeit himself with the Bliss.” Poet Jonathan Smedley, in “On the Death of a Lap-Dog,” recalls jealously how his mistress’s pet, another Dony, would lie upon her “downy breast,” and idle smugly on “her sleep-inticing Lap.” Isaac Thompson, in his poem “The Lap Dog,” enviously watched his beloved fawning over her pet: “Securely on her Lap it lies, / Or freely gazes on her Eyes; / To touch her Breast, may share the Bliss, / And unreprov’d, may snatch a Kiss.”
The Rape of the Lock is a satire, but, like all effective satire, it touches a nerve. If lapdogs can fulfill women’s sexual needs, who needs lovers? For this reason, perhaps, literary lapdogs depicted by men, like Shock, are not pets but platitudes, the living accessories of indolent women. Ladies, in the male imagination, love to wash, dress, and feed their fawning fur-babies, bedecking them from snout to tail with ruffs, ribbons and jewels. These spoiled creatures are given mittens to protect their paws, porcelain teacups to drink from, and satin sheets for their tiny beds. By implication, the ladies that lavish attention on them are not to be trusted. They are weak, fickle, and frivolous—a stereotype that was already well grounded by the middle ages, when according to historical records, a lady named Eve de Montfort, who died in 1099, was expected to go to purgatory rather than heaven due to her excessive love of lapdogs. Yet, while their sexual use is mostly a male fantasy, lapdogs did, in fact, serve practical as well as emotional purposes. They attracted fleas away from their mistress, kept her hands and feet warm in winter, alerted her to danger, and kept her home free from vermin.
In art and literature, lapdogs conceal or betray sexual secrets. In 1811, a portrait of Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of the future Prime Minister William Lamb (and future lover of Lord Byron), was exhibited at the Royal Academy. At the time the portrait was being painted, Lady Caroline was involved with a young aristocrat named Sir Godfrey Webster, and the portrait, by Eliza H. Trotter, contains a coded reference to the affair. Lady Caroline is painted with her arm around a miniature bull terrier wearing two collars, one of which appears to be a bracelet of set and linked gemstones. Both the dog and the bracelet were gifts from Sir Godfrey; when her infidelity was discovered, she wrote, “I tore the bracelet off my arm & put it up with my chains in a Box by itself. I have written to desire some one will fetch the dog.”
On other occasions, the dog will draw attention to a vital clue the human characters have failed to observe—as with Freud’s most famous patient Anna O., who, under hypnosis, recalled her disgust at seeing her English governess let her dog lap water from a drinking glass, a recollection that helped Freud get to the root of her problems. In David Copperfield, Dora’s secret engagement is accidentally revealed when her naughty lapdog Jip steals a love letter from her reticule, and her frantic attempts to get it back arouse her family’s suspicion. By breaking all the rules, Jip is a living embodiment of Dora’s unruly id. The dog enacts everything Dora strives to repress, sabotaging all her attempts at domestic routine, bringing chaos to the tea table. In Luigi Pirandello’s play Each in his Own Way, the lusty Donna Livia owns a lapdog that expresses equal affection to two different men, revealing them both to be her secret lovers. In The Great Gatsby, George Wilson discovers—after her death—that his wife Myrtle had recently purchased “a small, expensive dog-leash, made of leather and braided silver”; he realizes she must have been having an affair, since the Wilsons have never owned a dog.
Interestingly, stories by female authors often depict lapdogs in a similar role. Anne de Cornault, the unhappily married heroine of Edith Wharton’s horror story “Kerfol,” makes the mistake of giving her lapdog’s collar to her lover, Lainrivain, as a memento. When her husband asks her about the missing collar, Anne says the dog must have lost it in the undergrowth of the park. Her husband says nothing, but that night, when Anne goes to bed, she finds something horrible—the body of her lapdog is lying on her pillow, “still warm”. She takes a closer look, and “her distress turned to horror when she discovered that it had been killed by twisting twice round its throat the necklet she had given to Lainrivain.” After this, every dog she takes for a pet ends up strangled on her pillow; in the end she “dared not make a pet of any other dog, and her loneliness became almost unendurable.” Many years later, Anne de Cournault’s estate, Kerfol, remains devoid of human presence, haunted by a pack of eerily silent hounds.
The best example of such tales is perhaps Colette’s short story “The Bitch.” In this story, a solider on leave in Paris calls unexpectedly on his mistress. She’s not home, but the dog he left in her care greets him with rapturous joy. Since the dog seems eager for a walk, the soldier takes her out, and she leads him happily on her usual evening stroll, right up to the door of a strange house where the soldier’s mistress, we gather, is lying in another’s man’s arms. These stories contain the essence of male anxiety about women’s dogs. In each of these cases, man’s purported best friend does him the dubious service of showing him how—and with whom—he’s been cuckolded.