From Achilles’ horse to Lassie, animals provide moral authority and sympathy in fiction, often giving voice to the silenced and oppressed. Andrew O’Hagan, who has written a novel from the perspective of Marilyn Monroe’s pet terrier, on what literature’s eloquent creatures tell us about being human

Let us begin at home, with whichever small dog is presently occupying the basket by the front door. He might be Lucky, the Scots terrier who lived with us for a mere two years before disappearing “up the country”, as my father said one day when I was six. Lucky liked killing birds, and years later I would think of him when I read William Cowper’s pretty little poem to Beau, the dog with a taste for the avian edible. Beau’s reply was just the sort of thing to please the ascending mind, as well as to underscore my infant notion that animals more or less knew better: “If killing birds be such a crime, / (Which I can barely see,) / What think you, sir, of killing time / With verse address’d to me?”

Our dogs and our fathers had things in common: they loved liver and they craved absence. They also vied with each other, invisibly, to give the children a moral education. In Peter Pan, it seemed to me rather sensible, and quite Scottish, that the dog should be the one looking after the children. My father would bring dogs home from the pub that he claimed were wiser than Jock Stein. Some of them daffed around the house quite happily for a while – Whisky, Bob, and a very enlightened Cairn terrier called Butch – before the competition for liver and moral authority would become too much, and the creatures would be sent back to the pub or the petshop.

Our house was chaotic, but I was whelping myself on good books, and as time passed I began to imagine the dog’s point of view might be the more memorable. There was a nice moment in the kitchen when my dad was trying to tell Butch how peeing on the newspaper he’d laid out was the best course of action. (I’m translating roughly.) Butch refused, and I said something about the Cairn having too much respect for the written word. My dad resorted to more of the Doric, before stomping out of the room. Butch tilted his head at me and I imagined the little dog referring to Montaigne. “The natural, original distemper of man is presumption,” I more or less heard him say. “Man is the most blighted and frail of all creatures and, moreover, the most given to pride . . . yet, in thought, he sets himself above the circle of the Moon, bringing the very heavens under his feet.”

I blame poetry. I blame poetry, philosophy, too many Curly Wurlys and my addiction to Lassie. The poetry round our way came courtesy of Robert Burns, the bard of human joy and folly, who taught me how to trust in the completely improbable. I can still remember, at school, the joy of discovering “The Twa Dogs”, in which these two mutts, Caesar and Luath, talk very freely about the evils of a local landlord. And another one, “The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie”, in which the poet’s pet sheep gets tangled in his tethering and speaks to us before he dies. His words were of justice and kindness, and from the moment I read them, I believed that talking animals in literature might deepen the concerns of realism. The sheep’s plight was ready matter for human sympathy, and I saw a connection there between speech and politics that would never go away.

Every literary culture has among its first bearings the “blether” of animals who seek to make sense of human existence. The people I emerged from, the Scots-Irish, had it in abundance: it’s there in Adamnan’s Life of St Columba, the Irish abbot landing at Iona, the snakes coming out of the sea to proclaim his name. It’s there in the oral ballads, where sparrows and corbies speak like the omens they are, the intermediaries between the natural and the supernatural worlds. In Scotland and Ireland, speaking animals came to voice an opposition both to political inequity and moral turpitude.

Satire often rode in on the back of an eloquent horse, or truffled for truth via the exhorting snout of a talkative pig. I found that pig in Robert Fergusson’s “The Sow of Feeling”, a Scottish poem satirising the age of sensibility. I found another animal associate in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, where Modestine, the titular beast with “a quakerish elegance” has “her own private gait”. Poor Stevenson is driven half-mad by the donkey, but the relationship is equal and true, and I never forgot it. (“Aesop was the man to know the world!” writes RLS in the midst of his trek.)

Gulliver’s Travels was a bible for George Orwell when he was at Eton, and the dean’s excellent blethering horses made a world for me, too, when I was young. Not a world apart from reality, but one that interrogated reality from deep inside the imagination. Charles Perrault, the man who “wrote” Cinderella – Cendrillon, Cucendron, Cendreusette, St Rosette – once said that a writer should be a friend to all the world. The stories and poems I loved said it wasn’t enough to describe reality, one must remake it in order to be true. And film and television was part of that mission.

Like children all over the world, by the age of 10 I’d come to believe that most of the really humane creatures were not really human at all. The smart ones were like Skippy, the crime-solving kangaroo we watched on telly who always understood, who untied knots with his nose, a russet-haired child by his side saying, “You can do it, Skip!” Or they were like Benji, the little film dog who never missed a trick, or like Flipper, the dolphin who smiled with intelligence. (“They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,” went the theme tune, “No one you see is smarter than he.”)

I remember nearly jumping out of my skin on seeing how Burns compared man’s state to that of a mouse. In The Odyssey, there’s another startling moment – a moment of inventive splendour – when Achilles’s horse turns and speaks to him. As King Lear goes mad, he notices the three little dogs, Trey, Blanch, and Sweetheart, which he imagined must be barking at him. Then came Eliot’s cats, one of them “engaged in a rapt contemplation / Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name”.

The Wind in the Willows was a version of pastoral that made England seem like a busy little heaven, a place of gentleness and good sense. Mole and Ratty were mild – a way of being that seemed very new and exotic to me at the time. Not only did they speak sense but they spoke it with patience and with reserve. These features, like so many idealistic features of humanness, were things an avid young reader might spot in animals before they had spotted them in people.

Watership Down was certainly the most humane book of its season – a book that seemed much larger than the story of a group of rabbits making their way to a hill north of Hampshire. With their myths and their struggles against barbarity – and their own language, Lupine – the characters in Watership Down are fighting for a better world. And that has always been one of the secret missions of literature – to make it new, as Ezra Pound said, and to render it possible (even via the impossible) that the world can grow more decent.

Walking with his daughter in Brooklyn, Paul Auster saw a woman standing on a corner with a dog, the dog bearing a sign around its neck which said “Please adopt me, I need a home”. They took the dog home and it became Jack. But it also became Mr Bones in Auster’s novel Timbuktu, a character which has a wisdom about homelessness – like no recent essay, or political statemement, or heavily peopled novel, he helps us see the bondage in vagabondage – that makes Mr Bones a contemporary animal seer in a long tradition. Writers cannot take self-awareness, or the lack of it, for granted. The imagination must go everywhere.

In the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh wrote that the novel of the future will only be truly alive if it knows how to present a story narrated by a dress. The contemporary novelist, I’m sure, is working on that, but meanwhile he and she are involved in reviving some of the oldest traditions of animal and botanical literature. An important volume, for me, in all of this is Louise Glück’s Pulitzer prize-winning volume of poems, The Wild Iris, in which the flowers in a garden, and the gardener, speak among themselves. Literature might set out to reflect the state, but it might also reflect the state of wondrousness – sometimes, at one and the same time. John Berger’s dog-narrated novel King is able to show us parts of life hidden, it seems, from the human gaze.

These examples appear as supplications before the stern human truth of not knowing as much as we think we know. Talking animals present a challenge to our humanist bearings, which is what Plutarch was getting at with his yapping pig Gryllus in his essay “On the Use of Reason by ‘Irrational’ Animals”. Plutarch was one of the first creative writers, known for “picturing” as much as thinking, and he was obsessed with power, especially as it affected people who had too little of it – women, servants, animals. The conscious mind, he said, the creative mind, must set out to explore its own reach.

The novel, a search for knowledge and entertainment, has admitted these things from the beginning. We sometimes forget that human invention can also be a subject of human invention: that might seem a modern notion, or a postmodern one, but novelists have taken time – sometimes time out from their realist fixations – to source and satirise the speech and power we rely on. It was something of the kind that prompted Tolstoy to write “Strider”, his story of a talking horse. “No horse in the world has such thoroughbred blood as I do,” says Strider, before acknowledging that horses don’t understand the concept of “ownership”.

The Russian novelists, oddly, those with the biggest reputations for psychological and historical realism, quite often took to the chat of animals in order to strike for imaginative gold. Tolstoy, Gogol and Chekhov believed in many different things, but, most consistently of all, they believed in storytelling and the fine resources of the fiction-maker’s art. Gogol made marks on a page one day, and they turned out to represent Medji and Fidele, from “Diary of a Madman”, two little dogs who meet in the street outside a shop. As with Lear, on this occasion a certain moral clarity about human-ness comes with madness, and our narrator is soon in full swing. “I’d suspected for a long time that dogs are cleverer than human beings . . . dogs are extraordinarily shrewd, and notice everything, every step you take.”

Chekhov took the lead, as it were, with his beautiful story of “The Lady with the Little Dog”. There, walking along the seafront at Yalta, we find a lady with a white Pomeranian. The dog is running behind her. The lady is wearing a beret. The man in the story, Gurov, has a rather terrible attitude towards women, and it is the dog who spots it. The man wants everything in life to seem simple and amusing, but the dog, who has to suffer this man waving his finger at him, knows Gurov to be the sort of man who likes there to be something pathetic about a woman. The dog notes that, in such men, a woman’s beauty excites his hatred. (Another of Chekhov’s stories, “Kashtanka”, features a dog who is beaten by his drunk owner. The dog feels he lives in an “oppressive dream”, but he maintains a point of view: “All mankind [is] divided into two uneven parts: masters and customers.”)

By the way, not all yapping animals are cute. We must remember the black cat Behemoth in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: vodka-swilling, pistol-packing, endlessly talking, and demonic. Again, the animals come as themselves, but also as single spies into the ways of being (and not being) human.

Adults train themselves to find such things extraordinary, but we were all apprentice readers once, as children, where the regulations exist in a beautiful state of disorder. One time, when I was very young, our summer school trip was suddenly cancelled and the teacher decided to take us to the cinema. We saw Charlotte’s Web. It was the first time I’d ever cried watching a film, and the teacher laughed at the spectacle. The spider and the pigs seemed so elevated to me, so connected to things thoughtful and moral and decent and kind. Before the weekend I had borrowed the book from the local library and was sitting on the stairs of our house for several hours, staring at EB White’s pages and moving my lips.

“Are you awake, Charlotte?” he said softly.

“Yes,” came the answer.

“What is that nifty little thing. Did you make it?”

“I did indeed,” replied Charlotte in a weak voice.

“Is it a plaything?”

“Plaything? I should say not. It is my egg sac, my magnum opus.”

Thirty years later, in another library, I would discover that Wagner, while living in Dresden, insisted on having his dog Peps sit on an upholstered stool beside the piano as he composed. “If the dog was not there,” an observer wrote, “the whole household was sent into motion to look for him, and many a time Minna herself had to go out and fetch him from the park near the Ostra-Allee.” (I wait with high hopes for Peps’s account of life in the Marienstrasse.) “He is head court factotum,” said Wagner. “And tell Pepsel everything that comes into your mind,” he wrote very earnestly to his wife, Cosima.

Perhaps this is what Joyce has in mind with the dog Garryowen in Ulysses – a genuine dog for “all those who are interested in the spread of human culture among the lower animals”. The dog recites verse that bears a striking resemblance to the ranns of ancient Celtic bards. But later he and the owner are talking in Irish, “the old towser growling, letting on the answer, like a duet in an opera”.

The child’s experience of reading is a very odd experience in our culture, because it represents both a gain and a loss. The gain is the “special relationship” that is felt to exist between children and animals, as if children were somehow more like animals, closer to unspoiled nature. The loss is, well, the loss of that: we are expected to grow up to find the connection ridiculous. We are supposed to look at Beatrix Potter not with a mind to maintaining our interest in the precision of those stories, their odd, sweet transport of Edwardian values – we are expected to put them on the shelf as if we were shelving our childhood itself. We are not embarrassed by them, but excluded from them, banished from that former, innocent, easy suspension of disbelief, and those who own such books admit to placing them on the shelf nostalgically, but with a fervent hope that their own children might one day reach for them. But why the feeling of exile?

Whether the work was done by Robert Burns or Walt Disney, by the animators of Bambi or in the mind of Cervantes, art involving talking animals is often deeply political, a wellspring of inquiry about the meaning of speech and power. Cervantes’s novella The Conversation of the Dogs is a foundation stone in the making of the modern novel. (Scipio, one of Cervantes’s talking mutts, has an appetite for criticism: “Some stories are intrinsically appealing, others are made appealing in the way they are told.”)

In Britain, the great hidden secret of talking animals and children’s literature is how political it was in its bones, beneath the obvious cuteness. In the Victorian era, a great number of books were written in the “voices” of animals, and most of them were written by women, against the grain of patrician Victorian reason. The lower animals were empowered. It’s a lovely bourgeois concept, well-fitted to the rise of the novel. Note that Flaubert only ever allows one creature to hear Emma Bovary’s secret: her dog, Djali, named after the little goat in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. It’s also arguable, the other way, that Wuthering Heights is essentially a novel about the power struggle between Emily Brontë and her dog, Keeper. The connection between stifled women and animals is striking in British fiction, and its literary effects have been central to the education of many generations of children.

In her excellent book Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, 1786-1914, Tess Cosslett writes: “Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty is the only one of these texts to be remembered today, but it can usefully be seen as part of a long tradition. Mice, rats, donkeys, cats, dogs, all wrote their life stories.” We can look back at Sarah Trimmer’s The Story of the Robins, first published in 1786 as Fabulous Histories. Dorothy Kilmer’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse came out even earlier, in 1783. The notion of the “dumb animal” gaining a friend in a child or a woman and suddenly opening up and gaining its just deserts or freedom from exploitation, had a profound influence on the writers for children who followed them – those whose books now stand to nostalgic attention on children’s bookshelves. It turns out we have all had a thoroughgoing training, without realising it, in the emancipation of the enslaved, the owned, the abused, and the “speechless”. By the time you get to The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-winkle, you notice that small, defenceless animals and female domestic drudges have something in common: they want to speak. “My name is Mrs Tiggy-winkle,” is the first line ever spoken by Potter’s character. “Oh, yes if you please’m. I’m an excellent clear-starcher!”

I must have figured a while ago that there are times when it might take an animal’s perspective to restore, in literary terms, a character pitifully drained of their humour and humanity, even a person as drained as Marilyn Monroe. Quite early in researching my new novel, I found in the manuscripts room of the British Library the diary kept by Grace Higgens, the housekeeper at Charleston for 40 years. There was a rumour that my narrator – a dog called Maf, who was given, in what we call real life, to Marilyn Monroe by Frank Sinatra in 1960 – had begun his life at the house of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. The rumour started in Hollywood, where I was finding traces of Marilyn’s beloved dog in the old studios and in the places associated with her. So I followed the trail and ended up with Mrs Higgens’s diary, in which she complains a lot about Mrs Bell’s complaints, but never mentions the animals.

Mrs Higgens was fascinating, and as I looked through a box of her old recipes and cuttings, I could hear her talking to Maf. And the dog was talking back. The influence of those Victorian writers came home to me, and I felt Maf’s joyous journey into the 20th century was off. He was taken to Los Angeles by Natalie Wood’s mother – a Russian to unnerve Tolstoy – and picked up by Frank Sinatra, who then brought the dog to Marilyn in New York. It stayed with her for the last two years of her life. Maf was a true creature with fiction on his side.

Like all novelists, you might say. But however much Maf had lived, and however much he was a figment of me or mine, he was undoubtedly, and perhaps most enjoyably, a product of the animal literature that had both formed him and allowed him. Sometimes as a writer you just find yourself in a pocket of riches, and I knew that in the house where Virginia Woolf visited her sister she often brought her dog Pinker along. He died before Maf arrived, but I have Mrs Higgens, in my novel, giving him Pinker’s old collar, just before Maf sets out on his journey to America and the love and heartbreak of Marilyn.

Woolf wrote Flush, of course, her little novel about the red cocker spaniel kept by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Wimpole Street. “Flush had never mastered the principle of human societies,” we learn. “He was a philosopher, she thought, meditating the difference between appearance and reality.” An interesting question, with much for Flush to draw on from his creator’s own life. Flush was modelled on Pinker, the spaniel given to Woolf by Vita Sackville-West, just as Grizzle – the dog that barks all the way through Mrs Dalloway’s party – was based on the living Grizzle, another of the Woolfs’ dogs, badly affected with eczema. Virginia and Vita, incidentally, called their love a dog’s name, Potto, and Virginia said that “a dog somehow represents . . . the private side of life”. Flush, in my view, is given too little to say, and, unlike the best animals in world literature, he has a too small regard for the servant classes who give him his dinner. As Aesop did, as Homer did, we look to the animal for a moral education, a lesson in sympathy. And in Flush we get it with laughs thrown in with the pain. Here’s Woolf describing the extraordinary business of Nero, the little terrier who had belonged to Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and who had, distressingly for all, thrown himself out of a top-storey window in Chelsea:

“He had found the strain of life in Cheyne Row intolerable . . . Whether he wished to kill himself, or whether, as Mrs Carlyle insinuates, he was merely jumping after birds, might be the occasion for an extremely interesting treatise on canine psychology. Some hold that Byron’s dog went mad in sympathy with Byron; others that Nero was driven to desperate melancholy by associating with Mr Carlyle. The whole question of dogs’ relation to the spirit of the age, whether it is possible to call one dog Elizabethan, another Augustan, another Victorian, together with the influence upon Dogs of the poetry and philosophy of their masters, deserves a fuller discussion than can here be given it. For the present, Nero’s motives must remain obscure.”

I have time, perhaps too much time, for the idea that Flush is, at one and the same moment, a consummation of Woolf’s style and a thing of supreme silliness. The book is beautifully funny, and in ways it comes closer to the essential spirit of Woolf’s writing than any other. The novelist’s motives must remain obscure.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of literature’s unexpected triumphs, and it tells a thousand truths that couldn’t quite be told any other way. It is probably right that the book has become such a foundation text for young people – a set book, a deep satire on leadership and oppression, a human diatribe in sheep’s clothing – but it is, of course, the most adult of novels, capturing the bloody sensibility of an entire epoch in its wily rhythms.

Orwell, like those Russians, was a master of observation who turned inward, with this book, to expose through primitive storytelling the impossible hurts of which humans are capable. The fact that his mode was satirical and fabular – fabular, “to speak, to give voice” – places it among the great books. (“Every joke is a tiny revolution,” Orwell said.) His talking animals, whether they know about it or not, are there to challenge innocence with experience, sentiment with news, whimsy with art. But also to challenge selfhood with otherness. Orwell’s farm animals do not merely stand in for people, they increase our peopleness, and we feel he must have remembered Jeremy Bentham’s fundamental question about animals. It “is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

That was the glory of those anthropomorphic departures – the animals taught us how to disappear into concerns much bigger than our own. Some went very far down that line, as in Les Murray’s poem, “Lyrebird”, in which he impersonates the sound of the bird, where the creature reveals the poet to himself. “The miming is all of I,” says the poem’s penultimate line. To over-parse Darwin, isn’t the battle against extinction also, for us, the fight against forgetting? My dog Maf remembers the book Darwin took with him on the Beagle (nice name for a boat): it was Paradise Lost.

People who read will tend to be created in part by everything they have read. For a number of years I carried these animals in my head and was transfixed by where we might go together. I will surprise no-one by saying that writing this novel brought me home again, to the pure joy of invention, and to the places where I first began to read and watch and imagine our dogs – our household gods – talking back to us before going out to discover the world.

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is published this week by Faber (£18.99). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds