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Well, I was rather fond of Komski.  And I did almost promise to live with him, till I found that his last three women had all got fed up with him and left him, and I felt there must be something wrong with a man who continually got left, and I’ve discovered since that he was a dreadful bully when he dropped that touching lost-dog manner of his.  So I was well out of it.  Still, seeing that Naomi had been going about for the last year, nearly, looking at Dr. Penberthy like a female spaniel that thinks it’s going to get whipped, I can’t see why she need throw Komski in my face.  And as for Ambrose Ledbury, anybody might have been mistaken in him.

This passage, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, raises an eyebrow whenever I reread the novel.  It’s such an unexpected way to turn the simile; romantic devotion has a fairly familiar metaphorical connection with spaniels, particularly if it’s a bouncy or thoughtless kind.  (What in more recent language we might associate with lapdogs, or – in political metaphors – with poodles.)  But the explicit association of the spaniel with whipping stood out rather: why was Naomi’s look at Penberthy compared to a dog thinking it would be whipped?  Possibly because her love was unrequited and so she was aware that her affection could only produce pain, though this seems an odd way to phrase it.


The other day a strikingly (pardon the pun) similar line jumped out at me from another work.  Since I was listening to Britten’s opera of Midsummer Night’s Dream it arrived with a level of clarity and elaboration which it might not have had when reading the play.  (A few of you are probably ahead of me on this, and are already quoting the lines.)  In Helena’s desperate appeal to Demetrius, after being told to stop following him because he does not and cannot love her, she declares:

I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me I will fawn on you.

Use me as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,

Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,

Unworthy as I am, to follow you.

What worser place can I beg in your love –

And yet a place of high respect with me –

Than to be used as you use your dog?

Given Sayers’ familiarity with, and use of, Early Modern literature, I wondered if I’d found the source of the odd simile.  I don’t suggest it’s a deliberate allusion (or at least not by the character) but that it’s more likely to be an unconscious effect of her being so steeped in Shakespeare.  (Like many British writers who grew up before the First World War, Sayers’ linguistic habits were heavily shaped by Shakespeare, the Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer, far beyond the level of conscious quotation.)  Perhaps the association of unrequited love with fawning behaviour mentally supplied her with the echo of Helena’s speech, which supplied the imagery of whipping.

It’s a rather insecure business, speculating on what may have been sparked off in an author’s unconscious mind during the production of a text.  Though one of the most famous examples of this critical mode – certainly as regards Shakespeare – can justly claim spaniels as one of its key successes.  Caroline Spurgeon, the first female Professor of English Literature in Britain, published Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us in 1936, six years after The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club came out.  In it she identified particular clusters and networks of images which recur in Shakespeare’s work, and perhaps the most intriguing is that surrounding dogs:

Now whenever the idea, which affects him emotionally, of false friends or flatterers occurs, we find a rather curious set of images which play round it. These are: a dog or spaniel, fawning and licking; candy, sugar or sweets, thawing or melting.  So strong is the association of these ideas in Shakespeare’s mind that it does not matter which of these items he starts with – dog or sugar or melting – it almost invariably, when used in this application, gives rise to the whole series.

In evidence, she points to Caesar’s rebuke to Metellus Cimber for prostrating himself:

                                                Be not fond

To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood

That will be thaw’d from the true quality

With that which melteth fools, I mean, sweet words,

Low-crooked court’sies and base spaniel-fawning.

Thy brother by decree is banished:

If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him

I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.

followed by Hamlet:

            Why should the poor be flatter’d?

No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,

And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee

Where thrift may follow fawning

and Hotspur:

Why, what a candy deal of courtesy

This fawning greyhound then did proffer me!

and Antony:

                                                The hearts

That spaniel’d me at heel, to whom I gave

Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets

On blossoming Caesar

and Antony again:


You…fawn’d like hounds,

And bow’d like bondsmen, kissing Caesar’s feet;

Whilst damned Casca like a cur, behind

Struck Caesar on the neck.  O, you flatterers!

This sort of work owes a lot to the early twentieth-century tendency to read Shakespeare’s plays as systems of imagery, and to explore those image networks as the potentially dominant structure of their meanings.  (In very broad terms this succeeded the emphasis on nineteenth-century character criticism after it was dealt a temporary quietus by L.C. Knights’ famous essay ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’, published in 1933, between Sayers’ and Spurgeon’s books.)   Tracing the implications and relationships between images was a characteristic approach of this period, though it is often criticised now as ignoring the theatrical aspect of the plays, and relying on meticulous comparisons of words which are hundreds of lines (or whole plays) apart which would never have chimed near each other in performance.

It also relies on that steeping in Shakespeare’s language which I mentioned above.  In the era before computer-based language research this kind of analysis required weeks of patient collecting and cross-referencing to produce any meaningful results.  But more than that, the very idea of such work must have been the result of critical imaginations which instinctively built connections within the corpus of Shakespearean phrases to which they already had access.  The impetus to carry out this kind of research (and eventually to enlist the aid of machines), and to frame Shakespeare’s works in this way, surely came from the mental habits of writers and scholars who carried out the same processes in a non-systematic way.

(c) Goodenough College; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In Spurgeon’s case, this mode of analysis was aimed specifically at understanding the creative personality which had produced these image systems.  The comment at the beginning of the passage I quote above – that the idea of false friends “affects him emotionally” – is part of this endeavour, and where modern critics might see a remarkable example of linguistic associations working themselves out via a playwright, Spurgeon saw a historical man’s feelings and opinions shaping his verbal tics.  Before citing the network of images, she explains its moral and emotional significance:

It is quite certain that one of the things which rouses Shakespeare’s bitterest and deepest indignation is feigned love and affection assumed for a selfish end.  He who values so intensely – above all else in human life – devoted and disinterested love, turns almost sick when he watches flatterers and sycophants bowing  and cringing to the rich and powerful purely in order to get something out of them for themselves.  It is as certain as anything can be, short of direct proof, that he had been hurt, directly or indirectly, in this particular way.  No one who reads his words carefully can doubt that he had either watched someone, whose friendship he prized, being deceived by fawning flatterers, or that he himself had suffered from a false friend or friends who, for their own ends, had drawn out his love while remaining ‘themselves as stone’.

This conclusion is not reached by the network of words Spurgeon is elaborating, but precedes it.  Careful attention to his words reveals this particular aspect of Shakespeare’s writing, from which a deduction is made about his personality, and then the image system – which in itself does not prove he was hurt by a false friend, and is not introduced to do so – is revealed and discussed.  In fact, Spurgeon’s conclusion in this section of Shakespeare’s Imagery involves trying to explain why these apparently unconnected concepts are clustered in his work (and therefore his mind):

The explanation of this curious and repeated sequence of ideas is, I think, very simple.  It was the habit in Elizabethan times to have dogs, which were chiefly of the spaniel and greyhound type, at table, licking the hands of he guests, fawning and begging for sweetmeats with which they were fed, and of which, if they were like dogs today, they ate too many, dropping them in a semi-melting condition all over the place.  Shakespeare, who was unusually fastidious, hated the habit, as he disliked all dirt and messiness, especially connected with food.

She goes on to explain that “there come to be linked in his mind two things he intensely dislikes”, the “fawning cupboard love of dogs, their greed and gluttony, with its sticky and disagreeable consequences” in the physical world, and in the emotional world “the fawning of insincere friends, bowing and flattering for what they hope to get, and turning their back when they think no more is coming to them”.  The combination of certain emotional scars in Shakespeare’s life, and certain physical conditions under which life was lived in his period, have fused together phrases which do not seem to belong together when read four hundred years later.  The question implicitly posed by Spurgeon’s title is answered: Shakespeare’s imagery tells us something about his emotional life and his personal habits.

This is not a critical attitude, or even a critical approach, which finds much favour today.  We generally do not spent our time in academic study trying to trace the contours of a writer’s personality from their works, or discern personal events behind the biases in their vocabulary.  As early as 1950 James L. Jackson published an article entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Dog-and-Sugar Imagery and the Friendship Tradition”, which pointed to the use of similar imagery in non-Shakespearean work, and declared that “the fawning of spaniels is a commonplace of Elizabethan literature” and “is more likely to be a grouping of commonplaces on flattery than a reflection of Shakespeare’s own experience”.

He also cites Shakespearean dog imagery which does not fit her pattern (though Spurgeon might have retorted that her work did not suggest that dogs reminded Shakespeare of sugar and traitors, but that when he thought about false friends, his mind provided him with images of  candy and spaniels.)  The disagreement here is not mostly about the existence of otherwise of the network of images, but what it should be used for.  Spurgeon wanted to use it as a key to Shakespeare’s personality, whereas Jackson wished to read it as part of the Elizabethan literary system.

Coming back to Helena, this passage does not particularly fit with Spurgeon’s network of candy/ spaniel/ flatterer words, and she would not expect it to.  After all, Helena is sincerely in love with Demetrius, not lying in order to gain favour.  Quite the opposite: she states that she only expects neglect and scorn from him.  This becomes so precisely the opposite of flattery, however, that she does sound oddly like a court sycophant:

I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me I will fawn on you.

Use me as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,

Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,

Unworthy as I am, to follow you.

What worser place can I beg in your love –

And yet a place of high respect with me –

Than to be used as you use your dog?

What begins as a personal declaration ends up using the language of status and “place” (a term which implied more strongly the notion of “position” or “rank” in Early Modern English.)  There is no mention of candy or licking, but Demetrius’ next lines immediately after her speech certainly imply he finds her love cloying:

Tempt not the hatred of my spirit

For I am sick when I do look on thee.

And that combination of “sick” and “look” parallels Spurgeon’s own words when explaining Shakespeare’s emotional makeup: “He… turns almost sick when he watches flatterers and sycophants”.  Did Spurgeon’s deep familiarity with Shakespeare’s language – which made possible her work on his imagery – nudge her towards paraphrasing one of his lines about spaniels when discussing others?  It may be just a coincidence (if one that points up that slipperiness of having to use language to pick apart language’s uses.)

It’s certainly fun to speculate on the way the associations which appear to have guided Shakespeare’s choice of phrase pop up here in a statement of sincere but cloying adoration, in a play which is so concerned with the truth or otherwise of amorous declarations and the instability of affections.  After all, later in this play, Demetrius; love will magically turn towards Helena, who will then accuse him of insincerity and professing to love her for some benefit to himself.  Her complaint to Hermia (“It is not friendly, it is not maidenly”) seems to rest on the assumption that Demetrius is indeed faking affection towards Helena in order to ingratiate himself with Hermia.

Dorothy L. Sayers – another mind steeped in Shakespeare’s language – echoed this passage of Midsummer Night’s Dream in a rather different context, as we have seen.  It may not be as totally removed from the Athenian lovers as it first appears: the bohemian parties and studio flats of London in her novels produce love triangles, just as the quadrangles of Oxford do, and at least one woman in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is loved more for personal advantage than real affection.  However, it is not Ann Dorland who is mentioned as following Penberthy around with her eyes “like a female spaniel that thinks it’s going to get whipped”, which would make sense, if Sayers was playing a conscious variation in this passage on self-interested love, insecure young women, and female friendship.  It is Naomi, who plays no significant part in the novel, and is simply mentioned as pining after Penberthy in this way.  There doesn’t seem to be any particular character development or thematic irony being set up here (though I’d be very interested to hear from Sayers readers who read it differently.)

This spaniel phrase – which still sounds like an echo of Helena to me – fits into another system of images, one which cuts across Sayers’ work rather than Shakespeare’s.  It was Dr. Sophie Duncan (currently of Magdalen College) who first pointed out to me the plot and language patterns across the Peter Wimsey novels which cluster around BDSM and sexual games involving power or dominance.  Perhaps most obvious is the leather dog collar which Peter buys Harriet in Gaudy Night, and the scene shortly afterwards in which they wrestle in a field.  There’s the association of Peter’s car and his driving, which scares Harriet but which she undergoes.  And the remarkable moment concerning his horsemanship:

Harriet was silent. She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something god-like about him. He could control a horse.

These are all passages which are explicable within the terms of plot and character: the collar is to prevent Harriet being garrotted, the spaniel metaphor has to do with wide eyes and nervousness, the horseriding moment is Wimsey showing he has abilities which Harriet’s bohemian acquaintances do not, and so on.  But this is how patterns of imagery and theme emerge, via fictional moments which are all entirely explicable individually, but which also demonstrate similarities beyond the fictional logic of the particular scene.

Perhaps the clinching point is Sayers’ unfinished novel (now completed into a new work by Jill Paton Walsh), which remained in partial manuscript and note form at the time of her death.  It had been abandoned years before, for which scholars have proposed various reasons.  Until Paton Walsh’s commissioning the papers could be examined by accredited scholars, but no portions could be copied or published.  I believe this ban remains in place, beyond the printing of portions in the new novel, which are of course not marked as such, so we have to rely on the accounts of critics who have examined them.

The title, Thrones, Dominations, hints at one of the reasons which may well have contributed to its neglect: that the plot revolves around sexual practices which Sayers felt could not be suitable for inclusion in a novel for the great British reading public.  David Coomes’ 1989 biography Sayers (based on archival research) presents this as a reasonable factor, if not his preferred explanation.  The early chapters (which are apparently Sayers’ own) signal a concern with rough sexual games and erotic power plays which Paton Walsh has developed into the hinge of the later portions.  The author who planned Thrones, Dominations, and wrote the dog collar into Gaudy Night might well have casually referred to “a female spaniel that thinks it’s going to get whipped” as a natural metaphor for an infatuated young woman.

This, of course, is not the 1930s, and we don’t tend to read image systems back into the mind of their maker in the way that Spurgeon did to produce the dogs drooling sweetmeats over the rush-covered floor.  Despite Linda Woodhead’s reference recently to Sayers’ taste for “rough trade”, the real significance of this spaniel, which pops up fawningly in both London bohemia and the Athenian wood, is the way it sits at a site where two image systems touch.  Shakespeare and Sayers, both sketching very different plots in very different times, instinctively used images which were part of their own personal aesthetic stock, with its particular associations and implications.  Or perhaps the more important parallel is Sayers and Spurgeon, who both absorbed the texture of Shakespeare’s language until it became part of their linguistic processes as well as their intellectual stores, and used it to work their different arts.