My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

Well, huh. This one didn’t age well. I thought a book about a much-loved dog, which has come to me so highly recommended, would be an obvious pleasure. I felt my first misgivings when reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s praise-packed introduction, in which she “derives much satisfaction” from a certain dog-shit-versus-cyclist episode.

The book is a cataloging of the life of Tulip, a not particularly well-behaved German shepherd. And it’s true that Ackerley has a knack for description and an ability to make me laugh at some of his characterizations and turns of phrase. But I ended up resenting his small victories of this sort, because in between he kept pissing me off. For one thing, his repeated statements about class were very off-putting. Now, I can allow the strong correlation between class and education in 1940s England, but that doesn’t mean he had to be so hateful about it. He makes some nasty comments about women-in-general, too, but my favorite is when he manages to combine the two: “Women are dangerous, especially women of the working class. It is always a mistake to ruffle them.”

I found this narrator to be highly unlikeable. He thinks his dog should shit where it pleases, including in the doorway of the local green-grocer’s shop (this precipitates his comment about working-class women), and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He thinks his dog Tulip should get to do absolutely anything she wants, and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He wants to have it both ways: his dog is a creature of nature and should be allowed to behave “naturally” wherever she wants (free-bleeding on a city bus, pooping in the grocery), but she’s also a much-loved pet who sleeps in his bed with him. I think you have to pick one, myself. I guess this makes me what Thomas calls a “dog fascist”…

And then there’s Tulip’s sex life. I was surprised (especially after Thomas’s introduction sums up the book very differently) to find that fully two-thirds of the book are occupied with this topic. Tulip is ‘unaltered’ – not fixed – and so she goes into heat twice a year. Ackerley is much worked up about this: he pities her unfulfilled needs, he wants her needs fulfilled (wants her to have sex and be a mommy), has trouble having her needs fulfilled, doesn’t want her needs fulfilled, cries and wails… he admires her beautiful swollen vulva and its pretty pink. It all got to feel very Freudian and weird to me, by page 100 or so of this. Also, the snobbery about breed: he wants her litter to be “pure,” wants her bred with nothing less beautiful than herself, and goes on about the evils of ‘mongrels.’ Again, I know that this was rather typical of Ackerley’s time (and class), but it reads poorly now. Of course, Tulip prefers a mutt (because she understands inbreeding much better than her upper-class human). Oh! and he intends to drown all of her female pups (females being undesirable, don’t you know), but finds himself regrettably unable to do this “reasonable thing.” Woe is him. Anybody still like this guy? No.

There were a few moments of humor here, but I spent most of my time angry. The best thing about this book was perhaps that it was short.


Rating: 3 dead puppies on your head, mister.

4 Responses

  1. I wanted to watch the film adaptation of this book for a while but then when I found out about the thing about drowning the puppies I quickly changed my mind. The author of this book sounds like somebody I would never want to know in real life, and there’s only so much in-depth description of a dog’s sex life that I can tolerate. Great review! 🙂

  2. […] goodness, after that angry-making book I reviewed for you the other day, that this one was so lovely. I think I like each of these better […]

  3. […] in answer to that other book that I guess I’m still irritated about, Graham on […]

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