Dogs in Books

Johnny

This article was originally published on Isabel Costello’s blog – The Literary Sofa. Please visit her website for lots more author articles and information about her latest novel, Scent. Just before the post was due to be published I put out a call on Twitter for people’s dog pictures which could accompany the article. Many thanks to everyone who introduced us to their gorgeous furry friends. Isabel chose the adorable Johnny as Official Dog – thanks from Isabel and me to his owner Leah Bergen for use of the photo.

The dog in Unsettled Ground

This might be an odd confession for an article about dogs in books, but I am more of a cat person. I’ve never owned a dog; growing up, my family never owned a dog. We’ve always had cats, and my current one is a tabby called Alan. But I do like dogs, and that’s why I wasn’t too surprised when a dog appeared in my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground. A biscuit-coloured lurcher wrote her way in and became central to the story. But what to call her? I asked Twitter of course. Lots of people responded with their favourite dogs’ names (Luna and Mabel came up over and over). But in the end, I chose Maude, partly because that was what I thought her owner, Jeanie Seeder, would name her.

The Seeder family go through some difficult times and Maude, unfortunately, suffers along with them. What do you feed your dog when you can’t afford dog food, let alone meat? How do dogs behave when they sense illness, or when their owner is under threat? I did a great deal of dog research online, even joining a lurcher appreciation society on Facebook, where I lurked and read lots of posts about the funny things the members’ lurchers did. I watched lots of videos on YouTube of lurchers running (very fast) and sleeping (a great deal). I went for walks with my friends who had dogs, and I asked some of them lots of tedious details about how their dogs would react in certain situations. What I really learned from all my research, is that like humans, and cats, dogs have their own characters. Of course.

And just like human characters in novels, dogs in books can be used in all sorts of ways: to add tension, to gain sympathy, for light-relief and to reflect what’s happening to the human characters. If, like me, you love a good dog (or a bad one) in a novel, then here is a list of some of my favourite novels with dogs in them.

Fluke by James Herbert
I read this book about forty years ago but it has stuck with me all this time. James Herbert was a master of the horror genre, but Fluke is not horror. This is a story about a dog, told in the first person, who remembers being a man. He believes he’s been murdered and sets out to try and protect his family. It’s about life and reincarnation and is probably due a re-read about now.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
Three old friends in their 70s meet in the house of their fourth friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. They are there to help sort out the contents so the house can be sold. The three women, suffering from the usual ailments of old age and griping about each other, are wonderfully drawn. They might be getting on a bit but there are no old-age stereotypes here. Wendy brings along her old dog, Finn, who acts as a symbol of the women’s decline.

Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a short story collection with only three short stories in it. But what stories! In the first, White Women, LOL, Jill, a white Jewish woman is videoed accusing a group of Black people of gate-crashing her friend’s party. The video goes viral and Jill is ostracised by her friends for being racist. At the same time, an African-American TV presenter has lost her dog and the whole community wants to help her find it. When Jill discovers the dog in someone’s yard, she is determined to catch it. Sittenfeld’s writing and situations skewer suburban life.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
A wonderfully gothic novel with a haunted house (or person) which includes an old lab called Gyp. Caroline Ayres lives with her mother and disfigured brother in the run-down Hundreds Hall. They host a drinks party and their neighbours bring along their precocious eight-year-old daughter. At the party, the young girl is at first scared of Gyp, and then, behind a curtain she teases him, the dog bites, and the girl is injured. There are of course disastrous consequences for everyone. It’s a very tough read for dog lovers, but the incident helps to kick off the unsettling things that happen in the house.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
An old man remembers when, as a child, one of his neighbours was murdered and how afterwards he did something which he has been ashamed of ever since. In the middle section of the novel, the man imagines how the murder happened, moving between the minds of the main characters including the family’s dog. Unlike Fluke, the mind of the dog in So Long, See You Tomorrow remains very dog-like, but I still felt huge sympathy for his predicament.

Isabel Costello’s review of Unsettled Ground

UK Cover of Unsettled Ground

In her fourth novel, Claire Fuller unearths lives rarely seen in contemporary fiction through middle-aged twins Jeanie and Julius, whose experience of rural poverty is all they have ever known. The novel is set in my home county of Wiltshire (which doesn’t happen very often either); we knew of people who lived ‘off-grid’ near the village where I grew up, long before it became a lifestyle choice for some. The gap between them and mainstream society was huge but not as wide as it would be now, when those without access to technology find themselves further marginalised from the infrastructure of everyday life.  This happens to Jeanie and Julius when the death of their mother jeopardises an already precarious domestic set-up.

In less sensitive hands this could have backfired, but there is nothing patronising or romanticised about Claire Fuller’s vision of the protagonists’ rapidly deteriorating circumstances.  In fact, she achieves an effective juxtaposition of hardship and, at times, squalor, with the simple joys of a life lived close to nature and as far as can be from materialism – few could read this novel without reflecting on their own situation. Both siblings have musical talent and the author’s characteristic sensory prose and artist’s eye make the story spring up around the reader in every dimension, including the emotional. The dark tone gives Unsettled Ground more in common with her debut Our Endless Numbered Days than her two most recent novels and if it was sometimes almost unbearably distressing, this is a testament to the empathy Fuller has and creates for the characters, despite heaping one terrible loss or setback after another on them – Jeanie’s vulnerability is especially poignant.  A motif shared by all four novels is that of complex and unusual parent-child bonds, mostly extending into adulthood, and on that score this one is as fascinating as its predecessors. A literary highlight of 2021 which merits the recognition it received even before publication.

Buy Unsettled Ground

Unsettled Ground is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and is available to buy in the UK as a hardback, ebook or audio book. Click here to buy in the UK. Click here to pre-order in the US. Click here to pre-order in Canada.

Finding Inspiration in Place


A little while after Bitter Orange was published in the UK, the author and blogger, Isabel Costello asked me to write something for her ‘literary sofa‘ website. If you don’t know it or her, she hosts a huge number of fascinating posts, author interviews and book reviews. This is the piece I wrote, republished here, about the inspiration for the location in Bitter Orange.

There’s a place not too far from where I live called the hangers. It’s a short range of wooded twisting hills, so steep-sided that they haven’t been cultivated or much changed by humans, and the trees that cling there – beech, lime, yew and ash – are ancient. I regularly walk the footpaths snaking through these woods, and when I was looking for a location for my third novel, Bitter Orange, the hangers’ ghostly beauty seemed perfect.
Bitter Orange is set in a dilapidated country house called Lyntons, and deciding which house it could be based upon was never going to be a problem. About ten miles from my house in the opposite direction to the hangers is The Grange, is a neoclassical property managed by English Heritage. In the grounds there is a lake and a small flint grotto, but most of the surrounding countryside is undulating farmed fields, beautiful in their own way, but not dramatic enough for what I had in mind.
So, I shifted my house ten miles east and set it down right at the foot of the hangers. That’s one of the perks of being a writer – I can move anything to anywhere else, even whole country houses. Now the hills and woods corralled the house, keeping whatever was there isolated and contained.


The original (real) house was built in 1660, red-brick and square, but in the early 19th century it was transformed into one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Europe. The land around it was built up so that the basement floor was completely underground, and at some point all the windows in the attics filled in so the servants mustn’t have got much daylight unless they went outdoors. In its hey-day The Grange had 24 indoor servants, while the estate supported 100 households.

But two world wars changed life for many English country estates and due to death duties their owners could no longer afford their upkeep. Many houses fell into disrepair and were consequently abandoned or demolished. (In 1955 England lost one house every two and a half days.) And The Grange was no different. It was last inhabited in 1964, and in 1972 it was almost demolished by the Baring family who had bought it, until the government got involved and the house was preserved.

And so it still stands today – preserved but unrestored. The outside is open to visitors (and free) all year round, but the inside is only accessible on certain dates for tours. And if you get to go inside you’ll understand why. Most of the interior has been ripped out, and many of the ceilings have gone (netting hangs under them to collect the falling debris). Plaster has gone from many of the walls, but enough remains to give this house an eerie atmosphere of a place kept in suspended animation. A house stopped in the final moment before disintegration.

Once I’d decided that my characters would live in a house inspired by The Grange for the summer of 1969, I visited the outside often, walking around the huge cedar of Lebanon trees, and down to the lake. The orangery (once renowned for its innovative system of channelling rainwater down its interior pillars to water the plants) now houses an opera company – The Grange Festival. The Festival hosts open days and the house is usually open as part of England’s Heritage Open Days scheme.

I visited the interior on as many occasions as I could, and I also wrote to English Heritage to ask if someone could show me around. Richard, the caretaker kindly took me into every room possible (there are still stairs up to the attic, but there are very few rooms that are safe) including every room in the basement. Here, the opera company stores its costumes and props, and so illuminated by bare bulbs I saw dummies and masks, brooms and top hats. As we walked around, Richard told me about the ghosts that haunt The Grange and confessed that sometimes even he (a down-to-earth type) doesn’t like to be there alone. I could see why. At least one of those stories made it into the finished version of Bitter Orange.

In the novel there is a bridge over the lake and follies in the grounds that Frances, the protagonist is commissioned to examine, including a mausoleum, obelisk and ice-house. It took me two years to write Bitter Orange and the landscape surrounding the house is so firmly fixed in my mind that when I go back there now, I look around and always think, but where is the bridge, where are the follies, and why aren’t there any hangers surrounding the house?

House photo courtesy of http://www.alresfordheritage.co.uk