Bruno’s Days and Dreams: Edward Carpenter and the queerness of domestic dogs

23 December 2022
By Jonathan Green

Perhaps the most striking feature of Edward Carpenter’s life was his vast network of friends and acquaintances. Sheila Rowbotham lists an enormous circle of writers, politicians, radicals, and lovers.[1] My subject is none of these. Possibly, no individual in this circle has received as little attention. Nonetheless, my subject was one of the first inhabitants of Millthorpe Cottage, the geographical centre of Carpenter’s following, living there for over a decade. I am speaking of Bruno, Carpenter’s dog.

The silence about Bruno likely stems from the fact that Carpenter’s published account is little more than three pages in his autobiography, My Days and Dreams (1916).[2] I am interested in how Carpenter’s Bruno anecdotes articulate a wider point about the queerness of domestic dogs. Carpenter tells us that domesticating a dog alters the dog’s nature – the dog adapts to a human environment and acquires certain humanlike qualities.

As a result, the domestic dog appears to be, in my terms, more-than-canine. Being more-than-canine seems queering in the way it distinguishes Bruno’s interactions with humans and other animals, marking him with an identity particular to domestic dogs. Carpenter’s recollection of Bruno reveals an unexplored facet of his thinking on animals and the queering effect of domestication.

Carpenter introduces Bruno in a chapter titled ‘Millthorpe and Household Life’, situating the dog within the cottage’s domestic sphere. Bruno occupies a space in the household on par with the human inhabitants – he is ‘another friend’ and ‘a member of the household’ (p. 153) –, separate physically and ontologically from the farm animals kept outside (p. 152). Neither is Bruno the traditional farm dog, who may occupy a liminal space between working animal and pet: Carpenter never recounts Bruno herding sheep, warding off foxes, or performing any practical function associated with working farm dogs. Bruno is clearly a dog of leisure.

Instead, Carpenter’s depiction blurs Bruno’s identity between dog and human. This blurring is represented by Bruno’s name. ‘Bruno’ means ‘brown’, leading Carpenter to note the dog Bruno was ‘so called not from his colour, for he was a very handsome black spaniel’ (p. 153). The incongruence of naming a black-furred animal ‘brown’ seems consciously ironic in Carpenter’s highlighting the potential for confusion. Instead, the name derived from a ‘fanciful association with Giordano Bruno’ (p. 153), the Renaissance polymath.

The name alludes to then denies Bruno’s animality in place of a different signification that humanises the dog through cultural reference. Naming is crucial to making the animal a pet and thus constructing for it an identity – here, making the dog a member of the household, a friend, more than an other animal. Bruno’s name is thus emblematic of how Carpenter constructs Bruno as more-than-canine.

Bruno’s interactions with other animals indicate the domestic dogs’ queerness. Carpenter’s first anecdote serves to demarcate the difference between Bruno and other dogs. Carpenter recalls that he and Bruno came across a pack of foxhounds gathered in the way of Carpenter’s cottage gate, leaving him and Bruno only ‘a couple of hundred yards’ (p. 153) from home.

The hounds separate Carpenter and Bruno from the cottage, the two of them linked together as a domestic unit in opposition to the hunting pack. The hounds are ‘the pests of this as of all countrysides!’ (p. 153) and thus Carpenter frames them as intruders into his and Bruno’s rural idyll, a culture clash between hunting and domesticity. Carpenter emphasises his identification of Bruno with himself as the culture clash become a creature clash:

"Something occurred – I know not what. A hound gave cry; the others joined in; and in an instant, to my horror and despair, the whole pack was yelling in pursuit, and Bruno flying for his life – in the only direction he could at the moment fly, away from home!" (pp. 153–54).

The series of short clauses produce a repetitive rhythm and quick tempo, evoking the sense of suddenness key to conveying Carpenter’s despairing horror. The affective language encourages Carpenter’s readers to identify Bruno as their hero rather than the untamed hounds whose unknowable incitement is othering. In stressing that the hounds drove Bruno away from home, Carpenter emphasises Bruno’s link to the cottage and its human domesticity. Crucially, human intervention saves Bruno:

"Most luckily, Albert […] rushed out with a pitchfork in his hand, just in time to check the ravening horde while Bruno rushed past him to safety. A moment more and the dog would have been torn to fragments." (p. 154)

 Albert represents the domestic, human space which is Bruno’s home and thus safe for him, the ‘ravening horde’ prevented from entering. The image of Bruno torn to pieces viscerally illustrates his proper belonging and slips in an ontological point: Bruno’s wholeness depends on his domestic unit, his more-than-canine pack; outside of that, he would be nothing. As such, in place of the hunting dogs’ animal strength, Bruno has Albert, a human with a tool equal to the hounds’ teeth. Therefore, as the cottage inhabitants are Bruno’s pack, and the cottage marks spatially the boundary between Bruno and the hunting dogs, Bruno’s difference as a dog centres on his domesticity. The incident establishes the sense that Bruno is not like other dogs, that he is a queer animal.

Further into the Bruno section, Carpenter explicates the link between Bruno’s more-than-canine queerness and his domestication. Carpenter claims that habitual human influence confers a particularly human contagion: ‘Bruno showed in high degree that curious quality resembling conscience in man […] having contracted and adopted a new standard of life’ (p. 154). This is distinct from Carpenter’s representation of the foxhounds, in which the pack instinct predominated.

Hence, I use the word ‘habitual’ as a conscious reference to the importance Carpenter places on the domestic dogs’ specific, multi-species habitat: Bruno’s pack being predominantly human is key to Bruno developing his more-than-canine conscience. Being more-than-canine seems more overtly queer when Carpenter discusses Bruno’s affections:

"There is something strangely touching in the fact that dogs not only thus develop a conscience and a morality foreign to their canine nature, but that also from their intense devotion to their so-called ‘masters’ they are severed and alienated to some degree from the natural loves of their race – at any rate on the affectional side." (p. 155)[3]

The italicised words express a sense of queerness, not necessarily pejoratively (it is ‘touching’) but presented as peculiar by Carpenter, nonetheless. The domestic dogs’ so-called ‘natural’ affection is displaced onto their human pack-mates, which Carpenter implies then opens avenues for other more-than-canine affections. Carpenter recalls Bruno’s ‘strange susceptibility’ for white kittens in an anecdote which emphasises the apparent queerness of Bruno’s feline ‘adoration’ (p. 155):

"The kitten was certainly beautiful […] and to Bruno obviously a goddess; but alas! like other goddesses only too fickle and even cruel. When Bruno arrived on the scene, the kitten would skip on to the vantage-ground of a chair-seat; and from thence torment the pathetic and pleading nose of the dog with naughty scratches. Again and again would Bruno – wounded in his heart as well as his head – return to his ineffectual suit, only to have his advances rejected as before." (p. 155)

The tone of comic absurdity, the pathetic image of the dog cowed by the tiny kitten, and Carpenter’s framing of the anecdote as a tale of futile courtship encourages sympathetic amusement. Appreciation of beauty, seemingly strange for a dog, seems stranger across species. Moreover, it is only Bruno who acts queerly here; the kitten, as anyone who has had to prevent their kitten from obliterating a much larger animal knows, acts quite predictably.

The implication is that domestic dogs are particularly susceptible, even more so than other domesticated animals, to our queering effect on them. Though he finds it peculiar, Carpenter avoids giving the impression that Bruno’s more-than-canine queerness is in any sense perverse; the anecdote’s comic element functions to convey that Bruno’s affections are strange but ‘strangely touching’ (p. 155). The reader’s sympathy seems expected when Carpenter lastly tells us that, in Bruno’s old age, ‘a cat came and fell in love with him!’, sleeping with Bruno in the dog’s kennel and being present when Bruno died (pp. 155 – 56).

That final anecdote sums up the reason for Carpenter choosing to tell Bruno’s story in this way. Bruno’s story echoes Carpenter’s as told throughout My Days and Dreams. Carpenter left behind his middle-class upbringing to settle at Millthorpe, seeking to live a life not otherwise possible with people he otherwise could not have met. For both Carpenter and Bruno, the cottage at Millthorpe made possible unexpected and fulfilling connections. Something of Bruno’s more-than-canine queerness is therefore consonant with Carpenter’s own queer narrative. For embedded in these anecdotes of Bruno’s affections is Carpenter’s affection for Bruno.

[1] Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 2-3.

[2] Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1916). All italics are Carpenter’s unless otherwise stated. Further instances cited parenthetically.

[3] My italics.