The thing about love in literature is that it’s almost never any good. A quick scan of the most enduring literary romances turns up a shocking paucity of anything approaching what I’d call true love. Let’s review some simple facts: Romeo and Juliet were morons, Mr. Rochester is a creep, Darcy can be a bit of a jerk, and the most satisfying thing about Anna Karenina is the sickening crunch about 700 pages in – or it would be, that is, if you hadn’t already spent weeks of your life reading Anna Karenina. More contemporary works haven’t fared much better. Vanity Fair famously referred to Lolita as “the only convincing love story of [the twentieth] century.” Shall I compare thee to Dolores Haze? Probably best if I didn’t.
Yet nothing has the power to sweep readers away like a love story. For all my griping, even I am not immune – the very book that I am currently trying to write is unabashedly romantic. (As am I in general, it turns out. The cabbage is made all the more syrupy for my presence.) And when I think about love stories of any century that truly are convincing, the work of one author comes to mind. The author is JR Ackerley, and the love he writes about is that which he shares with a mischievous German shepherd alternatively known as Evie, Tulip, or Queenie.
Ackerley led an intrinsically interesting life. He was born in London in 1896, served in World War I, and spoke and wrote with unflinching candor about his life as an openly gay man. To call this an act of bravery is an understatement – Ackerley died in 1967, a little over one month before the Sexual Offenses Act decriminalized homosexual acts in the United Kingdom. Try as he might (and he did), he never found the “ideal friend” he desired – at least not in the human form he had envisioned. Instead, he found his dog, abandoned his search for romantic love, and would later describe their shared years as the happiest of his life.
Ackerley graced his readers with two books about the remarkable bond he shared with Queenie (for that was her real name) – the memoir My Dog Tulip and the autobiographical novel We Think the World of You. They complement one another, telling different sides of the same story. My Dog Tulip depicts JR and Queenie well into their comfortable companionship; We Think the World of You is a mildly fictionalized account of how Ackerley came to acquire Queenie (here known as Evie) from a former lover who was imprisoned for petty theft. Initially, Ackerley’s interest in Queenie is tied to his interest in her owner. This interest soon morphs into something else. From We Think the World of You:
She was certainly a pretty dog, I had never seen a prettier, stone gray with a black tunic and her face most elegantly marked. Her nose and lips were sooty, as also were the rims of her bright brown eyes, above which tiny black eyebrow tufts were set like accents, and in the middle of her forehead was a dark vertical streak like a Hindu caste mark.
At a subsequent visit this curiosity deepens – Ackerley is learning to let Queenie into his heart separately from her owner:
It’s the ears of course, I thought. They compelled, those tall shafts constantly turned upon me, an attention they seemed unremittingly to give. Yet was it due only to that, this feeling I had with her again of being not merely watched but communicated with?
When he learns of the harsh living conditions Queenie endures with his lover’s father and neglectful mother, the plot of the novel kicks into gear:
But my mind recoiled at the thought of that ugly runt taking off his belt to the playful affectionate creature. Then hope constantly springing, constantly dashed…. She would gaze longingly at her lead on the wall, go over to it to investigate it with her black nose, employ all her little arts to draw attention to her needs, and get nothing, nothing, be told to be patient, to “lay down”, which was all she ever did.
The two become increasingly inseparable, and it is with a satisfied relief that the reader learns that Ackerley is able to purchase Queenie outright by the book’s end.
Without the drama of a custody battle and an imprisoned lover, Ackerley turns his attention more fully on Queenie in My Dog Tulip. The closeness of his gaze is sometimes startling – page upon page is devoted to the intricacies of Queenie’s love life or her bodily eliminations. But there’s something about this that is oddly magical: He observes her, rather than try to explain or understand her. She is a dog, and he extends to her the freedom to be nothing more. Her canineness is something Ackerley cherishes. He makes little attempt to correct her sometimes-befuddling instinctual behavior, even at the expense of his relationships with human friends. And throughout each book, he writes about her with a warmth and compassion that bursts from every sentence. He loves her for exactly what she is – it just so happens that she’s a dog. But isn’t that what true love means?
One of the most telling moments in My Dog Tulip comes at the end – the very last sentence of the appendix, to be precise, written after the Queenie had passed away. Ackerley is so wrecked by Queenie’s death, his pain so fresh, that he can’t bear to linger on it at all: “Whatever blunders I may have committed in my management of this animal’s life, she lived on to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half.” In a way, that’s more heartbreaking than the endings of a thousand Marley and Mes.
I should confess, at this point, that I have a deeply personal reason for loving and relating to these books – the intensity of Ackerley’s love for Queenie bears more than a passing resemblance to the relationship I have with my cat Pyewacket, and her sister, Mab.
When Pye and Mab clawed their way into my life, I had no intentions of being a pet owner. I was staying at home with my parents for the summer. I was mired in a loveless relationship that was failing even as we were planning a cross-country move. I was working three jobs, at an average of 50 hours per week. And then, one work-free afternoon, my mother found a pair of week-old kittens tucked away in the garden. They were helpless, in every sense of the word. Their eyes were unopened. They hadn’t been weaned from their mother’s milk. They both could fit comfortably in the palm of my hand.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, I tried to reunite the kittens with their mother. I set and baited a live trap, and let myself dream of delivering a stray cat and her family into the arms of some loving Wisconsin family. Adding fuel to my fantasy, the mother even made an appearance at one point – she darted over to the box in which I had nestled the kittens and shot off with one of them into the cornfield behind my childhood home. She must have sensed my watchful presence, though, for she never returned to make a second trip. Reluctantly, I left the remaining kitten and set out for a late-night shift tending bar at a local restaurant. When I returned in the dead of the night, the kitten was still in her box, shivering among the dishtowels I’d included for lining. Feeling I had little else to do, I took her inside and mixed together a crude formula of milk, yogurt, and molasses, which I fed to her from a small plastic syringe.
In the coming weeks, I would interrupt my day every few hours to repeat this procedure, quickly subbing out the milk-and-yogurt for a vet-approved product called KMR, for Kitten Meal Replacement. After feeding her, I would wipe the kitten with a damp cloth, simulating her mother’s tongue, in the hopes that I could coax out a dribble of urine or feces. It was difficult and time-consuming work, and I spent the first few days calling local animal shelters and cat rehabilitators to see if anyone was willing to take her on. Nobody was – rearing a kitten from so young an age requires commitments of time and money that few are willing to make. One shelter I spoke to told me that I could drop her off, but that they wouldn’t be able to do anything for her, the clear implication being that she would be euthanized. This before she had even opened her eyes.
So I persevered. I started calling her Pyewacket, or Pye, after an old movie starring Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. I held her to my chest and let her crawl around on my lap. I stroked her fur with the tip of my finger until she started to purr. I left myself hastily-scribbled notes detailing the times and perceived quality of her bowel movements. I was told that there was a fifty percent chance that she would die before she was six weeks old.
She didn’t, of course. When she opened her eyes at two weeks, I was the first thing she saw. In that moment, I consigned myself to being a cat owner for the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, I was her mother. She still regards me as such.
As she grew larger and stronger, she became increasingly rambunctious. This is a common phenomenon among bottle-raised kittens. Without the stabilizing influence of siblings with whom to socialize, cats can become rather vicious. This is through no fault of their own. They simply never have the opportunity to learn about what does and does not hurt. So Pyewacket bit and clawed and hunted with abandon. At six weeks old, she was a sharp and fuzzy menace.
Something miraculous happened then. One afternoon, I discovered an equally tiny kitten huddled under an overturned wheelbarrow in the backyard. A sibling. She was rail-thin and malnourished, with clumps of dirt matting and dulling her beautiful tabby coat. She was terrified of me, and is a skittish little creature to this day (likewise, Pye is still alarmingly fond of hunting me). But she readily accepted food, and purred in spite of herself when I leaned over her and ran my fingers through her fur. After a few cautionary days of quarantine and a flurry of vet visits, Pye was reintroduced to her sister, who was given the aspirational name of Mab. We three have been together ever since, with Mary Cate finally coaxing Mab out of her shell shortly after we started to date.
There’s something especially beautiful about the love we share with our pets. It’s love at its most pure – as undeserved as it is unconditional. Perhaps it’s my experience with my cats. Perhaps it’s because I’m lucky enough to be living my own story of unconditional love with Mary Cate. But if you’re itching for a romance, I recommend that you set down that overwrought novel about the star-crossed doofuses. You won’t find a better love story than that of JR Ackerley and his dog “Tulip.”