PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

Slipping the Leash: Lady Bertram’s Lapdog

Sally B. Palmer


Sally B. Palmer (email:, associate professor of English at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, is a lifelong fan of Jane Austen and has published several articles on her novels.


much current discussion of animals in fiction mentions the anthropocentrism with which past authors viewed animals.    By this yardstick, pet lapdogs tended to be disparaged as useless in British fiction, by Austen as well as other writers.  But analyzing the uses to which Austen puts her lapdog in the didactic Mansfield Park shows that these small canines can carry a heavy load indeed.


Imagine an artistic representation of Mansfield Park.  It would show the Bertram family in their palatial home at Mansfield Park.  Standing in front of a massive fireplace are the men, Sir Thomas Bertram and his two sons, Tom and Edmund.  In the foreground, seated submissively on the sofa, is Lady Bertram as the mistress of the house, flanked by her two daughters and her niece, Fanny Price.  Front and center, in his place of honor on Lady Bertram’s lap, is her ubiquitous pug.  What does Austen mean by including Lady Bertram’s pug in almost every Bertram family scene?  Is the pug simply a stereotypical signifier of wealthy and indolent women, and an aspersion on Lady Bertram’s neglectful motherhood?  Or, given the complex symbolism of lapdogs during the nineteenth century, is there something more?  A closer look at the lapdog in Mansfield Park in the light of recent work on literary pets of the period suggests that the answer to both questions is “yes.”  Austen’s pug sets a standard for those in later canonical novels by writers like Gaskell, the Brontës, Dickens, and Eliot, in not only commenting on the character who owns it, but by subtly making larger socio-political statements on behalf of its author as well.  As the century progresses, that comment will become increasingly critical of traditional male/female relationships, class structure, and the colonialist enterprise.


An author as perceptive and well-read as Jane Austen was in 1814 could not but be aware of the multiple and conflicting rhetorical uses being made of household pets by other authors.  Situated on the boundary between human and beast, between nature and culture, between rural and urban life, and between Englishness and the exotic, literary lap dogs during the nineteenth century evoke a number of vexed social issues and sites of change and anxiety.  In Mansfield Park, a presumed paean to conservatism and stasis, Austen situates Lady Bertram’s pug at a conflicted nexus right at the epicenter of the place forming the title subject for her novel.  In doing so, while seemingly acquiescing in traditional anthropocentric attitudes and treatments of the lapdog as a rich lady’s toy, she also subtly highlights most of the revolutionary issues of the day: women’s nature and place, social class, nationalism and the Empire, Darwinian physiognomy, religion and morality, urbanization, and slavery.  The deftness with which she inserts this extraordinary image at the center of her novel suggests a social awareness and agenda that propels Austen, herself a socially marginalized figure, far beyond her own traditional place on the sofa, and into the forefront of nineteenth-century politics.


Literary representations of pet dogs at the beginning of the nineteenth century served an array of differing rhetorical purposes.  Nandita Batra shows that children’s fable writers traditionally anthropomorphized dogs, showing them as selfish and greedy, like the dog in the manger, or noble and self-sacrificing.  These openly didactic fables were used to illustrate morals for human behavior.  Other fables showed children how they should treat animals: kindly but not too tenderly.  Animals in this kind of genre constructed human identity by symbolizing what humans are and are not.  They accord with Bettelheim’s observation that the animal in art is rhetorical, showing the values and problems of human society (Batra 101).


At first Lady Bertram’s pug seems to follow both prongs of this fabular tradition.  Austen never tries to personalize the dog individually, showing it only in conjunction with its owner, the better to compare the two.  She points up the faults in Lady Bertram’s character not so much by anthropomorphizing the pug, as by caninizing its owner.  Yet she judges the dog’s personality, along with Lady Bertram’s, by using human standards of behavior.  The pug is lazy, selfish, and worthless; it sits and dozes on the couch all day rather than accomplishing some constructive purpose.  This is the criticism Austen makes of Lady Bertram, who is “too indolent even to accept a mother’s gratification” (35) and who “hold[s] exercise to be as unnecessary for every body as it was unpleasant to herself” (36).


Austen also uses Lady Bertram’s treatment of the pug to give a moral lesson in how dogs should not be treated.  She describes Lady Bertram disapprovingly as “thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter, when it did not put herself to inconvenience” (19-20).  Here Austen accords with the traditional Christian view, based on the Great Chain of Being, of mankind’s superiority to brutes.  People should strive not to resemble the inferior creatures below them, nor to treat them as equals.  She shows Lady Bertram treating her pug like a baby, always in her lap or in her arms, and being exhausted by her day’s work of “'sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower beds'” (74) much as a young mother spends her afternoons watching a toddler.  And in the ultimate evocation of a monarch traditionally rewarding a loyal swain by inducting him into the family with the gift of a daughter, Lady Bertram says, “'I will tell you what, Fanny, the next time pug has a litter you shall have a puppy'” (333).  All this, added to the failures of Lady Bertram’s children, serves to illustrate the moral that a woman’s duty is to mother her children, not to waste her time with pets.


Austen’s treatment of horses in Mansfield Park is equally fabular; she uses them to contrast their usefulness with the redundancy of the lapdog.  Edmund says several times that “'Fanny must have a horse'” (36), but only as he might today have determined to procure for Fanny a treadmill or cross-training machine: as “the immediate means of exercise” (37).  Human control of the horse’s behavior is always emphasized, as in the phrases “Edmund presided at the whole” of the riding session (66), “management of the bridle” (67), and “'Horsemanship has a good deal to do with the mind'” (69).  When Mary Crawford wants horses to transport her harp, it is inconceivable that such a whim should be allowed to take horses from their vital role in bringing home the harvest.  Obviously, a woman’s relationship with animals ought (and Mansfield Park is filled with oughts) to be driven by practicality and usefulness, and hallmarked by control, rather than by pampering, coddling, or feeding with sweetmeats, as Lady Bertram does with her pug.


Moving on in genre from fables to poetry, we note Katherine McDonogh’s argument that pet dogs in the French Revolution were shown both to be superior to kennel dogs, in being pedigreed and therefore elite, and to symbolize the idle and dissolute aristocracy (Marie Antoinette had a pug).  Lady Bertram’s pug shows that Austen partook of both sides of this conflicted attitude, in suggesting Lady Bertram’s rank as well as her idleness.  Ayres-Ricker points out that literary dogs indicate their master’s social standing and are projections or completions of their masters’ characters (23).  Accordingly, Austen readers are clearly to associate the Bertram pug with its mistress’s caste and personality.  Lady Bertram’s position in life as mistress of a gracious country estate earns respect from Austen, else she would not have contrasted it so favorably with the lot of the younger sister Frances in Portsmouth, nor would she have conferred the position as reward upon her heroine Fanny at the end of the novel.  A good pedigree is also desirable; Lady Bertram takes pains with her pug’s breeding, just as she should have done with her children’s marriages.  Austen’s respect for the pug’s aristocratic position is shown in the dog’s survival at Mansfield Park to the end of the novel, when those who have demonstrated unworthiness through lack of good breeding, such as Tom, Maria, Julia, and aunt Norris, have all been banished to other venues.  Yet the pug also symbolizes the decadence and laziness of the idle rich.  Austen uses the dog ambiguously to comment negatively on Lady Bertram’s “health, wealth, ease and tranquility” (126), even as she shows her breeding to be superior to those of her more vigorous but poorer sisters.


Beth Dixon points out that women being connected to animals in literature shows that women are bodily, natural, and emotional, therefore closer to being animals themselves than men are (181).  Looking at Mansfield Park through this lens, we can readily see that Lady Bertram is far more “natural,” “emotional,” and “bodily” than her husband or Edmund.  Austen’s narrator refers to her as Fanny’s "kinder" aunt (167), and observes that her own physical comfort is always "uppermost in Lady Bertram’s mind” (218).  Her intellect is clearly subordinate to her emotions; Fanny sees that “if her aunt’s feelings were against her, nothing could be hoped from attacking her understanding” (333).  “Lady Bertram did not think deeply,” our narrator informs us (409); Sir Thomas does all her thinking for her.  Indeed, like a pet dog, the only time the gentle and submissive Lady Bertram is roused near animation or agitation is when her master returns.  It is disturbingly easy to envision Mansfield Park’s other women as canines, as well.  If Lady Bertram is a somnolent and selfish but affectionate lapdog, aunt Norris is an annoying terrier, constantly yapping and running around in circles to call attention to herself.  Fanny herself evokes a spaniel, silently but insistently curled up in her place by the hearth, resistant to any attempts to dislodge her, and responsive only to her master, Edmund.  Mary Crawford, of course, can’t be anything but a spoiled, citified poodle.  This being so, we may well question whether Austen is not, like other novelists of her time, using Lady Bertram’s dog as a subtle trope for feminine virtues and vices.


Austen’s selection of the pug breed in particular may have something to do with the fact that, as Jodi Wyett points out, pugs originated with William and Mary, and as such symbolized the triumph of Protestantism and Englishness, whereas certain other popular lap breeds came from the Orient, or from Papist European countries (278).  Certainly Mansfield Park is meant to be envisioned as a bastion of both Englishness and Protestant faith.  A further characteristic of the pug is that it was extensively and purposefully bred by owners: a triumph of human manipulation, dominance, and colonization, if you will.  This fact subtly nods to Sir Thomas Bertram’s status as a colonizer and slaveowner in Antigua, as well as to his position in the British aristocracy and government.  Harriet Ritvo quotes one 1803 book as saying pugs are quarrelsome, noisy, deceitful and snappish, a characterization puzzlingly more in keeping with aunt Norris than with Lady Bertram.  Yet she also observes that the pug was used by authors to symbolize the state of being beloved.  Ritvo tells us that pugs, favored by royalty, were considered “aristocratic” and thus disparaged in some democratic quarters (241).  She also notes the popularity of natural history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a pastime studied by Rosemary Jann, who reports that there was an animal moral hierarchy based on physiognomy and aligned with human social strata (Jann 90).  Animal breeds and human races with the flattest faces were highest on the moral and social ladder.  The pug, featuring perhaps the flattest face in dogdom, thus represents the aristocratic epitome of canine life.


There is another critical view of petkeeping, both historical and literary, in the early nineteenth century.  One such view, iterated by Kete, proposes that petkeeping arose as a response to the problems of modernity.  With urbanization, people no longer had the space or the need to surround themselves with farmyard or working animals.  They thus turned to smaller household pets, as a symbolic reminder of the herds and hunters of a previous lifestyle.  A country estate such as Mansfield Park still kept its own outdoor hounds and horses, so there would have been no need for Lady Bertram’s pug to substitute for these, except as an update to remind readers that times were changing; that massive rural family seats were an endangered species.  It is commonly observed that Austen wrote the novel as an idyll in response to the growing threats of urbanization and secularity.  If so, the presence of the pug in Lady Bertram’s bosom signifies a worm at the heart of traditional British family ideals, as alarming in its way as the “improvements” at Sotherton, the discontinuance of family prayers in the chapel, the laxness of marital behavior, and the enacting of “Lover’s Vows” in the billiard room at Mansfield Park.


A second way in which petkeeping evokes modernity, according to Kete, is that when the master left the farm to work at a factory, shop, or office outside the home, his wife adopted a lapdog to substitute for his companionship during the day.  Fosso adds the anxieties of revolution and reform to domestic and religious upheavals in accounting for the turning to animals in the search for new connections and comforts to replace disappearing human communities (3).  Certainly there is a sense of loss inherent in the melancholy that perpetually surrounds Fanny Price.  She is constantly mourning the loss of family closeness and solidarity, the loss of family worship and common moral values, and the loss of principles.  Perhaps these losses, undoubtedly more inchoate in Lady Bertram, yet accompanied by the physical absence of her husband, have been assuaged by the constant faithfulness of the little dog at her side on the sofa.  If so, the pug, while an understandable presence, still evokes and symbolizes the evils of modernity which it has been adopted to alleviate.  While it performs its office admirably in comforting Lady Bertram, it cannot prevent the family from falling apart.  Women who seek new community with animals to replace the old, damaged human communities, Austen thus warns, are retreating from their responsibilities.


The pug, then, nestled so comfortably in his mistress’s lap, is for readers not only a sign of opprobrium for Lady Bertram’s selfish inaction, but an indictment of Sir Thomas, for absenting himself from the family due to colonialist imperatives.  Symbolizing the colonized and enslaved and even the marginalized because of sex, the pug points the finger, or perhaps we should say the paw, of blame at the patriarchy for keeping women like Lady Bertram confined and bored into a lifetime stupor.  It also reprimands traditional culture for keeping women like her daughters Maria and Julia repressed to the point where they erupt in rebellion against strictures of all kinds, especially those prescribing lives as human lapdogs for themselves.  Pathetically bred out of any doggy usefulness as hunter or protector, the pug also inadvertently points up the loss of wildness and purposeful living that man’s meddlesome dominance and forced breeding have caused not only the animal kingdom but societies of imperialized humans as well.


What are we to do with the conflicting images of Lady Bertram’s pug?  On one hand, its association with Lady Bertram casts aspersions on her personality.  Yet she and her pet are also the repository for positive female values: soft submission to patriarchal authority, kindness, and acceptance of the fact that she will never leave home.  Austen can’t decide whether Lady Bertram is to be castigated for inaction, or revered for her kindness and affection for Fanny Price.  She and her lap dog epitomize idleness and the decadence of selfish wealth, but when contrasted with the bustling do-goodery of Aunt Norris and Fanny’s slatternly and quarrelsome mother Mrs. Price, she is still clearly the favored female model.


Austen rejects the sentimental anthropomorphism of other Romantic-era writers that attributes noble characteristics and human emotions to animals and attempts to enter into their lives and consciousness.  She would be aghast at modern views of the animal kingdom suggesting that animals have rights.  Yet her ambivalent positioning of the lapdog, so ripe with analogies and symbols, at the epicenter of Mansfield Park seems deliberately done.  She chose Lady Bertram’s pug, an icon with ready-made attributes, yet also a shape-shifting shadow of the encroaching future, to show affection for the past, to manifest acceptance of the present, and to evoke yet unknown truths about humanity’s changing future.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1988.

Ayres-Ricker, Brenda.  “Dogs in George Eliot’s Adam Bede.”  The George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Newsletter 18-19 (September 1991).

Batra, Nandita.  “Dominion, Empathy, and Symbiosis: Gender and Anthropocentrism in Romanticism.”  ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 3.2 (Fall 1996).  101-20.

Dixon, Beth A.  “The Feminist Connection Between Women and Animals.”  Environmental Ethics 18.2 (Summer 1996).

Fosso, Kurt.  “Sweet Influences: Animals and Social Cohesion in Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1794-1800.”  ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 2 (Summer 1999).  234-55.

Jann, Rosemary.  “Animal Analogies in the Construction of Class.”  Nineteenth Century Studies 8 (1994).  89-101.

Kete, Kathleen.  The Beast in the Boudoir: Pet-keeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

MacDonogh, Katherine.  “Prison Pets in the French Revolution.”  History Today 8.36 (August 1996).

Ritvo, Harriet.  “Animal Pleasures: Popular Zoology in Nineteenth-century England.”  Harvard Library Bulletin 33.3 (Summer 1985).  239-79.

Theobald-Hall, Sarah.  At the Borders of Humanity: Animals, Women, and the Antivivisection Movement.  1998.

Wyett, Jodi L.  “The Lap of Luxury: Lapdogs, Literature, and Social Meaning in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century.”  LIT 10, No. 4.


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