I See Your Pet Lover and Raise You J.R. Ackerley

Natural disasters, especially hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy, always bring forth, besides flooding, stories of dedicated pet lovers, of dogs, cats and mynah birds rescued and cared for in myriad ways by their doting owners, nay, family members. In that spirit, I bring you J. R. Ackerley and Queenie.

Today…Ackerley is remembered primarily as a memoirist and a bombardier. He produced four books: three memoirs—“Hindoo Holiday” (1932), “My Dog Tulip” (1956), “My Father and Myself” (1968)—and a novel, “We Think the World of You” (1960)…In them, he wrote candidly and profoundly about homosexuality, a sensitive topic at the time….But eventually homosexuality came to be overshadowed in Ackerley’s work by another subject: his passion for his dog, a German shepherd named Queenie….Ackerley may have chosen the love of a dog—like Humbert Humbert’s emotion, a true passion—…to confront his readers with the image of a wild love, a crazy love, something that could make them truly uncomfortable….Homosexuality, however taboo, was not extraordinary in Ackerley’s time, whereas, even in England, a romantic passion for a dog would have been regarded as bizarre….

It cannot be said that he eventually chose a dog as his primary subject in order to slip under the wire of censorship. Nevertheless, the fact that Queenie was not human did allow him to say things that could not otherwise be said. When, in “My Dog Tulip,” Tulip (Queenie) goes into heat, we hear about the hordes of male dogs stampeding across the park to take advantage of her availability. None of them achieved their goal. Still, Ackerley writes, these were not wasted encounters, for Tulip “clearly enjoyed being pleasured by their little warm tongues.” Canine cunnilingus! In 1956, English readers probably did not expect to be hearing about this….

Was Queenie a substitute for a human love? Yes, Ackerley says, or she was at the start. She gave him everything that his lovers wouldn’t, above all constancy, “a background,” he wrote to a friend, “of secure, unalterable devotion, which my nature needed.” As he worked at his desk at night, she sat in his easy chair and gazed at him unceasingly. By his account, the fifteen years he spent with her were the happiest of his life, and his relationship with her made him ashamed of his earlier erotic history…

Something that is hard to explain is why Ackerley fell in love with a female dog. He was decidedly misogynist, and yet he not only chose a girl; he stressed her girlishness. In his books, he speaks of Queenie’s coquetry, and of her jealousy, which he regards as a female characteristic. He describes her sexual anatomy in embarrassing (to me) detail. P. N. Furbank offers the theory that she was a needed substitute, in disguised, furry form, for what Ackerley really wanted: a woman. I don’t believe that. I think it’s more likely that what he wanted was just a piece of the feckless, date-cancelling boyfriend, Freddie Doyle (the incarcerated Johnny of “We Think the World”), who was Queenie’s owner when Ackerley met her. She was a female, and so Ackerley, in buying her from Freddie, acquired a female. Only when he learned to love her did he love her femininity.

All this made some readers wonder whether Ackerley had sex with Queenie. We should not be shy about bringing up this matter. He wasn’t. In “My Father and Myself,” he recalls that a friend of his asked him the question and that he was glad to be able to answer without a fuss. When Queenie was in heat, he said, he pressed his hand “against the hot swollen vulva she was always pushing at me at these times, taking her liquids into my palm.” That was all. According to Peter Parker, another friend is reported to have asked Ackerley the same question, and got a slightly fuller answer. “A little finger-work,” Ackerley said.

Note:  Excerpts from Joan Acocella‘s ‘A Dog’s Life: How A Writer Discovered His Greatest Subject, The New Yorker, 7 February 2011.

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