Austen, Heyer, & the Prince of Orange: Pugs in Literature and History

About thirty years ago, the fashionable lapdog was the Dutch-Pug; every old Duchess in the kingdom had three or four, and these ugly little animals were the ladies’ favourites from the accession of William the Third to the death of George the Second.
(The Sporting Magazine, 1803.)

Pietro Benvenuti Ritratto di Elena Mastiani Brunacci 1809

Portrait of Elena Mastiani Brunacci by Pietro Benvenuti, 1809.
(Palazzo Pitti)

Pugs feature in many of our favorite Regency novels and, in most of them, the cheerful little dog, which currently ranks 32nd most popular breed in the United States, is not portrayed in a very flattering light.  Instead of the “happy, even-tempered companion” that the United Kennel Club refers to in their breed standard, the Pugs of literature are generally depicted as spoiled, temperamental little brutes.  As illustrated in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, their presence in a novel tends to symbolize the very worst in upper-class indolence.  Austen describes the character of Lady Bertram thusly:

“She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children.”  (Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814.)

The phrase “of little use and no beauty” might just as easily be applied to the character of Pug herself.  Content to while away her life sitting on the sofa with her mistress, her only exercise the occasional bout of mischief making in the flower beds, Pug is nothing like the noble hounds and energetic spaniels we have grown accustomed to seeing in period literature.

Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna, 1759.

Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna, 1759.
by Louis-Michel van Loo
(Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)

In the novels of Georgette Heyer, the portrayal of Pugs is not much better than that in Austen.  In fact, it is uniformly negative.  The much-maligned little canine is usually associated with elderly dowagers and, more often than not, the bane of every young person who crosses their threshold.

“[My grandmother has] a pug-dog,” says Gil Ringwood to Hero, Lady Sheringham, in Friday’s Child.  “Nasty, smelly little brute.  Took a piece out of my leg once.  You could take it for walks.  Wants exercising.  At least, it did when last I saw it.  Of course, it may be dead by now.  Good thing if it is.” (Friday’s Child, Georgette Heyer, 1944.)

As luck would have it, the Pug in question has not yet been “gathered to its fathers,” but is indeed very much alive. Upon catching sight of the snuffling, snorting creature, Lord Sheringham informs his wife:

“I’ll be hanged if I’ll have an overfed little brute like that in my house! If you want a dog, I’ll give you one, but I warn you, it won’t be a pug!”

Young Lady in A Boat James Tissot

Young Lady in a Boat by James Tissot, 1870.

In contrast to those featured in Austen and Heyer, the Pugs of history are much beloved little fellows.  The most famous of their ranks is undoubtedly Pompey, the Pug belonging to William the Silent, Prince of Orange.  Sir Roger Williams recounts the following anecdote about Pompey in his book Actions in the Low Countries (1618):

William the Silent Prince of Orange

William I, Prince of Orange, 1579.
by Adriaen Thomasz Key
(Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum)

“The Prince of Orange being retired into the camp, Julian Romero, with earnest persuasions, procured licence of the Duke D’Alva to hazard a camisado, or night attack, upon the Prince.  At midnight, Julian sallied out of the trenches with a thousand armed men, mostly pikes, who forced all the guards that they found in their way into the place of arms before the Prince’s tent, and killed two of his secretaries; the Prince himself escaping very narrowly, for I have often heard him say, that he thought, but for a dog, he had been taken or slain.  The attack was made with such resolution, that the guards took no alarm until their fellows were running to the place of arms, with their enemies at their heels; when this dog, hearing a great noise, fell to scratching and crying, and awakened him before any of his men…The Prince, to shew his gratitude until his dying day, kept one of that dog’s race, and so did many of his friends and followers.”

The Pug went on to become the favored dog of European royalty, including monarchs William and Mary whose Pugs, wearing orange ribbons to signify the House of Orange, travelled with them from Holland when they came to ascend the English throne in 1688. The Empress Josephine was also a Pug fancier. Her Pug, Fortune, is famous for having carried messages for her while she was imprisoned during the revolution. Marie Antoinette had a beloved Pug named Mops. And Queen Victoria, a noted lover of dogs, had a veritable herd of Pugs.

Royal Group at Balmoral, 1887.

Royal Group at Balmoral, 1887.
(Royal Trust Collection)

With their protruding eyes and corkscrew tail, the Pug may not be precisely the sort of dog you would like to see in your next historical romance – either as a writer or as a reader – but I would urge you to reconsider.  Despite their unfortunate characterization in many Regency novels of the past, Pugs continue to be in actual fact little dogs of great courage, possessed of boundless affection, and an unending reservoir of good cheer.

Blonde and Brunette by Charles Burton Barber, 1879.

Thus concludes another Friday feature on Animals in Literature and History.  To learn more about Pugs or to adopt a Pug of your own, I encourage you to visit the following sites:

The Pug Dog Club of America (United States)

The Pug Dog Welfare & Rescue Association (United Kingdom) 


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

American Kennel Club. The Complete Dog Book. New York: Ballantine, 2006.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Coren, Stanley, and Andy Bartlett. The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events. New York: Free, 2002.

Heyer, Georgette. Friday’s Child. New York: Putnam, 1971.

“Origin of Dutch Pugs; Or the Prince of Orange’s Favourite.” Sporting Magazine.  Volume 19.  Oct. 1803.

Rice, Dan. Pugs. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 2009.

Williams, Roger. The Actions of the Low Countries. Ithaca, NY: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Cornell UP, 1964.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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18 thoughts on “Austen, Heyer, & the Prince of Orange: Pugs in Literature and History

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    My aunt [a courtesy title; she was my great-aunt’s best friend at school] had pugs and pekes and the pugs smelled of bad breath and were inclined to get upset tummies at the drop of a hat, but were affectionate. The pekes were nasty-tempered, yappy and quite psychotic. Both, of course, like Persian cats, have been bred for their flat faces and big eyes for a more anthropomorphic look, which causes them tremendous medical problems as well as tending to be inbred. I suspect that untreated medical conditions may be a source of the bad press they have. Pekes of course were bred, like Siamese cats, to be temple guard dogs before their appearence attracted western attention, so aggression is part of their makeup. I believe there’s a familial connection between pugs and King Charles spaniels, which are notoriously nice-natured.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    Though to add to that, in point of fact any dog which is overfed and fed the wrong food is going to have internal problems, which is not going to improve their disposition. Nobody feels happy with a sore inside… and I suspect the pug is a literary short cut to show up the shortcomings of the foolish mistress more than it is a slur upon the dog….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re exactly right, Sarah. I believe that certain dogs in novels are used more symbolically. It is a little bit like the heroine who reads Wollstonecraft – a literary shorthand if you will. The unfortunate thing is that in many Regencies it’s the Pug who suffers from the characterization. There are bad apples within every dog breed – just like with people! – but having done a great deal of animal rescue volunteering in my day, I can say that in general Pugs, no matter how desperate their circumstance, are some of the sweetest dogs and the most anxious to please and to be loved.

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        It’s a small world… I’m in animal rescue too, mostly cats, but I homecheck for dogs too. Our cats only have two slaves – hubby and me. unfortunately we have M.E. so we can’t have dogs as we can’t guarantee to walk them every day…. maybe we’ll fetch up with a three legged pug one day, lol!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I’ve met so many literary scholars, writers, and historians that are somehow affiliated with animal rescue or animal welfare causes. It’s really wonderful. Perhaps the level of empathy we have with characters from the past or characters in our novels is the same sensibility that pushes us to help needy animals?

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  3. 19thcenturylady says:

    Love this post! My mother had pugs for years. Her last two – Elvis and Priscilla were rescues and lived well into their teens, horribly spoiled and adored by all. One of my coworkers has a pug named Otis who is perhaps the most spoiled dog on earth. She buys choice cuts of meat and cooks them with vegetables for him every day. But he is terribly cute and sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my article! I came across so many examples in history of outrageously spoiled pugs and really debated about whether to include them in my article. The best tidbit was that Josephine’s Pug, Fortune, rode in a separate carriage whenever they travelled (Napoleon didn’t like him) and had a whole team of servants assigned just to him at enormous cost. The things we do for our pets! Thank you for commenting 🙂

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  4. Angelyn says:

    Queen Victoria’s pug dog looks like her. Made me think of the movie, Best in Show. A hiliarious look at our empathy with dogs–Harlan Pepper and his bloodhound Hubert is my favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      He does look like her a little bit! I love the movie Best in Show. I last saw it a long time ago, but still remember the song, “God loves a terrier…” Too funny. Thanks for commenting, Angelyn 🙂

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  5. Judith Laik says:

    I enjoyed your article, Mimi, and especially the images you found to illustrate it. I hadn’t seen any of them before. Pugs are indeed little charmers for the most part. Those that aren’t can for the most part be chalked up to their owners’ shortcomings. And it is worth noting that the extreme “push-face” they have today would not have been the appearance of pugs in the Regency period, when they were much more moderate in appearance. For a couple other examples, here’s a link to a self-portrait of William Hogarth and his pug, around 1745: http://goo.gl/a5Pz5G. And another link, to the Knebworth House Gallery, where you can find a painting of Mrs. Bulwer Lytton’s pug (I don’t know whether they shift the images around on different viewing, but it was 2nd from the left on the top row when I went there): http://goo.gl/vurYwi. Mrs. Bulwer Lytton (died 1843) was the mother of the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton. You’ll note that the dog is an entirely different type, with much longer and finer-boned legs. It is more typical of the dogs of that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mimi Matthews says:

    Thank you so much for commenting, Judith! I am glad you enjoyed my article. I almost included a bit about Hogarth’s Pug, Trump, but to keep the piece from becoming too long I edited it down to just the Royal Pugs. Some of the older Pug pics remind me, in size and style, a tiny bit of the Border Terrier. Here is one from 1802 in which the Pug bears little resemblance to the Pug of today:

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  7. Karen Talley says:

    Thank you SO much for this post. I often grit my teeth when reading descriptions of pugs in books. I was given my first pug at age 12. She was in very bad shape and my dad (who did NOT believe in animals in the house) said that I could only keep her outside. I think she may have been outside for a few hours after I got her home. When I made my summer trip to my grandparents home, I was told the same thing….with the same result. In her old age, she rode on my motorcycle with me (backpack and goggles), went hiking with me (in a backpack), and even had a customized doggie seat for convertible rides. I have had many pugs since then and always people who “hate pugs” change their minds once they have been around these adorable little critters. Almost all of my pugs have been rescues and even though some have come from horrible situations, they remained sweet and loving. BTW, I have a print of “Young Lady in a Boat” in my bedroom. A friend found it in a flea market for me and I just love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Karen (and for participating in rescue!). I am so glad you liked my article. Pugs make wonderful pets. I don’t understand the abnormal prejudice some people have against them, but I hope that learning a bit about their illustrious history might help to change a mind or two 🙂

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