The Ugly Dachshund, by G.B. Stern, published by J.N. Townsend, Exeter, New Hampshire. To order, please phone 603-778-9883 or 800-333-9883. $15, paperback, 1998.
Fifty years ago, in 1938, as Great Britain began to hear the first distant rumblings of the Second World War, author G.B. Stern diverted her readers’ attention with her charming book The Ugly Dachshund. The book was met with public delight and critical acclaim. Sadly, as the horrors of the War overcame the country, this little gem was put out of mind and soon forgotten altogether.
Happily for all of us (especially for those of us who spent much of our childhoods with a beloved wiener dog) J.N. Townsend Publishing has revived Stern’s book and offered a whole new generation of readers the opportunity to discover it. Published as the first in a new series of ‘Forgotten Classic Animal Books’ in their ‘Books for Animal Lovers’ collection, The Ugly Dachshund is bound to regain its place as a literary classic.
As the title implies, the story is a take on the ‘Ugly Duckling’ theme–only this time it is a Great Dane who is raised believing he is a dachshund. In the fairy-tale backdrop of of a Provençal villa, the lumbering Tono never feels as if he quite belongs to the world of his sleek, low-to-the-ground companions, Mother Elsa and her children Eva, Erda, and the twins Fafnir and Wotan. Why, he wonders, ‘when the others squeezed their yards of boneless body through the wooden slats of the fence separating the villa grounds from the road … did he always get bruised and hurt?’ The actions of the ‘Legs’, as the dogs call their masters, only compound his sorrow. Why do they ‘not fondle and pet him, using small foolish endearments, but hit him in a hearty fashion, with phrases of robust affection’?
The story follows the family through the arrival of a ‘Relative Legs’ and her canine companion, an aging Belgian griffon called Voltaire. His morose, philosophical disposition serves as the perfect foil to Tono’s puppyish naivety. Through Voltaire’s well-travelled and sophisticated voice we hear the only mention of the impending doom of the War when he sadly informs Elsa that the Germany he has seen is no longer the idyllic land she recounts in stories to her children.
G.B. (Gladys) Stern, a noted Jane Austen scholar, has expertly applied her experience with human comedies of manners to the world of dogs. The result is one of the most delightful satires I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. With skill to match that of the best British satirists, Stern endows her canine characters with personalities every bit as engaging as Austen’s Emma or Benson’s Lucia. But Stern was a good enough writer to know her bounds. She does not, as so many animal book authors have the tendency to do, allow her story to become sappy. Indeed, as H.S. Canby aptly noted in his 1938 Saturday Review of Literature review, ‘Unlike classic dog stories, this one is entirely unsentimental, indeed is a parody of sentiment … Excellent reading.’ I agree.
Leigh Ann Berry