'Muses' pays homage to dogs behind 5 women of words

"Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte," by Maureen Adams; Ballantine Books; $24.95

Countless lovers who, lacking their own voice, relied on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous "Sonnets From the Portuguese" to woo their beloved should mutter silent thanks to a cocker spaniel named Flush.

Without the plucky pup's timely intervention, one of England's greatest poets might have succumbed to depression and never penned the immortal line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

Flush's contribution to Victorian literature is one of five short biographies in "Shaggy Muses," which details the profound and often unexplored influence a handful of canine companions had on five of the greatest voices in women's literature.

Psychologist and author Maureen Adams began exploring the intense bond between humans and dogs after the death of Cody, her beloved golden retriever. Adams' research led her to discover that her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, was also devastated by the loss of Carlo — her "shaggy ally" and "mute confederate."

"Shaggy Muses" is a solid academic work that still manages to be an entertaining read. Adams uses the authors' own words, sketches and photographs to document something many previous biographers missed: These women relied on their dogs for security, friendship and inspiration.

Dog lovers will, of course, lap it up.

But Adams' short profiles also offer enough new insight into the lives of five great authors to satisfy academics and aspiring authors seeking inspiration to develop their own voice.