Barking mad

Reigning Cats and Dogs

Katherine MacDonogh <em>Fourth Estate, 304pp, £15</em>

ISBN 1857025954

Garry Trudeau's long-running comic strip, Doonesbury, once had some fun with the aristocracy when his surfer, Zonker Harris, applied to become a lord. He did some mugging up with a friend, who, reading from a primer, asked him to complete the sentence: "The true British aristocrat is known by his . . . " Zonker offered "contempt for poor breeding". "Close," said his friend; the correct answer was "his love of dogs". It is the single most useful comment I have ever heard or read on the subject.

Everything in this book confirms it - and the subtle linkage that Trudeau's joke ("close . . .") implies between the ideas of human and canine breeding; ideas filed by their believers under the heading "genetic superiority". The inane title does the book a double disservice, then, in that not only does it suggest doltish royal- worship, but that the real nobs liked cats as well as dogs. They didn't, not much, for a cat may look at a king, and kings don't like that. At least not in the superior way that cats do. It is difficult to feel all high and mighty with a cat around.

This is an extraordinarily fact-packed and unusual book. It tells you all you ever wanted to know about how royal families across the globe felt about their pets. It is, at first, daunting and repellent. "The taste for unnecessary pets began at court," goes MacDonogh's first sentence; making you dispirited at the thought of the next 300 pages, a deadpan catalogue raisonne of the unnecessary. But our trivialities are the most revealing things about us, as she says at one point, quoting Chamfort.

MacDonogh runs straight through the details, scooting across epochs and dynasties (she's good on China, too), seeing everything through the lens of their devotion to, mainly, dogs. As the evidence accumulates, you realise that this is a history, not of zoophilia (in its asexual sense - you will look in vain for rumours of Catherine the Great and her horse), but of misanthropy. Rulers liked dogs not just because they hated people, but because everyone human hated them. You get a good sense of life at court, the labyrinthine network of contempt and paranoia that was the very air they breathed. There was often dog-shit in the air they breathed, too, especially at the court of Charles II, Grand Duke Peter of Russia, Kaiser William II (as he is called here) and the Maharajah of Darbhanga, where house-training was lax.

Having a dog was a way of testing your advisers' loyalty both by example and exasperation. Edward VII's dog, Caesar, object of a mawkish cult after his master's death, used to worry the Foreign Office assistant under-secretary's trousers during audiences. "I used to not to take the slightest notice," recalled the mandarin, "which I think amused His Majesty still more." Being a British toff, he thought Caesar "delightful". The king's mistress's daughter, Violet Keppel, hated the dog, which stank.

Royal pets have played larger parts in history than you might have thought. Edward himself considered Caesar a major obstacle to the entente cordiale; Prince Rupert's white poodle, Boy, was alleged by Roundheads to be not only black but a "Popish, profane Dog, more than halfe a divell, a kind of spirit", as well as multilingual, invulnerable and capable of hexing an entire army. The Parliamentarians rejoiced when Boy was shot at the Battle of Marston Moor. Stroehling's portrait of George III shows, in the distance, a statue of Charles II and, at George's feet, a devoted King Charles spaniel - a heavy-handed reminder that George III was in his rightful place, even if the portrait was painted in the year the legitimate Stuart line became extinct.

It is probably best not to speculate about MacDonogh's own position. (She is fond of mentioning Edward and Wallis Simpson, which makes me uneasy.) The book is so free of theorising and authorial comment that you suspect either iron self-control or a savage editorial hand. Let us assume the former. The research involved, the anecdotal richness, the generous and pertinent illustrations, point to it. The almost daring dryness of tone would indicate that her own opinions on royalty are irrelevant. You can take it any way you like. But as far as I'm concerned, I ended up hating royalty even more than I did already. It didn't make me any fonder of dogs, either.

Nicholas Lezard is writing a book about fun