Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog by Margaret Marshall Saunders


Margaret Marshall Saunders

Margaret Marshall Saunders

[Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Margaret Marshall Saunders’s first-person – or ‘first-dog’ – narrative, Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog (1893), was Canada’s first bestseller. A humanitarian campaigner, Saunders’s works represent cruelty and mistreatment to promote kindness towards all creatures. More than simply anthropomorphising animals, however, Saunders’s formal and thematic engagement with a number of discourses, ranging from pet keeping to millinery to moose hunting in North America, continues to highlight Beautiful Joe’s relevance as a novel that probes what it is to be an animal, and by extension, what it is to be human. 

Saunders was born in 1861 in Nova Scotia, Canada, to a family whose home in Halifax earned the nickname ‘Noah’s Ark’ due to its menagerie of animals. This love of animals coloured her life and fiction. Although she wrote different genres, her animal stories were most popular – Beautiful Joe, the story of a mutilated mutt rescued by the loving Morris family, sparked her success. Saunders entered her novel, which was inspired by a dog she met while visiting her brother in Meaford, Ontario, to the American Humane Education Society prize – and won. Saunders’s success as a writer led to significant accolades, including an honorary MA from Acadia University in 1911 and a CBE in 1934.  

Beautiful Joe’s focus on animal-human relationships reveals a political conscientiousness in line with other North American writers on animals, such as William J. Long, Charles G.D. Roberts, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Jack London, whom Saunders considered part of her ‘school.’ Labelled ‘Nature Fakers,’ these authors provocatively claimed their works represented truthful, realistic depictions of animal behaviour, unsettling established beliefs about animal intelligence and subjectivity. While Saunders acknowledged the dangers of her fiction, writing ‘that children should not read too many tales where non-human animals are endowed with human intelligence,’ Beautiful Joe seems to work as a potential variation of the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age narrative) – a genre that makes its own complex arguments about literary character, memory, development, and individuality. Her use of animal viewpoint invites topical questions about animal treatment and what it might mean for animals, domesticated and wild, to be not only members of our broader social networks but also family and kin. 

While fiction can reframe dominant hierarchies of animal and human relationships, this excerpt reveals how Saunders’s novel almost simultaneously works to reproduce and resist these dynamics. Mrs Morris’s politics of kindness is facilitated through an ‘experiment’ in which each of her children must provide for the animals she gives them. Laura’s brother Carl, ‘a born trader,’ is ‘very fond of what he called “his yellow pets,” yet he never kept a pair of birds or a goldfish, if he had a good offer for them.’ In this extract, Saunders blurs stewardship and entrepreneurship when Mrs Montague visits the Morris house after her housemaid breaks the leg of Dick, her canary. The leg must be amputated, leading Mrs Montague to reject her ‘disfigured bird’ and ask Carl to sell her a new one. In return, Carl gifts her his favourite bird, and he is celebrated for his generosity. 

Saunders complicates this anthropocentric point of view, however: though ‘disfigured,’ Dick’s narrative formally closes the chapter, and his character receives a thoughtful conclusion. Joe relays that he ‘became a family pet’ and lived in the family parlour where he sang and enjoyed looking at himself in the mirror, a final image that subtly undermines Dick’s previous rejection based on appearance. Saunders’s animal autobiography accordingly reveals a complicated engagement with ways of talking about animals that, on the surface, affirm human dominion over animals but, when pressed upon, reveal their cracks.

—Lauren Cullen


Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog


Chapter XI: Goldfish and Canaries (excerpt)


I thought it was a great deal of trouble to take care of them. The first morning after Carl left, Billy, and Bella, and Davy, and I followed Miss Laura upstairs. She made us sit in a row by the door, lest we should startle the canaries. She had a great many things to do. First, the canaries had their baths. They had to get them at the same time every morning. Miss Laura filled the little white dishes with water and put them in the cages, and then came and sat on a stool by the door. Bella, and Billy, and Davy climbed into her lap, and I stood close by her. It was so funny to watch those canaries. They put their heads on one side and looked first at their little baths and then at us. They knew we were strangers. Finally, as we were all very quiet, they got into the water; and what a good time they had, fluttering their wings and splashing, and cleaning themselves so nicely.

Then they got up on their perches and sat in the sun, shaking themselves and picking at their feathers.

Miss Laura cleaned each cage, and gave each bird some mixed rape and canary seed. I heard Carl tell her before he left not to give them much hemp seed, for that was too fattening. He was very careful about their food. During the summer I had often seen him taking up nice green things to them: celery, chickweed, tender cabbage, peaches, apples, pears, bananas; and now at Christmas time, he had green stuff growing in pots on the window ledge.

Besides that he gave them crumbs of coarse bread, crackers, lumps of sugar, cuttle-fish to peck at, and a number of other things. Miss Laura did everything just as he told her; but I think she talked to the birds more than he did. She was very particular about their drinking water, and washed out the little glass cups that held it most carefully.

After the canaries were clean and comfortable, Miss Laura set their cages in the sun, and turned to the goldfish. They were in large glass globes on the window-seat. She took a long-handled tin cup, and dipped out the fish from one into a basin of water. Then she washed the globe thoroughly and put the fish back, and scattered wafers of fish food on the top. The fish came up and snapped at it, and acted as if they were glad to get it. She did each globe and then her work was over for one morning.

She went away for a while, but every few hours through the day she ran up to Carl’s room to see how the fish and canaries were getting on. If the room was too chilly she turned on more heat; but she did not keep it too warm, for that would make the birds tender.

After a time the canaries got to know her, and hopped gayly around their cages, and chirped and sang whenever they saw her coming. Then she began to take some of them downstairs, and to let them out of their cages for an hour or two every day. They were very happy little creatures, and chased each other about the room, and flew on Miss Laura’s head, and pecked saucily at her face as she sat sewing and watching them. They were not at all afraid of me nor of Billy, and it was quite a sight to see them hopping up to Bella. She looked so large beside them.

One little bird became ill while Carl was away, and Miss Laura had to give it a great deal of attention. She gave it plenty of hemp seed to make it fat, and very often the yolk of a hard boiled egg, and kept a nail in its drinking water, and gave it a few drops of alcohol in its bath every morning to keep it from taking cold. The moment the bird finished taking its bath, Miss Laura took the dish from the cage, for the alcohol made the water poisonous. Then vermin came on it; and she had to write to Carl to ask him what do. He told her to hang a muslin bag full of sulphur over the swing, so that the bird would dust it down on her feathers. That cured the little thing, and when Carl came home, he found it quite well again. One day, just after he got back, Mrs. Montague drove up to the house with canary cage carefully done up in a shawl. She said that a bad-tempered housemaid, in cleaning the cage that morning, had gotten angry with the bird and struck it, breaking its leg. She was very much annoyed with the girl for her cruelty, and had dismissed her, and now she wanted Carl to take her bird and nurse it, as she knew nothing about canaries.

Carl had just come in from school. He threw down his books, took the shawl from the cage and looked in. The poor little canary was sitting In a corner. Its eyes were half shut, one leg hung loose, and it was making faint chirps of distress.

Carl was very much interested in it. He got Mrs. Montague to help him, and together they split matches, tore up strips of muslin, and bandaged the broken leg. He put the little bird back in the cage, and it seemed more comfortable. “I think he will do now,” he said to Mrs. Montague, “but hadn’t you better leave him with me for a few days?”

She gladly agreed to this and went away, after telling him that the bird’s name was Dick.

The next morning at the breakfast table, I heard Carl telling his mother that as soon as he woke up he sprang out of bed and went to see how his canary was. During the night, poor, foolish Dick had picked off the splints from his leg, and now it was as bad as ever. “I shall have to perform a surgical operation.” he said.

I did not know what he meant, so I watched him when, after breakfast, he brought the bird down to his mother’s room. She held it while he took a pair of sharp scissors, and cut its leg right off a little way above the broken place. Then he put some vaseline on the tiny stump, bound it up, and left Dick in his mother’s care. All the morning, as she sat sewing, she watched him to see that he did not pick the bandage away.

When Carl came home, Dick was so much better that he had managed to fly up on his perch, and was eating seeds quite gayly. “Poor Dick!” said Carl, “A leg and a stump!” Dick imitated him in a few little chirps, “A leg and a stump!”

“Why, he is saying it too,” exclaimed Carl, and burst out laughing.

Dick seemed cheerful enough, but it was very pitiful to see him dragging his poor little stump around the cage, and resting it against the perch to keep him from falling. When Mrs. Montague came the next day, she could not bear to look at him. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, “I cannot take that disfigured bird home.”

I could not help thinking how different she was from Miss Laura, who loved any creature all the more for having some blemish about it.

“What shall I do?” said Mrs. Montague. “I miss my little bird so much. I shall have to get a new one. Carl, will you sell me one?”

“I will give you one, Mrs. Montague,” said the boy, eagerly. “I would like to do so.” Mrs. Morris looked pleased to hear Carl say this. She used to fear sometimes, that in his love for making money, he would become selfish.

Mrs. Montague was very kind to the Morris family, and Carl seemed quite pleased to do her a favor. He took her up to his room, and let her choose the bird she liked best. She took a handsome, yellow one, called Barry. He was a good singer, and a great favorite of Carl’s. The boy put him in the cage, wrapped it up well, for it was a cold, snowy day, and carried it out to Mrs. Montague’s sleigh.

She gave him a pleasant smile, and drove away, and Carl ran up the steps into the house. “It’s all right, mother,” he said, giving Mrs. Morris a hearty, boyish kiss, as she stood waiting for him. “I don’t mind letting her have it.”

“But you expected to sell that one, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Mrs. Smith said maybe she’d take it when she came home from Boston, but I dare say she’d change her mind and get one there.”

“How much were you going to ask for him?”

“Well, I wouldn’t sell Barry for less than ten dollars, or rather, I wouldn’t have sold him,” and he ran out to the stable.

Mrs. Morris sat on the hall chair, patting me as I rubbed against her, in rather an absent minded way. Then she got up and went into her husband’s study, and told him what Carl had done.

Mr. Morris seemed very pleased to hear about it, but when his wife asked him to do something to make up the loss to the boy, he said: “I had rather not do that. To encourage a child to do a kind action, and then to reward him for it, is not always a sound principle to go upon.”

But Carl did not go without his reward. That evening, Mrs. Montague’s coachman brought a note to the house addressed to Mr. Carl Morris. He read it aloud to the family.

MY DEAR CARL: I am charmed with my little bird, and he has whispered to me one of the secrets of your room. You want fifteen dollars very much to buy something for it. I am sure you won’t be offended with an old friend for supplying you the means to get this something.


“Just the thing for my stationary tank for the goldfish,” exclaimed Carl. “I’ve wanted it for a long time; it isn’t good to keep them in globes, but how in the world did she find out? I’ve never told any one.”

Mrs. Morris smiled, and said; “Barry must have told her;” as she took the money from Carl to put away for him.

Mrs. Montague got to be very fond of her new pet. She took care of him herself, and I have heard her tell Mrs. Morris most wonderful stories about him stories so wonderful that I should say they were not true if I did not how intelligent dumb creatures get to be under kind treatment.

She only kept him in his cage at night, and when she began looking for him at bedtime to put him there, he always hid himself. She would search a short time, and then sit down, and he always came out of his hiding-place, chirping in a saucy way to make her look at him.

She said that he seemed to take delight in teasing her. Once when he was in the drawing-room with her, she was called away to speak to some one at the telephone. When she came back, she found that one of the servants had come into the room and left the door open leading to a veranda. The trees outside were full of yellow birds, and she was in despair, thinking that Barry had flown out with them. She looked out, but could not see him. Then, lest he had not left the room, she got a chair and carried it about, standing on it to examine the walls, and see if Barry was hidden among the pictures and bric-a-brac. But no Barry was there. She at last sank down, exhausted, on a sofa. She heard a wicked, little peep, and looking up, saw Barry sitting on one of the rounds of the chair that she had been carrying about to look for him. He had been there all the time. She was so glad to see him, that she never thought of scolding him.

He was never allowed to fly about the dining room during meals, and the table maid drove him out before she set the table. It always annoyed him, and he perched on the staircase, watching the door through the railings. If it was left open for an instant, he flew in. One evening, before tea, he did this. There was a chocolate cake on the sideboard, and he liked the look of it so much that he began to peck at it. Mrs. Montague happened to come in, and drove him back to the hall.

While she was having tea that evening, with her husband and little boy, Barry flew into the room again. Mrs. Montague told Charlie to send him out, but her husband said, “Wait, he is looking for something.”

He was on the sideboard, peering into every dish, and trying to look under the covers. “He is after the chocolate cake,” exclaimed Mrs. Montague. “Here, Charlie; put this on the staircase for him.”

She cut off a little scrap, and when Charlie took it to the hall, Barry flew after him, and ate it up.

As for poor, little, lame Dick, Carl never sold him, and he became a family pet. His cage hung in the parlor, and from morning till night his cheerful voice was heard, chirping and singing as if he had not a trouble in the world. They took great care of him. He was never allowed to be too hot or too cold. Everybody gave him a cheerful word in passing his cage, and if his singing was too loud, they gave him a little mirror to look at himself in. He loved this mirror, and often stood before it for an hour at a time.



Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Perspective: Beautiful Joe, the dog, conducts this first-person narrative. What do you think of the way this story is told? How would the story change if it were told in the third person?

  • Objects vs subjects: What do you think this excerpt is telling us about animals? What is the significance of Carl's pets being canaries and goldfish? Is there a further commentary here about ability and disability?

  • Care: You might think of the many ways characters experience or offer care in this passage. How, too, is mistreatment framed?

  • Character: Is Mrs. Montague a sympathetic character? What narrative strategies direct your answer?

Full text

The full text of the novel is available for free through Project Gutenberg.

On Saunders and Beautiful Joe

Margaret Marshall Saunders

The Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on Margaret Marshall Saunders.

Beautiful Joe

Website created by the Beautiful Joe Heritage Society to promote the story of Beautiful Joe and that of its author, Margaret Marshall Saunders.

Margaret Marshall Saunders on Librivox

Audiobooks of Margaret Marshall Saunders’s works. 

Animals in Nineteenth-Century Culture

Constant Companions: Pets in Nineteenth-Century Photography

A collaborative virtual exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada and Library and Archives Canada (LAC) developed from an installation, Constant Companions: Pets in Nineteenth-Century Photography, showcased at the National Gallery from April 2018–2019.

Pet Histories

This blog shares entries about the Pets and Family Life in England and Wales project, “the first large-scale historical study of the relationships between families and their cats, dogs and other companion animals in modern Britain” conducted by Professor Jane Hamlett and Julie-Marie Strange and funded by the AHRC.

The Victorians and Animals, I: Animals as Part of the Household

Articles from The Victorian Web about Victorians and animals.

How the dog found a place in the family home – from the Victorian age to ours

Learn more about how animals dogs became a central part of the Victorian home and family from Philip Howell, Professor of Historical Geography and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

Britain is a nation of pet lovers – and it has the Victorians to thank

Article in the Conversation about Victorian pet-keeping by Jane Hamlett, Professor of Modern British History, Royal Holloway University of London 

Read Alongside

Anna Sewell’s equine autobiography, Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse (1877), or works by Saunders’s fellow Canadian ‘Nature Fakers,’ such as Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and Charles G. D. Roberts’s Kindred of the Wild (1902). 

About the Contributor

Lauren Cullen completed her DPhil in English at Oriel College, University of Oxford in 2022, where she was also a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow. Her research examines the roles animals play in unsettling notions of the ‘human,’ ‘person,’ and ‘character’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, with a particular interest in transatlantic discourses on animals, the environment, and settler colonialism percolating between Britain and Canada. A chapter on Canadian writer Charles G.D. Roberts’s realistic wild animal stories is forthcoming in Beastly Modernisms: The Figure of the Animal in Modernist Literature and Culture with Edinburgh University Press in March 2023. She is a Research Assistant and teaches at a number of Oxford colleges.