This week we're welcoming back Regency author and dog expert Judith Laik, whom you will recall started a series on Dogs of the Nineteenth Century back in December.
Hunting and shooting were popular pastimes for (mostly) men in the 19th century. These sports took place after the London “season” ended, when the upper classes went to their country estates.
“Hunting” referred exclusively to fox hunting. To my mind, no other sport symbolizes Great Britain so completely. Hunting season took place after the harvest was in and the fields lay empty, later in the autumn and during the winter until spring. Hunting-mad people of all ages kicked their heels with impatience through the late spring, summer and early fall months until at last hunting season arrived again. I confess my sympathies are with the poor, beleaguered fox, but the wily animals very often came out on top, escaping and “going to ground” – into their burrows. Although I’m sure many of the hunters were disappointed if their foray didn’t result in a kill, for most of them pursuing the fox was only an excuse for an exciting cross-country ride.
Taking part in a hunt was a heart-pumping thrill for a young man. The early morning gathering in the crisp autumn or winter air, the ritualistic customs of the hunt. Waiting for the hounds to catch a scent, the impatient stamping of the high-bred horses; the hounds’ baying as they set off on the chase; the splendor of the red-coated riders as they followed, over fences, across fields and streams.
The actual hunting of foxes is now illegal in Great Britain, but throughout the nineteenth century it was a quintessential aspect of the social life of the aristocracy and gentry. There were a few women who hunted, more so as the century progressed.
If you’d like to read more about fox hunting, here are three interesting websites. The first link is to some essays by Anthony Trollope, a 19th century novelist. The second one defines foxhunting terms, and the third one has a very evocative slide show with fox hunting images and sounds.
Our topic is dogs, however, so let’s talk about Foxhounds. They are an exception to what I said last month that people didn’t keep records and pedigrees on the various breeds. The AKC entry on English Foxhounds says the Masters of Foxhounds Association kept impeccable records of their breeding from before 1800. These hounds were bred for their scenting ability, voice, and stamina on the chase. Foxhounds are pack animals, and seldom lived as human companions, although you’ll read the occasional novel where a hunting-mad squire (usually a bachelor or widower) gives his hounds the run of his manor, and I’m sure there must have been people who formed closer bonds with their Foxhounds. But most of these dogs were kept in kennels, looked after by the Masters of the Foxhounds (for the larger packs, a number of kennel helpers would assist the Master.)
Thank you, Judith! Be sure to stop by on Friday, when Judith will discuss game shooting (and retrievers), and the ancient sport of coursing.