Among the big stars of Julian Fellowe’s latest historical drama, The Gilded Age, is a scene thief who fits right into 1880s New York’s upper class.
Pumpkin is the adorable floppy-eared Blenheim Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whose human is Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), sister of the wealthy Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). Pumpkin trotts behind Ada, has a place of honor on her lap and accompanies her on carriage rides. It’s clear that Ada has a special bond with her four-legged companion. Her sister, on the other hand, thinks the dog is a nuisance or, as she puts it, a “terrible thing”.
“Why are you bringing that animal dog?” Agnes asks contemptuously during an outing. “Dogs should walk next to carriages, not ride in them.”
The comment reflects a fairly outdated attitude that many people still have about animals, regarding them as useful possessions rather than companions. In the 1930s series All Creatures Great and Small, veterinarian Siegfried Farnon explains that “a dog should have a function” such as hunting game or herding sheep. Even today, Pope Francis sees no point in pets and believes they are distractions that “take away our humanity” by not allowing us to be parents to human babies.
But these men, like Agnes, deny it. Just as the New Money Russell family across the street took over 19th-century New York, so animals became close companions, especially for those in urban areas.
However, the pumpkin represents a special type of pet that reflects the values of its privileged owners.
The origins of the breed
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a long history associated with royalty. The tiny pooches were adored by aristocratic families and featured in many famous court paintings.
Mary Queen of Scots first introduced the breed’s French predecessor, the Toy Spaniel, to Scotland and England in the 15th century and owned a few puppies of her own. Her faithful spaniels dutifully remained at her side, even during her public execution in 1587. According to legend, one of the queen’s dogs slipped under her billowing skirt just before she was decapitated. The little spaniel refused to leave his headless body and died just days later of what many believed to be a heartbreak.
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The breed became popular in the late 17th century when King Charles II of England came to power. By then, Toy Spaniels had been successfully crossed with flat-nosed breeds and took on an appealing “flat-headed” appearance. The pompous king, who was also a notable dog breeder, greatly adored the spaniels and allowed nearly a dozen of them to lie in his bed and frolic in the royal apartments.
The King’s adoration for the spaniels was revived during the 1926 Roswell Eldridge dog show. Two years later, the Kennel Club officially named the coveted breed Cavalier King Charles Spaniel after the mighty “Cavalier King”.
Sporting shades of chestnut and white-pumpkin fur, the Blenheim Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed was named after Blenheim Palace, the grand estate of General John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Often referred to as “English Versailles”, Blenheim Palace was renamed after the Duke’s glorious victory at the Battle of Blenheim. Bred primarily for hunting purposes, the general’s steadfast dogs became symbols of nobility and embodiments of great courage and pride.
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In the 19th century, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel became a companion animal among queens and princesses. They were basically the miniature Chihuahuas in a handbag of their time and the epitome of high-class femininity.
Queen Victoria started the trend in her early teens when she became the proud owner of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Dash. The tri-colored pooch lived a lavish life, spoiled with gingerbread, yacht trips and landau rides. Dash was “the Queen’s closest childhood companion,” according to Elizabeth Longford, Her Highness’s biographer.
The film Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt, and the PBS series Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman, also highlighted the role Dash played in the young monarch’s life. After his death, a marble statue was erected in his honor, for which the Queen wrote an emphatic epitaph:
Here lies DASH, Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s favorite spaniel, in his 10th year. His devotion was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice, his faithfulness without deceit. READER, if you want to live loved and die regretful, take advantage of DASH’s example.
As a contemporary, the Queen undoubtedly had an influence on dog owners like Ada, who sees the Cavalier King Charles as the ultimate sophisticated companion for a lady. Pumpkin’s mere presence indicates Ada’s upper-class status in society.
The breed’s royal bonds continued to be remembered and celebrated. Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, was the proud owner of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Countless celebrities and government officials have also been owners of the prestigious breed. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, Diane Sawyer, Amanda Bynes, Frank Sinatra, Jaclyn Smith, Tom Selleck and Sylvester Stallone are just a few notable owners.
Pumpkin’s role in “Gilded Age”
Aside from looking cute and handsome, Pumpkin fulfills many roles in The Gilded Age that basically boil down to him being a valuable status symbol. But it also serves to reflect the changing times.
Being a Cavalier King Charles owner means keeping an eye on your dog. The breed is known for not being “street smart” as they trust strangers and love to chase anything that moves, including vehicles. In fact, we see it early on in the series when the nouveau riche Russell’s son saves the life of Pumpkin, who is almost flattened by a carriage. That leads to a second meeting between the two houses, separated by social status, when the Van Rhijns’ niece expresses her gratitude for the rescue.
Louisa Jacobson, Pumpkin and Harry Richardson in The Gilded Age (Alison Cohen Pink/HBO)This tendency to escape his leaders is another way to illustrate Pumpkin’s literal monetary value. In the fourth episode, “A Long Ladder,” Pumpkin slips off his leash and collar during a walk with Van Rhijn’s butler, Bannister (Simon Jones).
“But what if he is found by a ruthless thief?” asks a distraught and tearful Ada after hearing the news. “Someone could pay $50 for him.”
“Only if they don’t know the breed,” replies her sister.
It’s clear that a posh pooch like Pumpkin is out of reach for the impoverished and middle-class civilians of this era. But it’s not just the expense that family probably paid a breeder for him that makes Pumpkin a symbol of the wealthy.
Owning a pumpkin is a luxury in itself. Its care and maintenance requires resources. The breed needs an easy life and regular brushing of their long, silky coat to prevent tangles. Ada is a middle-aged unmarried woman who comes from inherited wealth. She has the time, money and necessary amenities (butlers, housekeepers and maids) to care for a dog like her own child.
Pumpkin’s social value is not lost on Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), who finds the dog and decides to bathe and feed him before informing the Van Rhijns of his presence across the street. While her husband’s wallet has opened many doors in New York, it hasn’t been able to infiltrate society’s most snooty (elderly) families. Pumpkin might just be her ticket to being accepted. . . but not if Agnes has anything to say about it. As soon as she reads the note, she sees through Bertha’s ruse.
“If they found the dog, why not send a servant to bring it back?” Agnes insists. “No, if you ask me, they kidnapped it so that Mrs. Russell could deliver it personally. She wants to force us to receive her. I will not allow this mutt to become a link between these houses.”
Bannister is sent to fetch the dog himself, ending Bertha’s attempt at promotion—at least until Pumpkin or another dog next becomes a pawn between the two houses. After all, the Russells can certainly afford a fancy breed of their own.
The Gilded Age streams new episodes Mondays on HBO Max.
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