As I’ve mentioned many times, the 2008 film Dean Spanley is one of my very favorites. A big part of this is that it is mostly the story of a father and son. I tend to be an easy mark for such stories. Indeed, I tend to like any stories about men who interact in a genuine way instead of the stereotyped “punching each other on the shoulder” way. Thus, when I first approached Lord Dunsany’s novella My Talks with Dean Spanley, I was disappointed. There is no father and son. And the male relationships are more the kinds of stereotypes that I dislike.
Don’t take this to mean that My Talks with Dean Spanley is bad. In its way, it’s just as good as the film. But it is direct. And the whole story is told through a haze of alcohol intoxication. This makes for a very amusing read. The book is about a dean in the Church of England who seems to have memories of being a dog in a past life. In the film, this is also true; but it acts mostly in the service of bringing the narrator and his father together.
My Talks With Dean Spanley Summary
The novella is written in the first person. It starts, “Were I to tell how I came to know that Dean Spanley had a secret, I should have to start this tale at a point many weeks earlier.” This departs completely from the film, where the dean’s secret comes about by chance, well into the narrative. In the book, the narrator tells us that he is a scientist and that he wants to publish a study of reincarnation for his western comrades so that they can better understand it. He does this using the well-known scientific tool of getting his subject drunk.
This does work. When drunk enough, Dean Spanley speaks forthrightly about his life as a dog. And based upon the technology that he remembers, the narrator is even able to roughly date this past life. But very quickly, the dean becomes disinclined to drink enough when dining with the narrator. Luckily, the narrator befriends a man named Wrather, who is quite the drinker and is fond of giving advice from his father, “Never trust a teetotaler or a man that wears elastic-sided boots.” The narrator feels that if Wrather joins their dinners, he can get the dean to the proper level of intoxication.
This too works. But Wrather eventually screws up by offending the dean and bringing him back to reality. So then the dean must be convinced to dine again with Wrather under the pretense that he needs to be around other men who know how to drink responsibly. Eventually even this fails. Finally, a grand dinner is given with the Maharajah of Haikwar. It is a stunning success. Dean Spanley reveals all, including the details of the secret dog religious belief that once man teaches dog the secret of fire, man and dog will be equals. There’s just one problem.
None of the narrator, Wrather, nor the Maharajah can remember what the dean said. They were all too drunk! And the dean is soon after promoted to bishop and so will have little to do with the likes of the narrator and Wrather.
In the film, the biggest obstacles are getting the Tokay. This is not an issue at all in the book. Instead, it is all about getting Dean Spanley past his reticence to get really drunk. As a result, there’s the wonderful catch-22 denouement. It also serves to make the narrator and Wrather end up as close friends, unlike in the movie where it is implied that the dean and Wrather may go on their own adventure together (as they did in their past lives).
Lord Dunsany’s satire takes aim at any number of life’s foibles. He makes fun of everyone: clergy and scientists; drunks and teetotaler; dogs and cats. This last bit is particularly interesting, given that Dunsany was president of a local RSPCA. But he is savage to dogs, although in a way that is indicative of one who has spent a lot of time with them. Dogs are disgusting, and this is presented in much detail.
There is also a remarkable moment in the novella at the end of Chapter 8. Dean Spanley mentions coming upon another dog that had been trapped in a tunnel it had dug. The narrator asks, “And what did you do for him?” The dean replies, “He was nobody I knew.” In the middle of such an amusing story, this moment is shocking. But it isn’t just the reader. Wrather is livid. He says, “If one thinks one’s a dog, one should think one is a decent kind of a dog.” No Lassie was our dean.
The Book Stands Alone
Most people who read My Talks with Dean Spanley after seeing the movie are disappointed. That’s understandable. Normally books are far more detailed than movies. In this case, screenwriter Alan Sharp built a mansion out of Lord Dunsany’s cottage. But that cottage is a fine one. And I guarantee, you will laugh much more in it than in Sharp’s glorious mansion.