Laura Brown, Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination

Laura Brown, Homeless Dogs and Melancholy Apes: Humans and Other Animals in the Modern Literary Imagination (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 176 pp. £22.95 hb. ISBN 9780801448287.

Laura Brown’s fascinating book is based on the premise that the eighteenth century is the locus of a novel engagement with animal-kind that continues to influence literature today. It argues that the imaginary animals generated by the eighteenth-century engagement with real animals create a fresh lens through which to examine ‘the significance of the non-human being for human identity, human experience, and human history’ (x). Brown begins by considering Thomas Love Peacock’s Melincourt; or Sir Oran Haut-ton (1818) as an example of the ways in which the imaginary animal resists any simple positioning. She then examines a number of eighteenth-century precedents that directly inform and anticipate Melincourt, and claims that the rise of the non-human animal in the modern literary imagination is shaped in the eighteenth century by the predecessors of Melincourt. She argues that these portrayals do not conform to current approaches to the subject of animals, and provides a concise outline of these approaches from science, cultural theory, philosophy, and history, showing how they tend to emphasis either anthropomorphism or alterity.

The second, and longest, chapter is concerned with the motif of the ape as indistinguishable from the human, which can be found from seventeenth-century travel narratives to Frankenstein (1816). It explores Alexander Pope’s parody of Edward Tyson’s The Anatomy of a Pygmie (1699), identifying where these texts overlap with, and depart from, each other. Brown illustrates how, for Pope, Tyson’s idea that classical mythology and history were populated by monkeys merges with his demonstration of the proximity of human and ape. Brown views Pope’s An Essay of the Learned Martinus Scriblerus, Concerning the Origine of Sciences as a bridge between Tyson and Jonathan Swift that allows us to see the ways in which Gulliver’s Travels (1726) engages with issues, generated by Tyson, in particular a preoccupation with size and with the proximity between human and non-human. The Yahoo, according to Brown, is a representation of the hominoid ape based on travellers’ descriptions, natural history, and anatomical study. She maintains that ‘for the English eighteenth century, Tyson’s pygmy is the empirical record, and Swift’s Yahoo the canonical literary expression, of the discovery of the great ape’ (47). Brown also argues that Anatomy of a Pygmie begins a trend of projecting sentimental values on the figure of the great ape. And she posits that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1816) is indebted to the eighteenth-century creation of the hominoid ape which she tracks ‘from Tyson and Swift through Mondobbo’ (59). Brown traces the connections between these texts in detail, juxtaposing paragraphs from these diverse works to reveal their inter-textual nature.

In chapter 3 Brown examines works, from Pope to Dickens, inspired by inter-species intimacy. She asserts that in the eighteenth century this novel connection is almost exclusively represented through the gendered image of the lady and the lapdog, and she links this literary trope to the explosion in popularity of pet-keeping in the eighteenth century. Brown explores the structures of inversion present in this trope and argues that they present an understanding of intimacy which supplants norms of kinship and coherence with the alienating effects of reversal and dissonance. She discusses the figure of the lady and the lapdog as ‘a staple trope of the antifemale verse satire of the first half of the eighteenth century’ (71), the ‘dominant literary context for the representation of this companion animal in the period’ (76). Brown explores how the figure is integrated into narratives of sensibility as the period moves from the early eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Turning then to Dickens, she shows how his ‘dogs provide a perspective on both the continuity and the transformation of this figure from its eighteenth-century versions’ (81).

Brown’s fourth chapter argues that the figure of the pet monkey links early eighteenth-century dramatic comedy with Frances Burney’s novel Evelina (1778). It identifies the monkey as a privileged pet of the woman of quality, and a familiar trope, in the early eighteenth-century comedy of manners. Using a variety of texts Brown shows that issues of courtship and marriage underpin the monkey’s appearance. In these portrayals the monkey may serve, on the one hand, as a proxy for the human male sexual partner, suggesting the two are interchangeable. On the other hand, through its intimacy with the lady, the trope of the monkey undermines normative ideas of marriage. Brown demonstrates the imaginative durability of the monkey trope in the context of marriage, and argues that ‘the fact that the monkey outlives the comedy of manners suggests that it carries an imaginative significance larger than the forms and effects of that subgenre’ (104). Finally, she analyses the monkey anecdote in Evelina, and finds that its expression in this novel suggests that the monkey anecdote ‘possesses a kind of cultural aura, a constellation of questions, problems and ideas that cling to it, whatever its local context, and that carry a complex imaginative significance’ (108).

In her concluding chapter Brown traces the rise of dog-narrated fiction, and argues that the central premises of this sub-genre, which persists to the present day, were in evidence by 1825. Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (1999) and Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs (1613) are, accordingly, ‘historical bookends’ (115). Using these seventeenth- and twentieth-century texts as framing prototypes, Brown describes the development of the dog narrative in England in the ‘core period of its formation from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century’ (116). She shows that the first widely read modern dog narrative, Francis Coventry’s The History of Pompey the Little (1751) is indebted to Cervantes’s work. Brown then discusses the dog narrative in the early nineteenth century, with particular focus on Biography of a Spaniel (1797), relating it to Cervantes’s and Coventry’s texts as well as to the twentieth-century canine narratives that follow. She shows how, frequently, the dog protagonist reproduces the trope of mock genealogy; how the paradox of canine language continues as a theme; how the concern with ‘the transgression of foundational structures of order, the engagement with the diversity of human experience’ persists (143); and how the preoccupation with transcendence, of species and of earthly life, is maintained. Brown then turns to Timbuktu in order to demonstrate ‘the sustained impact of these formative early literary experiments’ (139).

In this work Laura Brown suggests that the human relationship with nonhuman animals is profoundly reshaped in the eighteenth century by the discovery of hominoid apes and by the rise of pet-keeping. She demonstrates how this trend manifests itself by drawing on an abundance of primary and secondary sources from the period. Brown’s work is well structured, her materials are presented in a concise and suggestive way, and her arguments are convincing. This book will undoubtedly be of interest to scholars of eighteenth-century literature, as well as to those generally interested in animals in literature.

Candice Kent, Clare College, Cambridge