Tobias Menely, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice

Tobias Menely, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2015) 267 pp. $30.00 Pb. $90.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226239392

In The Animal Claim, Tobias Menely does something unusual: he shows that eighteenth-century high poetry is a matter of imminent relevance beyond the rarefied field of eighteenth-century studies. This is impressive in itself, and Menely shows himself a master of his source material, focusing on the giants of Augustan poetry – Pope, Cowper, Smart. What is frankly remarkable is the extent to which he ranges across a huge variety of other sources, from eighteenth-century philosophers to Benjamin and Derrida, to create a tightly-argued account of poetry’s influence on political activism, culminating in the first piece of recognisable animal rights legislation in 1822.

Menely’s work responds to and compliments a growing politico-cultural trend in animal studies, springing from Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate (1987) and Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras (2010), and David Perkins’ seminal Romanticism and Animal Rights (2003). Thematically presented, all manage to present a convincing argument for the animal-human relation without falling into the trap of facile anthropocentrism. Although this reviewer found the introduction to Menely’s work a slow, perhaps inevitably jargon-laden start, there is much here to admire here, not least the author’s erudite and rigorous analysis of poems long regarded as canonical. Indeed, eighteenth-century British poets have undergone their own minor renaissance in recent years, cited with great effect in the sort of exciting and interdisciplinary work exemplified by Menely’s study; a similar synthesis of poetry and philosophical analysis was achieved by the late Roy Porter, historian par excellence of Enlightenment culture, in his Flesh in the Age of Reason (2004). In this work Porter also turned his gaze on the Romantic cult of sensibility and its Enlightenment antecedents, revealing with great clarity its impact on notions of mind, body and soul. That Menely has so persuasively extended this line of research into the animal realm suggests that the recent ‘turn’ back to eighteenth-century studies still has much to offer, particularly in the analysis of its literary output.

Of particular interest is Menely’s extended exploration of the philosophical background to the first Parliamentary attempts to set animal rights legislation onto the statute book, ‘Martin’s Act’ of 1822. Menely crafts a detailed and fascinating analysis of the impact of the ‘revolutionary’ moment, and its declaration of the rights of man, in the shaping of notions of the rights of animals. However, a surprising discovery was the extent to which parliamentarians and reformers reached back into Britain’s literary and philosophical heritage for both precedent and inspiration. That the principal mover behind what became ‘The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act’, Richard Martin MP, was such a colourful character is a boon for the historian of animal rights legislation in Britain. This can be viewed in a wider context of national self-discovery both in the arts and the developing life sciences in the 1820s. Zoologists, in particular, called upon British enlightenment philosophers including John Locke to underpin their novel theories of classification – theories which, they were keen to stress, were distinctively British.

One minor reservation is the relative lack of attention, except in the case of cartoons and frontispieces, drawn to the visual explorations of the animal voice, of which there were an increasing number in eighteenth-century Britain. Hogarth’s recognition of the semiotic potential of animals is well known, and cruelty to animals appears time and again in both his paintings and engraved series as a symbol of moral degeneracy and evil. Perhaps less well known, but only just, are the superlative woodcuts by Thomas Bewick. For all their humble appearance, these remain some of the most immediate and engaging depictions of animals ever created by a British artist, qualities which may have had more than a little to do with Bewick’s own engagement with notions of animal sensibility. His recollection of a hunt, attended when he was a teenager, is highly suggestive of a keen if largely instinctual appreciation of the animal voice:

‘Caught the Hare in my Arms, while surrounded by the Dogs & the Hunters, when the poor terrified creature screamed out so piteously, like a child, that I would have given any thing to save its life; in this however I was prevented, for a Farmer, well known to me, who stood close by, pressed upon me & desired I would give her to him, & from his being better able (as I thought) to save its life, I complied with his wishes; this was no sooner done than he proposed, to those about him to have a ‘bit more sport with her’ and this was to be done by his first breaking one its legs, and then again setting the poor Animal off, a little before the Dogs’.

Whilst Menely’s study does not much engage with the visual, it does serve as an excellent springboard to further research in what is an expanding and exciting field, and should surely serve as a foundational text for years to come. Eloquent and elegantly executed, it is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the history and culture of early-modern and modern Britain, as well as those for whom the question of animal rights is of more pressing importance.

David Lowther, Durham University