Caroline Hovanec, Animal Subjects: Literature, Zoology, and British Modernism

Caroline Hovanec, Animal Subjects: Literature, Zoology, and British Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 232 pp. £75.00 Hb, $80.00 pdf, ISBN: 9781108428392 

‘Aesthetically speaking, the new aquarium is undoubtedly the most impressive of all the houses at the zoo […] Scientifically, no doubt, the place is a paradise for the ichthyologist; but the poet might equally celebrate the strange beauty of the broad-leaved water plants trembling in the current, or the sinister procession of self-centred sea-beasts forever circling and seeking perhaps some minute prey, perhaps some explanation of a universe which evidently appears to them of inscrutable mystery’. So writes Virginia Woolf in her description of the opening of London Zoo Aquarium in 1924. Caroline Hovanec’s engaging book opens with a compelling discussion of this lyrical passage, using it as a springboard to launch into her study of the representation of animal subjectivity in modernist literature. As Hovanec writes, Animal Subjects ‘proposes that Woolf’s review, which makes the aquarium a site of scientific interest, aesthetic novelty, and animal worlds, is not just a one-off, but represents a broader pattern in modern British culture’ (3). Building on the work of Christina Alt (Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature, 2010) and, most closely, Carrie Rohman (Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal, 2009), Animal Subjects is interested in the limitations, as well as the possibilities, of representing subjects and experiences in literature. Hovanec neatly outlines the central dynamic in the introduction: ‘This quandary – one must understand animals as subjects, one cannot know animals’ subjective experience – drove Woolf and her contemporaries to the very limits of literary and scientific representation’ (3).

If Carrie Rohman’s 2009 study, Stalking the Subject, is, in Hovanec’s words, ‘the most important treatment to date of animals in British modernism’, Animal Subjects is surely one of the most valuable new additions to the field (27). While the book generally looks at the representation of animals in the works of an impressive range of literary figures (H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf), Hovanec concurrently examines numerous scientific and philosophical writings by Charles Darwin, Thomas H. Huxley, Charles Elton, Henry Eliot Howard, Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, Bertrand Russell, and C. Lloyd Morgan. Following Gillian Beer’s nimble approach of finding ‘loose accords’ between the arts and sciences, Hovanec consistently asks two clear and interrelated questions throughout her study: ‘how should we understand animal life after Darwin? and, how can we capture animals in words that are true to life?’ (4-5). Though considerations of the animal are always shaped by an inescapable human framework, the book persuasively suggests that animals signified an alluring otherness in modern British culture, offering many modernist writers attractive alternatives to industrial capitalism and Enlightenment reason. 

The first chapter argues that ‘the fable’, in the transitional fiction of H. G. Wells, ‘becomes a mode of critiquing anthropocentrism itself’ as ‘the “moral” is typically a warning against human hubris, a reminder that we do not stand outside “nature”’ (24). As Hovanec is quick to point out, however, Wells’s short stories demonstrate ‘unreflective complicity with Victorian ideology’ by naturalizing imperialism and racial hierarchies (47). In Chapter 2, Hovanec turns to an acquaintance of Wells’s, Aldous Huxley, who is often considered ‘a zoological novelist’ who detachedly applies ‘a scientific gaze to the people around him’ in order to see ‘the animal within the human’ (77). Challenging this dominant critical perspective, the chapter convincingly argues that ‘while Huxley may at times intimate the detached scientist observing the human zoo, he ultimately rejects the lacerating scientific gaze as a model for authorship’ (82). Unlike the other central modernist writers studied in the book (Lawrence and Woolf), ‘Huxley rarely attempts empathetic representations of animals’ subjective experiences’ (78). Instead, his representations of animals, ‘at their best, move beyond the hollow structures of simile and metaphor to express a genuine, respectful curiosity, akin to the curiosity of the ethologist’ (84). With this substantial argument, Hovanec moves readers beyond conventional understandings of Huxley, in turn indicating that his work deserves a more prominent place in modernist studies.

In the following chapter, Hovanec turns to D. H. Lawrence and away from the more empirical focus of Aldous Huxley. Though their prose styles all differ, the continuity of modernist approaches to animal description is succinctly noted: ‘Lawrence and Woolf’s animal representations begin to build upon the empirical foundations that Huxley, Howard, and others laid down in their thin descriptions. They attempt to envision animal worlds beyond the measure of humans’ (116). The chapter begins with a helpful biographical sketch of Lawrence and the Huxley brothers’ shared winter in the Swiss Alps in 1928. This meeting was particularly important because, as Hovanec boldly claims, Lawrence and Julian Huxley ‘were perhaps the two most important thinkers on animals in early twentieth-century Britain’ (118). What follows is a fascinating chapter (perhaps the book’s most engaging) on the tension, often found in Lawrence’s writings, between the ‘desire to have an unmediated encounter with the animal other’ and the inescapability of anthropomorphism and a human framework of understanding (120). Hovanec deftly brings out unlikely similarities between the two authors, as Julian Huxley emerges as a science writer who ‘draws surprisingly close to Lawrence’ with his attitude towards modern biology and animal life (126). Both Huxley and Lawrence, for example, ‘placed sexuality at the center of animal life, and both assumed that animal sexuality has something to teach us about humans’ sexual practices’ (128). Completing the book’s well-structured narrative arc, Chapter 4 looks at how Virginia Woolf, alongside influential intellectuals and scientists such as Bertrand Russell and J. B. S. Haldane, explored ‘animal perspectives to reconsider the nature of knowledge and uncover strange, novel views of the world’ (159). Hovanec puts forward the sophisticated argument that Woolf’s understanding of animal subjectivity drew on the comparative psychology tradition, which led to ‘an unravelling and reweaving of empirical knowledge’ in the twentieth century (161). Read in this light, Woolf’s fiction, Hovanec claims, ‘meditates on the challenges and possibilities that arise when the empiricist self aims to move beyond direct experience and apprehend the revelatory strangeness of animal worlds’ (162).   

Though Hovanec is aware of contemporary theoretical concerns with subjectivity and the posthuman, she consciously chooses to use a more historicist approach to think about ‘how British writers and scientists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries would have understood subjectivity’ (6). Even with this dominant methodology, she seeks out many examples from the period that still ‘resonate with posthumanist projects today’ (6). Indeed, the book ends with four contemporary animal case studies – tardigrade, octopus, whale, and mantis shrimp – which ‘suggest that the modernist visions remain captivating today’ in the ‘age of the sixth mass extinction’ when ‘animal life is more vulnerable than ever’ (196). Though these intriguing case studies gesture towards the book’s contemporary relevance, the conclusion could have benefited from a more explicit statement outlining the implications of reading modernism in the Anthropocene. There is, however, a forthcoming special cluster in Modernism/modernity on ‘Reading Modernism in the Sixth Extinction’ for readers to look forward to (co-edited with Rachel Murray, author of The Modernist Exoskeleton: Insects, War, Literary Form, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press). Since publishing Animal Subjects, Hovanec’s research has taken her work into new and interesting spaces. ‘Another Nature Speaks to the Camera: Natural History and Film Theory’ (2019), for instance, is an excellent article exploring the relation between early film culture and nature films. What’s more, from the description of her second book project, ‘On Vermin: Six Virtues for the Anthropocene’, it seems as though Hovanec’s vital work is set to venture further into the murky waters of insect life and ecological collapse.

Patrick Armstrong, University of Cambridge