Barbara K. Seeber, Jane Austen and Animals

Barbara K. Seeber, Jane Austen and Animals (London: Routledge 2013) 162 pp. £95.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781409456049

In 1792, Thomas Taylor, the Platonist (1758-1835), unconvinced by contemporary tracts advocating greater equality among humans, and alarmed by the violence and disorder similar views were producing in France, published A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (1792). It begins by accepting the arguments of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-92) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and proposes, as the logical  consequence, that animals be admitted to equality with  humans; it concludes that the same rights should be extended to ‘vegetables, minerals, and even the most apparently contemptible clod of earth’, so that ultimately ‘government may be entirely subverted, subordination abolished, and all things every where, and in every respect, be common to all.’1 Although absent from Barbara K. Seeber’s study, it needs only to be stripped of its irony to provide an uncanny parallel to the trajectory of her compelling thesis that throughout the whole range of Jane Austen’s writings, including letters and manuscripts not designed for publication, the attentive reader can find indications of the author’s sympathetic awareness of the needs and vulnerability of animals, and her use of attitudes to animals as an indicator of a person’s moral worth.  The vegetable kingdom also comes into consideration: Seeber’s perceptive readings of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park show how, ‘By taking seriously Marianne’s mourning of the trees, Fanny’s admiration of the evergreen, and her friendship with animals, we can trace Austen’s green politics’ (80). These matters, often subsumed under the more general category of nature, are related to class structure, imperialism, and, most importantly, gender: ‘Austen aligns the objectification of nature with the objectification of women and, more specifically, the hunting, shooting, and racing of animals with the domination of women.’ (11) As for minerals, they come to the fore in the final chapter, ‘Rock and Rain’, dealing with Austen’s unfinished novel ‘Sanditon’, where ‘rock, sand, wind, and mist are all living presences, and evade human control’ (119) and her last work, a ‘very topical’ (120) poem, ‘When Winchester races first took their beginning’, occasioned by heavy rain at a race meeting, where ‘nature, through Saint Swithin, takes revenge on those who exploit nature’ (123).

Far from being an animal-hating misogynist, Taylor was a vegetarian, a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, a devoted husband who conversed in classical Greek with his wife, and an author whose idealistic philosophy influenced Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth, both cited to good effect by Seeber: she is particularly interesting on the connection between ‘the hunt and sexual conquest’ that occurs in Wordsworth’s ‘Hart-Leap Well’ (39), and which is developed so tellingly by Austen. Taylor’s Vindication could be taken simply as an instance of the rich variety of ideas that enlivened Austen’s intellectual environment, but for its association of increasing equality with revolutionary chaos: it is probably fear of this kind of misunderstanding that makes Austen so cautious that sometimes only the most careful readers can detect the ‘Ecofeminist’ (98) attitudes that invigorate her ‘critique of the conservative social order’ (6).

Seeber’s work is based on meticulous examination of textual detail. For example, in her discussion of hunting and reading in Persuasion, she draws attention to an apparently innocent metaphor, when Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove are engaged in ‘“the hunting of the Laconia”’ (56), Captain Wentworth’s ship, in the navy lists. This may be their only sporting activity, but it threatens to turn into a dangerously predatory competition. Having pointed out that Wentworth has made his fortune by ‘hunting on the high seas’ (60), Seeber notes that the inn where he writes the letter declaring his love for Anne is The White Hart,  ‘perhaps Austen’s hint that this courtship is not outside the hunting world’ (62). Her engagement with modern criticism is equally judicious: one can only applaud the balanced common sense of her attempt to subject Mansfield Park to ‘a “Post-Postcolonial Criticism” with a focus on nature and animals’ (75). She makes good use of Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food (1995), a specialist study on a topic closely related to her own book, while adding her own observations on the tendency of the gifts of food with which Emma is ‘stuffed’ to reinforce social boundaries and ‘create indebtedness on the part of the receivers’ (104). Seeber’s  book bears witness to widely ranging research on writing about female rationality, animal sentience, farming, estate management, slavery, vegetarianism, pedestrianism, and rural sports that would either have been directly accessible to Austen, or would shed light on her historical background. There is only one substantive inaccuracy. The visit of ‘the greedy and cruel Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood’ (88) to see the wild beasts at Exeter Exchange takes place not in ‘Exeter’ (88, 89), but London, whose metropolitan status serves even better to underscore the well observed connection of ‘the domination of animals to patriarchy, class, and imperialism’ (89).

This book is both revelatory and necessary: the tendency for film and television adaptations to ‘idealize rural sport’ (125) is just one instance of the need to take Seeber’s observations into account. Austen is more challenging, and a little less comforting, but even more interesting than before. One effect of these investigations is an intensified interrogation of the happy endings that have contributed so much to the novels’ popular appeal: Austen’s ‘uneasy marriage plots critique women’s subordination as part of nature’ (11). Yet there has been a redistribution of merit among her bridegrooms, rather than absolute loss: if Captain Wentworth’s appeal has become tarnished by excessive exposure to the hunt, Captain Benwick shines forth as a model of intelligent sympathy. His companion on the pinnacle of worthiness is Mr Darcy, who has sometimes struck readers, critics and sequel-writers as rather Gothic and sinister, but who, if judged by Seeber’s standards, as fisherman, book-lover, and sensitive landscape designer, will make an ideal husband: ‘Pride and Prejudice is distinctive in the Austen canon in its linking of both heroine and hero with nature’ (65).

Carolyn D. Williams, University of Reading

1 Thomas Taylor, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes(London: Edward Jeffery, Miller, and J. Sewell 1792) p. 103. E