Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay (eds.), Victorian Animal Dreams

Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay (eds), Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007).  xvi + 281 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-5511-4.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

A couple of years ago, I set an experimental exercise for students on an animal history module. I asked them to keep an ‘animal diary’ for one day, in which they should note all animal encounters – whether with actual animals, animal products, animal representations, or other animal references. They, and I confess I too, thought it would not be too arduous a task in an urban, university environment. In fact, the number of animal encounters was vast and most students gave up the task within an hour or two; those that continued through the day found themselves almost overwhelmed by their results. I expected the students to learn to their surprise that there are a significant number of animals, real and represented, around us. In fact, what we all learned was that animals are the very fabric of our world; what is extraordinary is the degree to which we manage to edit them out of our conscious field of vision.

Over the past generation or so, historians and other cultural critics have been coming to terms with the presence of animals in human society, and here is a book bringing together some of this scholarship, loosely focused on the nineteenth century. Its three sections – Science and Sentiment, Sex and Violence, and Sin and Bestiality – comprise sixteen essays in total, a menagerie that is impossible to discuss in detail. Loving, killing, owning, wearing, despising, fearing, admiring: these various human-animal relationships smear across the attempted categorisation. I must confess that the distinction between the second and third parts of the book in particular was not clear to me. ‘Sex and Violence’ and ‘Sin and Bestiality’ are surely overlapping categories. Some chapters deal with particular animals, others deal with themes (cross-breeding, beastly criminality) across a variety of novels. Amongst our literary zoo are exotic animals – crocodiles, sloths, langurs – playing upon expected tropes of racial and imperial anxiety. Domestic animals raise questions of gender, class and criminality. There are also domestic animals whose role is more ambivalent; they are at once the focus of sentiment and natural subjects of human dominance (or the dominance of certain humans), their pathos and whippability hopelessly entangled. As soon as their dignity was granted by a Victorian, they were by definition honorarily removed into the human sphere. Teresa Mangum puts the problem in relation to the commemoration of pets: the very act of memorialisation displaced them from the rest of the ‘animal world’ (p. 31).

Cannon Schmitt will have none of Mangum’s argument: ‘After Darwin and Wallace, knowing beetles is knowing one’s relatives – and no longer entirely distinguishable from knowing oneself’ (p. 39). Pace Kafka, this is patently not the case: kinship has its limits. And yet in one sense Schmitt is right. The book’s introduction claims that science and sentiment were antithetical in the nineteenth century (p. 5), and this holds for the mainstream biologists who are cited in this collection. However, an alternate strand of natural-historical writers in the high Victorian era (Arabella Buckley, E. L. Budgen, J. H. Fabre, George MacDonald) went to considerable lengths to explicate and justify the relationship between these two mental attributes.

Harriet Ritvo’s thoughtful afterword seems to articulate a certain amount of anxiety about the collection. She notes that the charge of anthropomorphism, implicitly levelled at Victorians when treating animals badly as signifiers of race and so on, actually ‘erects ... a barrier that may not have been perceived by any of the individuals involved’ (p. 273). She also highlights an ethical problem related to another implicit goal of many of these essays, namely, to restore a level of subjectivity to their animal actors. ‘The standing of animals, even those closest to us, still presents vexed moral, legal and political issues, and the range of possible positions is not very different from the range available to Victorians’ (p. 275). Past and present are not so easily separated, nor is the literary neatly divisible from other spheres. Ritvo’s remark suggests the uncomfortable possibility that literary criticism which does not make its ethical goals explicit is a circular enterprise. I would rather see this (as I suspect would she and the book’s other contributors) as an invitation to debate than as an expression of defeat.

Including so many essays in Victorian Animal Dreams certainly gives value for money (if at the expense of aesthetic production), but I wondered whether a collection that was a little more focused and selective in terms of its subject-matter might not have been of greater scholarly value. A firmer editorial hand in imposing some kind of theoretical framework (overdue in the field, and implicitly requested by Ritvo) would have been welcome. Nevertheless, the book is essential reading for all scholars in animal studies, for the simple reason that they might otherwise overlook an essay in a sphere closely related to their own research. Similarly, anyone who teaches the subject will certainly find things in here to recommend to students, depending on the exact subject matter of their course. All in all this is an enjoyable afternoon trip to the literary zoo; perhaps there are too many animals to take in properly, but you can always have a choc-ice afterwards.

Charlotte Sleigh, University of Kent