Given the increasing range of thematic approaches to Romantic period literature, and the extent to which that literature deals with animals; and given, too, the current level of interest in our relationship to the animal kingdom, and the whole tangled issue of “animal rights,” it is no surprise to find two animal-focused studies of Romanticism emerging almost simultaneously. What is surprising, perhaps, and pleasantly so, is that the two studies, which at first glance seem to be exploring similar territory, actually overlap very little, interrogate different sets of materials, and bring diverse emphases to bear on them. Reading Christine Kenyon-Jones’s Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing and David Perkins’s Romanticism and Animal Rights together is a lesson in how rich a field of enquiry the animal in Romantic literature is. Anyone approaching the topic in the future will need to read and digest both these fine studies, as well as the book which to some extent lies behind and enables them both, Keith Thomas’s seminal Man and the Natural World, two decades old and certainly not overused by scholars of literature.
Christine Kenyon-Jones’s and David Perkins’s studies have comparable strengths. Both are carefully researched, introduce a wide range of primary source material, and are more concerned with putting that material in context, and questioning it, than imposing arguments and conclusions on the reader. They are “open,” highly discussable books that will appeal not just to experts, but to undergraduates looking for something to argue about, as well as ordinary readers with an interest in animals. They make the reader think: and not just about literature, but about the importance of animals, and how and why we understand and treat them as we do. Both scholars, but especially Perkins, also make the reader feel that this is a subject which really matters.
The greater emotional “edge” in Perkins’s book derives from his narrower concern with cruelty to animals. Strategically positioned through his study are horrifying accounts of how animals were treated two centuries ago: donkeys or asses cut so as to produce open wounds for the whip (14); badgers having their lower jaws amputated prior to being baited (90); calves slowly bled to death; poultry for “cramming” having their feet nailed to a board (117). And much more. It is ugly, shocking, sickening. One readily accepts that the many writers who, in the face of such routine cruelty, took up the cause of animals were doing something important and admirable. Perkins never lets his reader lose sight of this, though he is prepared to expose the inconsistencies, illogicalities, and occasional hypocrisy of those who championed animals. Kenyon-Jones’s study has a broader brief. Although she does discuss cruelty to animals, she is more generally concerned with “animals as objects in human culture” (1) and the way humans understand their relations to animals.
Both books make clear that the latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed an extraordinary increase in the amount of writing about animals. An obvious starting question might be “why?” though this detains neither scholar very much. Kenyon-Jones, merely gives a summary sketch of what we all think we know, that is that in the “Romantic era” there was “a new emphasis on nature” brought about by industrialization and urbanization (2). Perkins goes further, noting that “many social, economic, and cultural developments underlie this literature” (xii), and though this is not the main focus of his book, he opens up some suggestive perspectives (many of them admittedly anticipated by Keith Thomas). There was, for example, the tendency of the expanding middle class to associate cruelty to animals with the “lower orders.” There was a great increase in the urban population, and in the number of industrial workers, and a concomitant feeling on the part of magistrates and employers that traditional sports and activities involving cruelty to animals were a threat to public order and work discipline. Urbanization also physically removed people from animals to a certain extent, encouraging pet keeping and a generally more sentimental attitude to birds and beasts. Locke’s ideas on education effectively emphasized that a child allowed to practice cruelty to animals is likely to grow up a generally hard-hearted, unsympathetic individual—and Hogarth pushed the argument harder and further in his influential Stages of Cruelty series. There was the widespread promotion of sympathy and benevolence as virtues in the Age of Sensibility, and with it the idea that violence and suffering were fundamentally unnatural. And there was what Keith Thomas succinctly called “The Narrowing Gap” (121), a gradual concurrence of theological, philosophical, medical and scientific opinion that animals were closer to humans, and more capable of feeling, than earlier thinking, especially of the Cartesian variety, had allowed. Perkins touches lightly on most of these reasons, but he documents the last fully, demonstrating, with abundant evidence, that “in the advanced thought of the time [the late 1700s] the bodies, minds, emotions, morals, and even souls of animals might be kin to the human” (29). And, as an extension of this, he argues that in “the rationalizing theology of the age,” in particular, the ideas “that animals are innocent, that God designed them for happiness, and that He will punish cruelty to them” were widely accepted and encouraged (33).
Perkins’s book is concerned not so much with explaining why so much animal literature existed, as demonstrating that it did, however: “the suffering of animals at the hands of humans gradually became visible, so to speak, in the course of the eighteenth century. … Once it began to be seen, the torment of animals was a constant, intimate, pervading fact that strongly motivated because it appalled” (13). Perkins catalogues the ways in which animal suffering “became visible” and “strongly motivated” and he looks at how different writers responded to, and promoted, that visibility. Three central chapters examine, in turn, the cruelty of hunting, of animal baiting (setting dogs onto a chained animal), and the treatment of working animals. In each case Perkins surveys a wide range of writing, but focuses on one key literary figure: Wordsworth (hunting), Clare (baiting), and Coleridge (working animals). These central chapters are framed by two others which pursue the issue of “visibility” in more indirect ways, examining how awareness of the new ideas about animals complicated other kinds of human engagement with them, as in keeping pets and eating meat. Again there is a focus on a key, or exemplary, literary figure in each case. Cowper and his hares is an apt focus for the study of pet keeping, and Perkins brilliantly probes Cowper’s psychological world to consider what his hares meant to him. In the chapter on eating the focus is, perhaps unexpectedly, (Charles) Lamb, and there is a compelling discussion of how Lamb’s “gourmet enthusiasms … seem psychologically defensive against feelings of disgust in eating and particularly in eating flesh” (119). After so much strong writing and strong argument the book ends with a weaker, rather diffuse chapter on birds: this begins with the writers who protested at the widely practiced activity of bird nesting and ends with the suggestion that “the lyrics of high Romanticism about birds” (141) exploit the birds they describe by turning them into vehicles for subjective emotion. Perkins sheds fresh light on nearly all the material discussed, and he seems to me particularly good on the male writers generally placed in the second division: Cowper, Burns, Lamb, and Clare.
If one of the strengths of Perkins’s book is its sense of unity, of finding a common direction in a great deal of diverse material, Kenyon-Jones’s has a rather different shape, circling round its subject, and opening up multiple perspectives on the Romantic animal. The best way for me to convey an idea of the variety of her book is to give a brief summary of the six main chapters. The first uses Byron’s “Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog” to introduce “the theriophillic tradition” (12) in which animals are praised as superior to humans; this in turn opens up into a wide-ranging discussion of traditional ideas about humans’ relationship to nature, pet-keeping, and the politicization of animals in the Romantic period. The second looks at ideas about, and representations of, animals in children’s literature and works of educational theory, traces two distinct traditions back to Locke and Rousseau, and introduces Coleridge as a major literary figure whose statements about animals mediate between these traditions. The third looks at the attempts of British politicians to introduce legislation (in 1800, 1802, and 1809) which would criminalize bull-baiting, William Windham’s emergence as a defender of the practice, with Burkean appeals to tradition—Windham claimed, with apparent sincerity, that “[t]he putting of a stop to bull-baiting was legislating against the genius and spirit of almost every country and every age” (82)—and how Byron responded to this debate in the bullfighting description in Childe Harold. This chapter is the one which most obviously compares to Perkins’s study (he discusses Windham too), and Kenyon-Jones makes clearer than he does that the fighters for (loosely) “animal rights” were up against not just long-established practices but a powerful ideology linked to notions of masculinity and the national character. The fourth chapter considers Shelley’s vegetarianism and “Byron’s troubled carnivorousness” (110) or—perhaps better—“skeptical carnivorousness” (121), focusing on the way both poets disturb, question, and play with the human eating codes and taboos that are often assumed to be “natural” but are in reality highly cultural. This chapter is well complemented by Perkins’s study of Lamb’s uneasy joy in meat; he hints, in fact, at the value of comparing Lamb and Byron (126). Kenyon-Jones’s fifth chapter turns to Wordsworth’s attitudes to animals, and begins, arrestingly, by focusing on a few lines from The Prelude in which Wordsworth describes his youthful passion for nature / Nature:
142; quoting 1805 Prelude 8.486-95
… a passion, she,
A rapture often, and immediate joy
Ever at hand; he [Man] distant, but a grace
Occasional, and accidental thought,
His hour being not yet come. Far less had then
The inferior creatures, beast or bird, attuned
My spirit to that gentleness of love,
Won from me those minute obeisances
Of tenderness which I may number now
With my first blessings.
Kenyon-Jones observes that Wordsworth “draws the line between man and the natural environment in what seems a surprising place, by locating the beasts and birds outside ‘Nature’” (142), and emphasizes that critics have paid almost no attention to this fact, despite the massive amount of writing about Wordsworthian Nature. She suggests that animals fit awkwardly into Wordsworth’s thinking, and complicate modern readings of him as an ecological poet. These points are well made, though the chapter lacks some of the structural coherence of the others, and one sometimes gets the feeling that Kenyon-Jones is herself unsure how to understand the Wordsworthian animal. The sixth chapter looks at the different concepts of evolution in circulation “between the Darwins,” and the way these challenged traditional religious notions of man’s privileged position in the universe; it then explores the ways these ideas were made use of by Keats and Byron. All Kenyon-Jones’s chapters can be profitably read independently, and she has a way of starting lines of thought without taking them very far that works well, encouraging the reader to think out of the book in all sorts of directions.
The two books under review read rather differently. Perkins’s conveys a great sense of urgency and condensation. It is short (just 147 pages of main text), and often feels like a longer book pruned down with unusual severity. Its terse, punchy style makes a lot of other academic writing seem flabby and self-indulgent, and seldom goes wrong, though there are occasional sentences which read more like marginal jottings; at times these introduce a welcome note of singularly deadpan humor, at others they simply distract from the seriousness of the point being made (e.g. “Might greens be preferable in God’s eyes?” (32)). Excellent as it is, one feels the book could only have improved if slower-paced and less compressed. Kenyon-Jones’s longer study is more relaxed, and there are several extended literary analyses which unfold in a leisurely way, though other sections are more tightly written, a good deal of valuable material being relegated to footnotes. She always quotes generously, and some of her quotations seem unnecessarily long; the lazy reader will do a lot of skipping. The uneven pace of her book highlights the privileging of certain writers over others; Byron, in particular, always receives expansive treatment, and it might be conjectured that her book actually began life as a study of Byron and animals, and retains a little of that underlying shape.
In many ways both books impress greatly with the range and variety of their references. Both authors draw on poetry, children’s literature, philosophical works, political debates, and books specifically concerned with animals. Perkins adds some sermons, essays, and magazine literature, and Kenyon-Jones adds some scientific literature and encyclopedias. Although it is easy to think of other kinds of writing in which different perspectives on animals might be opened up—travel writing, say, or cookery books—few readers will feel cheated in terms of the amount of extra-literary writing introduced. Given the clear emphasis on literature (i.e. belle-lettres), though, it might be considered odd that there is virtually no discussion of novels or plays, and, moreover, no explanation or acknowledgement of the omission. The novel was, after all, the ascendant literary form of the period, and in studies like these, which, as Perkins says, are concerned with “the discourse” of animals (ix), and in Kenyon-Jones’s words, bring a “broadly historicist method” to bear on “cultural discourses” (203), the reader might expect to hear something about it. Kenyon-Jones quotes no novels at all, though, while Perkins briefly quotes Tristram Shandy and Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality, both from the 1760s, and then nothing more until Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey (1847): he acknowledges, however, that the novel was one of the kinds of writing in which “[k]indness to animals was urged and represented” (ix). Kenyon-Jones offers the suggestion that “strong statements by poets in particular” were made “about the importance of the natural world” (2; my emphasis), but this seems a preemptive defense of a focus on poetry rather than a conclusion derived from a study of a wider range of literature. Perkins briefly seems to hint at a generic difference when he suggests that novelists were generally insensitive to the suffering of coach horses, adding “perhaps, the novelist considered them irrelevant to the theme of the novel” (105). This conflicts with my rather hazy memory of many tender-hearted heroes and heroines compassionating working animals in late eighteenth-century novels: Radcliffe’s Ellena, for example, gives her only ducat to a peasant guide she hears “declare, that the animal, which the Confessor [Schedoni] had so cruelly spurred, should have a double feed, and a bed of straw as high as his head, if he himself [the guide] went without one” (275). Of course such passages are incidental in the vast majority of novels, and perhaps poetry was indeed the main literary form in which sympathy towards animals was expressed, as Keith Thomas seemed to think (149), but it may equally be the case that this is an appearance produced by a critical methodology which privileges poetry. This privileging, which has a long tradition in Romantic period studies of course, is more pronounced in Kenyon-Jones’s case, where for all the “background” she introduces, the “foreground” remains, sturdily, the “big six” canonical male poets (though unlike Perkins she pays little attention to Blake). Childe Harold may rub shoulders with William Windham but the underlying critical stance is more old-fashioned than that fact, abstractly considered, might suggest. Perkins takes a broader view, with his extended accounts of traditionally “second division” writers, but despite his enthralling weaving together of a wide range of source materials, there is an inescapable feeling that the “Romanticism” of his title mainly denotes poetry, just as the “Writing” of Kenyon-Jones’s title does. As in many other period studies of recent years, poetry is constantly brought into dialogue with non-literary writing, rather than other kinds of literature.
This caveat about how “Romantic-Period writing” or “Romanticism” is reduced in critical practice apart, these books are wholly commendable. What they do they do extremely well, and it is to be hoped they will encourage other scholars to take further the study of animals in the Romantic period; further studies will, no doubt, fill out and fill in the cultural map Kenyon-Jones and Perkins have begun to construct. “The subject,” to quote Wordsworth, “is indeed important!” Perkins makes some well-taken comments in his preface, warning against any complacent assumptions that we treat animals better today: “I would not know how to weigh the sufferings of contemporary hens in batteries and hogs in hog cities against those of their ancestors in 1800, except that now vastly more animals are involved” (xiv). In the twenty-first century cruelty to animals is much further removed from most people in developed countries, many of whom would probably become vegetarians overnight if they saw for themselves what is done to keep the price of meat down. This removal has raised the level of hypocrisy surrounding the subject for there is a widespread assumption that we are more innocent than we are, and moral high ground is often willful self-deception. Thus many westerners fulminate against the Japanese for eating whales, or the Koreans for eating dogs, while barely acknowledging that what they eat themselves involves tremendous cruelty to animals capable of experiencing pain. The present level of public apathy toward this carries little hope for animals in the immediate future, though there are a few hopeful signs, such as the increasing momentum against the production of foie gras in both Europe and North America. Landor, a great animal lover not discussed in these books, would rejoice at this, if nothing else. His magnificent denunciation of those who eat foie gras proposes that: “He who could partake of such an abominable luxury, knowing its process, ought not even to be buried where men are buried, but (in strict retributive justice) given to the kites and crows” (16:217).
- Landor, Walter Savage. The Complete Works. Ed. T. Earle Welby and Stephen Crane. 16 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1927-36.
- Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Ed. Frederick Garber. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1968.
- Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983.