THE ANIMAL ESTATE: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age by Harriet Ritvo

THE ANIMAL ESTATE: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age

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A large and little-explored subject excavated with a curious mixture of insight and narrowness. Ritvo's immediate object is to examine human dealings with animals in 19th-century England. This she carries off solidly, describing the evolution of the London Zoo or the late Victorian dog show with wonderful borrowings from such contemporary sources as breeders' polemical diatribes, naturalists' studies, and the sardonic eye of Punch. But her design is more ambitious. The six complementary aspects of human-animal relations she scrutinizes--cattle breeding, pet breeding, anti-cruelty activism, attitudes toward rabies, wild-animal collections, big-game hunting--are finally meant as metaphors of Englishmen's attitudes toward themselves and the universe. Elephant hunting is an obvious emblem of dominion at the height of imperialism; the humane societies' work on behalf of abused animals was also a disturbing attempt to police what they saw as a vice of ""the uneducated and inadequately disciplined lower classes."" This larger aim is not evenly realized. At her best, Ritvo patiently marshals her primary material into real illuminations--e.g., the insight that the prize pet fancy represented the construction of a toy-world social order ""in constant need of reaffirmation"" and implicitly celebrating ""the desire and ability to manipulate."" More often she belabors a few points about class attitudes and the celebration of preeminence, in a conceptual framework top-heavy with terms like ""metonymic association"" and nearly devoid of political or socioeconomic analysis. How often do we need to be told, in disapproving accents, that respectable English people thought they deserved to be lords of an often uncooperative universe? One can only be grateful for the energy with which Ritvo has tackled a telling chapter of intellectual history. A pity, though, that she does not bring a livelier range of analytic weapons to the task.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press