Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn


The nineteenth century


One book that Sarah Trimmer would probably have condemned as maudlin and oversentimentalised was a novel entitled The Biography of a Spaniel (1806) in which, ‘a master and loyal pet expire together [and] the dog is immensely gratified to hear his master breathe, “Bury us together”’ (Jackson 1989: 168). This book was part of the animal autobiography genre that was popular from the end of the eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth century. Dorothy Kilner’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse (1783) is usually credited as starting the trend, but its most famous example is Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, His Grooms and Companions. The Autobiography of a Horse (1877) nearly a hundred years later. The genre was particularly popular in the early part of the nineteenth century with a succession of mainly domestic animals, cats and dogs, queuing up to tell their stories. However, the success of Sewell’s novel prompted almost a second wave of such autobiographies that carried on into the twentieth century, with books like Kipling’s Thy Servant, a Dog (1930). There was, it appears, no ‘animal’ too large or too small to ‘write’ such a story. Indeed, in size order, these ‘authors’ range from Dr Ernest Candeze’s The Curious Adventures of a Field Cricket (1881) up to Arabella Argus’s The Adventures of a Donkey (1815) and Sewell’s Black Beauty.

In terms of anthropomorphism, the attraction of this sub-genre is believed to be the space it allows for vicarious ‘identification’. Margaret Blount, for example, praises Kilner’s book as a feat in imaginative verisimilitude, noting that although it is ‘a parable about filial obedience ... there is a real feeling of what it might be like to be a mouse and record one’s feelings’ (Blount 1974: 47). Yet, as with The History of the Robins, it is important to recognise that these texts are not just sustained exercises in imagining animal experiences, but are also used as part of a more general critique of human behaviour.

But judgements on human conduct may or may not be related to the treatment of animals. As Hunt notes, in The Rambles of a Rat (1857) by A.L.O.E. (A Lady of England, the pseudonym of Charlotte Maria Tucker), the focus is ‘not on the plight of the rats, but on the conditions of the human poor’ (Hunt 2001: 147). The picaresque form these books adopt certainly lends itself to such a didactic function. As Tess Cosslett observes, ‘the domestic animal’s movement between various owners, up and down the social scale, can give a comprehensive picture of society and its failings’ (Cosslett 2003: 1). But beyond critique, the animal autobiography is a genre that, even after accepting its basic premise of ‘giving speech to the speechless’, tends to prompt more questions than it can plausibly answer (Blount 1974: 250). How, for example is the narrative being recorded? Or, to put it more bluntly, how do they hold the pen?! It is, as Steve Baker notes, not the idea of an animal narrator that is the problem - that is accepted easily by anyone familiar with the conventions of the genre - but the ‘mechanics’ of the situation. Questions arise, Baker writes, ‘within the story once the fanciful reader steps back from the narrative flow’ (Baker 1993: 126). Some ingenious authors do, however, anticipate such queries and, as with Nimble the mouse in Kilner’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse, suggest that the animal is dictating its story to a human amanuensis. There, are, however, too many other cases - for example, Argus’s Jemmy the donkey in The Adventures of a Donkey, with his ‘writing foot’ - where pasterns and paws seem to be plying pens with consummate ease!

Perhaps we should not worry about such matters, if we are prepared to accept the idea of a communicating animal in the first place. Indeed, Sewell evades such a question altogether, as the only clue to the status of her novel is that the title page declares it to be ‘Translated from the equine by Anna Sewell’. Cosslett notes that ‘translating’ ‘is a very apt metaphor for the way that Sewell imagines a human voice for animal experiences’ (Cosslett 2003: 5). The latter point is, perhaps what readers find both attractive and also disturbing in this sub-genre. As Blount observes, animals like Beauty and others have an unnerving omniscience married to a human consciousness (Blount 1974: 52). Although Argus and Sewell draw attention to the limits of their narrators’ understanding or knowledge, others, such as Mrs Pilkington’s cat narrator, Grimalkin, in Marvellous Adventures, or the Vicissitudes of a Cat (1802), are allowed considerably more liberty. As Blount notes, with his extensive knowledge of the contents of letters, ‘Grimalkin becomes rather more omniscient than a cat should be’ (Blount 1974: 50).

It is, however, not the omniscience that is the most startling aspect of this genre, but the ‘humanness’ of the voice that speaks. The voice of Black Beauty, as Nicholas Tucker notes, is one that seems most reminiscent of a ‘refined, sensitive’ young man (Tucker 1981: 159). It is this blurring of the animal/human identity that unsettles because it rhetorically uses a human consciousness to appeal for the better treatment of animals. Nonetheless, as Blount has observed, for all of its sentimentality and emotional manipulation, the book was credited with helping to abolish the dreadful inhumane bearing rein (Blount 1974: 251).

Another effect of the humanising of animal consciousness in these autobiographies is that it allows them to be read in ways that suggest various analogies between animals and types or classes of humans: slaves, women, children, servants, workers (Ferguson 1994; Cosslett 2003: 8). Black Beauty has been particularly receptive to such readings. Its analogies with slavery were evident to its original readers and were in fact exploited in the marketing of the book in the USA.

Tess Cosslett’s recent work on Black Beauty considers the effect produced by the book’s ambiguous address. She notes: ‘It is never made clear to whom Black Beauty is talking, and it is this unspecificity of the narratee that allows the reader to slide in and out of horse consciousness, blurring the animal/human divide’ (Cosslett 2003: 5).

To demonstrate the way in which the reader ‘slide[s] in and out of horse consciousness’, Cosslett cites Beauty’s description of the ‘breaking in’ experience. Here the book’s shifting address can be read as ‘push[ing the reader] to identify with horse experience’ (Cosslett 2003: 6). Such ‘identification’ is, however, divided, because at other points the reader is also asked to identify with the book’s human role models, those good grooms and owners whom Beauty encounters. The shifting of subject positions that the text invites, added to its strange marriage of animal and human consciousness, once again indicates the complexity of such a story and its ability to challenge the boundaries between ‘human’ and ‘animal’.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century, the impact of Darwinism can be seen in animal stories that either satirise such theories or take them as the raison d’etre for a more ‘realistic’ animal story. As Harriet Ritvo writes, the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) ‘eliminated the deity who had created the world for human convenience; it also eliminated the unbridgeable gulf that divided reasoning human beings from irrational brutes’ (Ritvo 1987: 39). In many ways the culmination of years of speculation and theory by others rather than a radical break, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was, however, profoundly unsettling for those who still wanted to keep God at the centre of the world. Christian writers and scientists such as Mrs Gatty and Charles Kingsley were committed to pursuing scientific interests but making them compatible with their religious beliefs. If Darwin’s work was a threat, their response was to parody it. Perhaps the best example of the use of the animal story as a vehicle for parody is provided by Mrs Gatty’s Parables from Nature (1855-71).


The animal story as parody

Mrs Gatty has been rather overshadowed by her more famous daughter, the writer Mrs Ewing. Gatty was a scientist and a writer for children who, subscribing to Paleyan Natural Theology, ‘resisted interpretations of nature that were not grounded in the divine’ (Rauch 1997: 140). In her series Parables from Nature she brilliantly fused her two occupations in order to use children’s literature as a means for confronting the controversies of the theory of evolution. In the piece ‘Inferior Animals’, she presents a counsel of rooks debating the question of man. In a parody of both Darwinian ideas and rhetoric, one of the rooks declares:


My friends, man is not our superior, was never so, for he is neither more nor less than a degenerated brother of our race! Yes, I venture confidently to look back thousands of generations, and I see that men were once rooks!

(Gatty 1899: 30)


Here, Gatty’s rook notes that although man has degenerated from his original rooklike form, there are signs of an atavistic urge in his increasing construction of tall buildings and, in an age of coal-mining, the observation that, although many men start the day pale, they return home later covered in soot, which indicates a desire to return to their natural colour. Gatty’s is, as Cosslett notes, an exceptionally complex and self-conscious parody of Darwinian thought (Cosslett 2002: 484-5). In a book written for children, Gatty took advantage of the satiric possibilities of the beast-fable. But her choice of genre is significant in two other respects. First, it acknowledges that by operating in a children’s book, it can target both children and the adults who read stories to them (Rauch 1997: 147). Second, children’s literature was a medium that was open to women writers who were, in the main, excluded from scientific discourses at this time.