- Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture by Sarah Amato
The arrival of this book in my mailbox attests to the continuing fascination with its topic, specifically, the circulation of animals within consumer culture. Within minutes of opening it, I myself circulated the book throughout my department, encouraging my colleagues and students to look at the many images found within: some familiar, such as those of people with their pets, and some grotesque and foreign, as with the "Chair Made from a Baby Giraffe." Amato's text impressively balances between this sense of Victorian human/animal relations as both recognizable and not, revealing those nineteenth-century pet-keeping practices that form the basis for our own, while also elucidating the specificities of animal ownership that are very different from assumptions we often make in western culture today. As such, her book is an invaluable resource, one that captures the complexities of animal circulation in consumer culture in ways that will support and inform the further analysis of animal studies scholars from a wide variety of disciplines.
Amato's focus is on the social lives of animals, with three of the chapters focusing significantly on pet keeping, but going beyond companion animals to also discuss zoos and taxidermy. Her argument is that animals were circulated as part of Victorian mass culture and, specifically, consumer culture, serving as "animate possessions and mass commodities." Moving away from earlier definitions of the pet that clearly delineate between animals for consumption and animals for companionship, Amato's study instead allows for the blurred lines between categories of animals, arguing that the historical texts upon which she draws – "newspaper reports, social investigations, manuals, guidebooks, printed ephemera, lithographic images, and photographs … museum collections of advertisements, postcards, toys, art, ornaments, and taxidermy" – instead reveal considerable overlap between the animal as beloved companion and as fungible commodity: "Through its lifespan and beyond, the pet had latent value and could be sold for cash or wages, possibly eaten, refurbished or enhanced … exchanged for other goods, and recrafted as a taxidermic furnishing." Her readings of the trading of animals via advertisements, for example, demonstrate that "pet cats, birds, dogs, mice, and koalas were considered equivalent to furniture, fabric, hunting equipment, sewing machines, cash, jewellery, and other animals"; similarly, her chapter on zoos recounts the Zoological Society's experiments in "new meats for human consumption," such as the hippopotamus and the eland.
While Amato's text addresses the animal as commodity, she is also careful throughout to acknowledge animal agency and to demonstrate how that agency disrupted human efforts to fully control and categorize [End Page 234] the animal other; or, perhaps more accurately, how animal lives also transformed and altered human culture. In her section on pet keeping, for example, she acknowledges the role that human mastery plays in the human/animal relationship but also observes how "this process was symbiotic as pet and owner observed new routines of coexistence and participation in consumer culture" with the taming of the "wild" animal "never entirely resolved." Similarly, in her chapter on zoos, she points out that the "challenges of keeping animals alive and on display undermined the classificatory intentions of the Zoological Society." Certainly, a book that ends with a discussion of taxidermy is not one that wishes to avoid issues of human dominance and control over the animal world, and Amato makes clear that stuffed, dead animal bodies "reflected the Victorian and Edwardian belief that animals should be useful to humans, even in death." Nevertheless, in her analysis of the movement of animals within human culture, Amata is careful to elucidate throughout the complexity of human/animal relations, reminding us that "relationships to pets and zoo animals were tangible, smelly, messy, disconcerting, comforting, and sometimes tasty; representations could be equally troubling."
Amato's text does important work in terms of situating Victorian animal relations within social narratives of gender, race, and class, but its greatest strength is in the wealth of texts it uses to provide a vivid, complex, and expansive understanding of animals in the lives of Victorian people...