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  • Anxieties of an Animal Rights Activist:The Pressures of Modernity in Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle Series
  • Catherine L. Elick (bio)

At first glance, Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle books, which began appearing in 1920 and continued past his death in 1947,1 seem to have nothing more than their dates of publication to recommend designation as modern literature. Lofting's relatively straightforward narratives about his Victorian-era protagonist fail to conform to many of the features of modern fiction articulated by David Lodge in his essay "The Language of Modernist Fiction: Metaphor and Metonymy." The Doctor Dolittle books are not "experimental or innovatory in form," nor do they "[eschew] the straight chronological ordering of . . . material" as modernist fiction for adults frequently does (Lodge 481). They are not "much concerned with consciousness, and also with the subconscious or unconscious workings of the human mind" (Lodge 481). In this regard, in fact, their emphasis on exterior events rather than interior thought would no doubt have caused Virginia Woolf, one of the giants of modernist fiction herself, to dismiss Lofting as a "materialist" (147), as she labels H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy in her seminal essay on "Modern Fiction."

With these marks against him, what reasons might remain for deeming Lofting's work modernist? Perhaps the first justification is a biographical one: he participated in that global trauma that helped give birth to the problems of modern life and the complexities of modern art, the First World War. That the cataclysmic effects of World War I account in large part for the shift in sensibility that we call modernism is a critical truism. As William Barrett succinctly states, "Not only did the war transform governments, social systems, and national boundaries; the very quality of life itself was never to be the same as in the years before 1914" (70). When we think about the effects of World War I on literature, we think first of the angry antiwar expressions of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen or of the disillusionment inherent in works [End Page 323] like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), considered by M. L. Rosenthal to be "a post-war poem charged with nausea at the thought of the young men who had died" (89). We forget that some of the best writers of British children's fantasy also experienced combat in the trenches of the Great War—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and A. A. Milne, among them. However, no children's writer has acknowledged as openly as Hugh Lofting that the carnage of the First World War served as inspiration for his work. Notably, it was not the devastation to human lives and values that wrenched Lofting into writing illustrated letters about the unconventional Doctor Dolittle to his children Elizabeth and Colin but the violence visited upon animals. In an author's commentary first published in 1934 in The Junior Book of Authors, Lofting describes his distress over animals' suffering during the war:

Oftentimes you would see a cat stalking along the ruins thruout [sic] a heavy bombardment, in a town that had been shelled more than once before in that same cat's recollection. She was taking her chances with the rest of us. And the horses, too, learned to accept resignedly and unperturbed the falling of high explosives in their immediate neighbor-hood. But their fate was different from the men's. However seriously a soldier was wounded, his life was not despaired of; all the resources of a surgery highly developed by the war were brought to his aid. A seriously wounded horse was put out by a timely bullet.

This did not seem quite fair. If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.


As Lofting explicitly acknowledges, the war moved him to envision situations in which the unfair balance of power between humans and animals might be shifted. In this respect, certainly, Lofting's impulses are very modern...


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pp. 323-339
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