- Talking Animals in British Children's Fiction, 1786-1914
The title of Tess Cosslett's study, Talking Animals in British Children's Fiction, 1786-1914, is an apt description of the contents. The study is, however, much more than that, for Cosslett offers a meticulous study of the social, cultural, religious, scientific, and historical influences that led to the emergence and codification of animal stories written for children. As she writes, the animal stories published during this time frame "engage with some of the big issues of their day," including "nature, class, gender, [and] empire" (4). They also deal with Victorian ideals and sensibilities regarding scientific materialism, evolution, religion, and the treatment of animals. Thus, Cosslett examines numerous texts ranging from ones that most scholars of children's literature will know (Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Charles Kingsley's Water Babies, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and Beatrix Potters's The Complete Tales) and texts that are probably somewhat obscure (animal "autobiographies" such as E. Burrows's Tuppy, or the Autobiography of a Donkey, Aldred Elwes's The Adventures of a Dog, Lucy Thornton's The Story of a Poodle, by Himself, and His Mistress, and others).
As Cosslett notes, chronological and genre considerations guide the organization of the study. In chronological terms, she traces the history of talking animal stories and examines the historical milieu that surrounded their emergence. She looks to Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Newbery, and others to frame the eighteenth-century discussions concerning education and attitudes toward childhood. This in itself is familiar territory for many; however, Cosslett's text asks us to look at these contexts differently by refocusing [End Page 79] our attention on the significance of their work in terms of animal stories. For instance, Locke's endorsement of Aesop's Fables, because they encourage compassionate attitudes toward animals, likely influenced Trimmer's Fabulous Histories (later published as The History of the Robins), which "instil[s] both social morality, and compassion for animals" and which ultimately "convey[s] lessons about animals in the real world, what they are like, and how we should behave towards them" (39). In terms of genre, Cosslett examines histories (as in Trimmer's Fabulous Histories), papillonades (comic animal poems for children), animal autobiographies (such as Sewell's Black Beauty), parables (Margaret Gatty's Parables from Nature), fairy tales, and wild animal stories (Kipling's The Jungle Book).
Readers interested in the work of Sarah Trimmer will find the entire text important and helpful, for Cosslett contextualizes Trimmer's work and notes how it influences later writers. Cosslett pays particular attention to Trimmer's Fabulous Histories, the story of a family of robins and the challenges they face. Cosslett identifies a major contradiction in the animal stories produced at this time: "how and why does anyone write stories about talking animals for children in an age of Enlightenment and Reason, of Progress and Modernity?" (36). Talking animals would seem to be in direct opposition to the notion of these ideals. Ultimately, Cosslett explains that Trimmer attempts to reconcile this contradiction by invoking a Victorian chain-of-being (which has its own problems), so to speak. Trimmer also creates a "mixture of natural historical verisimilitude and overt moral allegory" and provides explicit messages regarding cruelty to animals (49). Notably, Cosslett asserts that Fabulous Histories contributes to "a new definition of childhood as protected space" similar to the way in which "the robins are protected in the nest and in the orchard" (45). In conjunction with Fabulous Histories, Cosslett also examines the papillonades, which also deal with hierarchies but the authors invert them in the carnivalesque tradition.
While many readers of talking animal stories probably pay little attention to the construction of an authentic animal voice—that seems to be part of the task of suspending disbelief—Cosslett tackles that very problem. In other words, how do authors "speaking" for animals create an (authentic) animal consciousness or subjectivity and seamless, believable narrative? Many authors have simply ignored that problem, but others try...