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  • Reading and the Popular Critique of Science in the Victorian Anti-Vivisection Press:Frances Power Cobbe's Writing for the Victoria Street Society
  • Susan Hamilton (bio)

In 1894, when Frances Power Cobbe published her autobiography, she was the recognized leader of the anti-vivisection organization the Victoria Street Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection. She was also a pioneering woman journalist who used her autobiography to publicize the extensive network of acquaintances and political allies with whom she had argued over and organized societies to promote the cause of anti-vivisection for twenty years. Among those acquaintances was Charles Darwin, a man whom she delighted in claiming as a fellow debater on questions of animal conscience but whose theory of evolution she found challenging to her world view. Though they never agreed on the subject of vivisection, Cobbe, in her autobiography, focuses on the spirit of exchange that characterized their correspondence, which terminated only once Darwin publicly announced his support for the use of live animals in scientific research. A substantial portion of the autobiography details the many scientific men with whom Cobbe cut ties as her anti-vivisectionist lobbying increased.

As Cobbe recounts, her meetings with Darwin embody her professional and ethical commitment to the debate and civil exchange of ideas that had long characterized her periodical and newspaper writing. But this commitment also marks Cobbe's determination to retain ways of talking about animal consciousness and anti-vivisection that we could argue were unsuccessful in the campaign to abolish the use of live animals in scientific experiment. The episode points, in microcosm, to a larger phenomenon in anti-vivisectionist writing. Why did the movement remain loyal to modes of argument and analysis that seemingly failed to achieve many of its goals?

In a recent article, Harriet Ritvo explores the emergence of a nineteenth-century prototype for subsequent environmental confrontations, in which the idea of "the pristine" emerged as a conceptual tool in arguments to protect land from development. Ritvo demonstrates that not only did the rhetoric of the pristine fail to secure protection of land but that, despite this failure, the appeal of the pristine remained critical to the developing environmental [End Page 66] movement's sense of itself (passim). In other words, though specific rhetorical and conceptual tools did not persuade a broad audience of the relevance of protecting certain natural locales, those same tools were remarkably successful in securing the movement's own identity.

One approach to the problem of failures of environmental and anti-vivisectionist discourse consists in attending to the print culture forms in which such failures are constituted and circulate in order to ask what print culture and its questions of form, markets, and readers may tell us about anti-vivisection strategies. As Mark Hampton and other scholars of the press have argued, the press is too often simply the source of "content" in explorations of analytical categories, from gender to nationalism to environmentalism. Analyses that proceed from an understanding that the press is itself a category of analysis are critical to assessing the ways in which so-called "failed" and "successful" political rhetorics are deployed.

Based on Cobbe's materials from the Zoophilist, the official periodical of the Victoria Street Society; pamphlets and leaflets produced by the society; and writing in the anti-vivisectionist journal, the Home Chronicler, this paper asks what a consideration of the press can bring to our understanding of the constitution, expansion, and maintenance of an audience for anti-vivisection. The forms and categories of the press—from the established, or mainstream, periodical to the specialist publications of an organized group; the types of narrative these forms marketed; the diverse audiences for print forms such as the pamphlet or movement journal; the modes of address—are integral to our understanding of how anti-vivisection functioned and circulated in the Victorian period. Reframing the failures of Victorian anti-vivisection by exploring Cobbe's professional understanding and negotiation of press audiences, this paper examines how Cobbe's writings address and constitute audiences for anti-vivisectionist discourse. I place Cobbe's anti-vivisectionist writing in the broader context of the popularizing and professionalizing of science and the particular...


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