- “Beastliness” at the Fin de Siècle
“I STOOD STILL, speechless in the sickness of my horror. Until, on my bare feet, it touched me with slimy feelers, and my terror lest it should creep up my naked body lent me voice, and I fell shrieking like a soul in agony.” So recounts the timorous narrator Robert Holt of his weirdly sexualized encounter with a nonhuman creature in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897). Tim Youngs’s study explores the fascination at the end of the nineteenth century with “beastliness” in works by Marsh, Bram Stoker, George Gissing, Arthur Morrison, Arthur Machen, H. G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, and others. As uneasy residents of a post-Darwinian world in which the divisions between animal and human constantly were being undermined, these writers concocted fictions detailing strange physical mutations. Youngs views such representations as linked to travel across borders, apparent in alarming geographic shifts (Jonathan Harker’s ill-fated journey to Transylvania), urban social excavation (the gritty metropolitan landscape of Gissing’s The Nether World), or in time and space travel (Wells’s fiction). For [End Page 409] Youngs, the bestial is a potent signifier of travel.
One would think that this would be a promising time for a critical work on fin-de-siècle writing that would draw on recent scholarship in Animal Studies. Yet the main aim of Beastly Journeys has less to do with engaging with that expanding field than with stressing the class-based and political determinates informing late-nineteenth-century British fiction. Youngs repeatedly maintains that the entwined issues of class and politics have not quite been given full measure in accounts of literature featuring beastly presences, dreadful metamorphoses, and unnerving border crossing. It is easy to quibble with this central, never fully articulated premise about suppressed ideological issues. Did not Simon Joyce’s Capital Offenses: Geographies of Class and Crime in Victorian London (2003), Seth Koven’s Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (2006), and all of Judith Walkowitz’s work all focus intently on class and politics at century’s end?
To be sure, Youngs brings his class-informed analysis to a number of underdiscussed literary works. Some of the best pages in Beastly Journeys are devoted to The Beetle, which Youngs shrewdly links to the pornographic novel Teleny (1893), apocryphally written by Wilde. As Youngs notes, both works have narrators who are mesmerized by powerful men in scenes that read like initiations into homosexual practices. Yet Youngs defuses some of the force of his analysis when he compares Marsh’s novel to Dracula: “The Beetle has much in common with Dracula; it is a type of invasion narrative that exhibits reverse colonization from the East; it is overtly sexual, combining the exotic with the erotic; it has multiple narrators, and class is crucial, as the body politic struggles to expel the alien from its midst” (85). This is an all-too-typical sentence in Beastly Journeys, with its weary ticking-off of shopworn critical approaches, its undeveloped point about class, and its rehearsal of arguments of earlier critics. (The term “reverse colonization” was coined by Stephen Arata in an influential article on Dracula.)
Moreover, the homoerotics of The Beetle are importantly different from those of Dracula. In a passage quoted by Youngs, Holt declares that because of his physical encounter with the creature:
a metamorphosis took place in the very abysses of my being. I woke from my torpor, as he put it, I came out of death, and was alive again. I was far, yet, from being my own man; I realized that he exercised on me a degree of mesmeric force which I had never dreamed that one creature could exercise over another; but, at least, I was no longer in doubt as to whether I was or was not dead. I knew I was alive.(92) [End Page 410]
The beguiling ambiguities of this passage (with “alive” suggesting both Holt’s realization that he is not dead and his arousal...