- Jane Austen and Animals by Barbara K. Seeber, and: Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice by Sarah Raff
Just when you think that everything that can be written about Jane Austen has been written, two books come along to demonstrate that there is plenty more to be discussed. [End Page 275]
Barbara Seeber’s Jane Austen and Animals, a beautifully written and deeply researched contribution to ecofeminist and animal studies, covers a lot more than animals. “Jane Austen and Nature” might have been a more accurate title except that such a name would conjure up images of rocks and mountains, lakes and daffodils. Seeber’s concept of nature is more vital. There are animals aplenty to study in Austen—dogs, horses, ponies—but Seeber also discusses trees, agriculture, food, and weather. However, animals and nature are a vehicle for a larger topic. Seeber argues that “Austen aligns the objectification of nature with the objectification of women and, more specifically, the hunting, shooting, and racing of animals with the domination of women” (p. 11). She contends that “Austen suggests the subordination of women within marriage by consistently drawing connections between the subordination of nature, animals, and women” (p. 29). Where might Austen have acquired her ideas? Mary Wollstonecraft was an early participant in the discussion of animal rights and, in her writing, linked the plight of animals to the plight of women. William Cowper, especially in The Task (1785), emphasized animal rights and decried field sports, and William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron expressed similar views in their poetry. Austen was working within an established mode of discourse.
On field sports, Seeber allies herself with scholars who see Austen as a critic of them (as opposed to, say, film adaptors, who regard them as a picturesque feature of rural life). In her juvenilia and letters, Austen takes “a censorious view,” and in the novels, her rabid sportsmen do not come off well (p. 50). John Thorpe, for example, can be judged by how he treats his horses: he dominates them and thinks that rest will ruin them (p. 41). Sir John Middleton and Charles Musgrove, both enthusiastic sportsmen, are intellectually blank. These are satiric portraits, but in the character of Willoughby, sporting proclivities accompany a “predatory nature,” and his “conduct towards women is repeatedly described in terms of ‘cruelty’” (p. 44). Sport objectifies animals; sportsmen can likewise objectify women. Even Captain Wentworth, an occasional sportsman, is not above reproach. Seeber calls him “a compromised hero” (p. 59). Among the few non-sportsmen, the most prominent are Captain Benwick and Mr. Darcy, the latter distinguished as a fisherman, a hobby that allows him to bridge class barriers. At Pemberley, we see “Austen’s compensatory attempt to imagine an ideal community where the relationship to nature does not inscribe social hierarchies” (p. 67).
How to use nature was debated at the time. Seeber writes about how pets are “situated at the boundary between those animals we love and those we use,” and Lady Bertram’s pug springs to mind (p. 78). Seeber then convincingly demonstrates that Fanny herself becomes a kind of pet. The utility of animals leads naturally to food, and here, too, Austen is aligned with the [End Page 276] radicals. Seeber notes that “food does not create community—it creates division” and that “gifts of food enact power relations” (pp. 93, 105). Even plant food can be implicated. Mr. Knightley’s agricultural interests embody his authority: nature submits to him. However, mastery of nature does not succeed in Austen’s last works. The fragment “Sanditon” (1817) and the deathbed poem “When Winchester races” (1817) both focus “explicitly on a nature that resists human control” (p. 128). At the end of her life, Austen reminds us that “nature is not simply there for humans” (p. 128). While a few arguments are strained to fit its thesis, Seeber’s book is closely argued, well...