- Beastly Journeys: Travel and Transformation at the Fin de Siècle by Tim Youngs
In the opening of this lively and witty book, Tim Youngs makes the surprising statement that in many of the texts published between 1885 and 1900, “bestiality is present as a signifier of travel” (7). This arresting assertion is the subject of a breathtaking survey of works that share themes of travel, transformation, and animality: “In these works, journeys between two types of creature or state symbolize the disturbance of borders between classes (and between genders and sexualities). Changes to the physical body reflect changes to the social body” (16). Youngs’s interest in fin-de-siècle fears of degeneration assumes that “psychic structures” are the consequence of “the world outside the psyche” (16): “The creatures on which we gaze are made what they are by the deforming effects of capitalism” (41). Youngs supplies the material conditions of the texts largely by attending to the class positions of the authors or narrators. He situates writers as different as Charles Darwin, George MacDonald, W.T. Stead, H.G. Wells, George Gissing, Arthur Morrison, and Oscar Wilde (among many) within the context of travel literature and studies of animality, monstrosity, and genre.
Notwithstanding the risk of “assuming the character of a safari” (2), the book introduces a vast array of creatures who are “avatars of humans” (5) and whose atavistic nature reveals that the “stories of beastly journeys are ones of the human—civilization, culture, art—cowed by the animal; by the irruption of nature” (19). Texts as distinct as W.T. Stead’s exposé of child prostitution, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” share shape-shifting as a dominant theme, demonstrating that “the threat posed by the creatures that are caught up in these narratives arises from their slippage out of place” (26). The “misshapenness” of the creatures in Beastly Journeys “makes them difficult to label” (26), as do the experimental genres in which they are conceived (31).
The resulting emphasis on the liquidity of categories makes the nature of the various transmogrifications difficult to grasp. Hybridity appears as a Minotaur (64), a “frightened lamb” (64), the “Elephant Man” (54), a “bat” (74–84), a “Morlock” (113–21), and a swallow (171–74), to name a few. Yet beastliness is interpreted mainly in terms of class: it represents “the unruly elements of mass society” (48), or the voracious “vices of the rich” (64), or it functions to show the “unequal ownership and distribution of wealth” (172). My concern is not simply that—as Youngs points out while citing Sherryl Vint—these animal metaphors tell us little about animals themselves (31); it is also that they tell us little about the history or nature of human animality. The “ape-like fury” of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde (41) is quite different from the “apelike face” of the Marquess of Queensberry in Wilde’s [End Page 191] estimation (184), and different again from Wilde’s description of himself as an ape in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (177), yet the fine distinctions are not unpacked; Wilde’s simian similes constitute a “political protest against society of one who has witnessed and suffered its operations” (179). The claim that “degeneration is externally forced on people by the society that has marginalized them” (179) raises as many questions as it answers about Victorian conceptions of human atavism. Similarly, it is disappointing that the neglected “full range of shape-shifting” in the figure of Dracula (74) is identified ultimately as referring to “the specific situation of the middle classes and aristocracy in the 1890s” (83).
The journey through these hybrid genres is engaging and provocative, but I could not decide whether these are narratives of transformation or confrontation. Youngs points out, “in most of the texts with which Beastly Journeys is concerned, the bulk of the characters are already resident in their environs and have little hope of escape” (62); in the work of...