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Reviewed by:
  • Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture by Sarah Amato, and: Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps by Ann C. Colley
  • Helen Cowie (bio)
Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture, by Sarah Amato; pp. 320. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, $65.00.
Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps, by Ann C. Colley; pp. xii + 206. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014, £65.00, $104.95.

Animals were central to Victorian culture: cats, dogs, and the occasional monkey inhabited Victorian homes, while tigers and hippos enthralled visitors at the zoo. Dead polar bears posed with children in the museum, and elephants paraded through the streets with traveling menageries. In all of these guises, animals functioned as commodities, valued possessions whose existence reflected the status, aspirations, and fantasies of their human owners.

Sarah Amato’s Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture and Ann C. Colley’s Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps explore the role of animal commodities in the Victorian period, examining the different ways in which animals shaped—and sometimes complicated—human ideas about class, race, gender, and empire. Beastly Possessions focuses on the commodification of animals and their incorporation into urban life. Amato begins by looking at the most intimate human-animal relationship—pet-keeping—noting how the pet “was alternately and sometimes simultaneously perceived as an object and possession, a subject and a commodity” (22). She examines the flourishing Victorian pet trade, which extended from canaries and rabbits to parrots and more exotic pets, and explores how the keeping and breeding of cats and dogs illuminated complex gender dynamics in an era when women were campaigning for better education and the vote. The following chapters assess human-animal interactions in the zoo, and dissect the controversial case of the “white” elephant Toung Taloung, exhibited at London Zoo in 1884 by the American showman P. T. Barnum. The book concludes with an exploration of dead animals and the popular art of taxidermy, a practice which straddled the home and the museum, and included both deceased pets and hunting trophies.

Wild Animal Skins, in contrast, concentrates specifically on the skin as a site of encounter between humans and animals. Construing the skin as “a surface that carried the marks of not only identity but also memory and [which], like a text, exists to be read,” Colley looks at the ways in which animal hides mediated Victorian interactions with other species and shaped their conceptions of the natural world (10). In the first chapter, she focuses on Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester, where live animals featured in dramatic battle re-enactments and dead animals appeared stuffed in the Zoo’s on-site museum. In chapter 2, she examines the collection of exotic animal skins for display in museums and the logistical problems associated with this activity—a point nicely illustrated by an examination of two Victorian collectors, the 13th Earl of Derby and his niece, Elisabeth Hornby. Chapter 3 explores the role of animals in portraiture, including the conversion of animal skins into art, while chapter 4 discusses the importance of touching animals at the zoo. The final chapter addresses zoogeography and links between animal skins and maps.

Several themes permeate both books. One is the role of the senses—particularly touch—in encounters with exotic animals. As both authors show, zoo visitors not only looked at animals, but interacted with them on a bodily level. Whether it was feeding buns to the bears, riding on an elephant’s back, or running a hand along the rhinoceros’s [End Page 161] skin, Victorians wanted to experience exotic beasts directly, something which Colley ascribes to a “desire to reach out whatever the cost, and feel the exotic other, to go beyond the boundaries of one’s own skin and actually finger the fur of a wild creature” (128). Keepers, in particular, enjoyed an intimate, tactile relationship with their charges, often stroking or caressing them; an Animal Care Journal for Belle Vue Zoo noted that the giraffe is “ticklish between the nostrils” and that the rhinoceros has “pink and seeming delicate skin between...


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