- Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture by Sarah Amato
Although the nineteenth century is well served by thoughtful work on the animal-human relationship any book that promises a new approach is to be welcomed. Sarah Amato argues that "Victorians considered what it meant to be human, alive and wilful, middle-class, working-class, male, female, and white in a stratified society" (8) and sees this as the context for animal-human relationships at the time. That is, animals are seen broadly as representations of human cultures. Amato specifically sees animals as "animate possessions and unique commodities" (9) who are purchased and exchanged (36). Moreover she argues that she is trying to "recover" experiences of the animal-human relationship and to "describe the lives of animals." This is by no means an easy task as many historians have previously explored including the mis-spelt Erica Fudge (not Erika, 280) and Dorothee Brantz (not Dorthee Branz 227, 276).
While ownership is stated to be of importance less attention is paid to the changing class nature of animal ownership although this context seemed to be within the initial framework. By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century cats, for example, were more likely to be "owned" within individual working class households than had been the case earlier in the century. And these were real animals. Thus the routine abandonment of "owned" cats — the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals defined the summer period as the "Cat Starvation Season" when cats became feral or brutally killed or appropriated by vivisectors — is downplayed as an act against living beings in favour of feline representational possibilities. For Amato such cats were primarily representations of vulnerable women (69). In a similar vein female cats are seen as representatives of fecund femininity — while ignoring the lack of availability of sterilization for cats in this period due to poor veterinary training.
For many working in animal studies representation is an issue to be grappled with rather than simply endorsed as a straightforward example of human projection. Amato instead tends to take a more conventional approach seeing, for example, the work of Landseer, specifically "High Life" and "Low Life" as mere anthropomorphism (76ff) rather than adopting a more detailed and nuanced approach of other scholars such as Diana Donald who has regarded such images as subtle studies in comparative physiognomy: "it is less certain that [such an image] represents a simple social or moral antithesis" (Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain, Yale University Press, 2007, 128.)
More worrying than such inevitable differences of interpretation are the number of inaccuracies and omissions in the text. Thus manuals for cat [End Page 601] ownership are interpreted as usually written by women disregarding the fact that perhaps the most important of such works was by a man, Gordon Stables. There is no discussion of the absence of veterinary literature on small animals in 1800s Britain. A closer analysis of such manuals might have revealed that many discuss not merely how a cat can be trained — but also training a human in order to create a productive mutual relationship. Cat fancying is seen as a "female occupation" (73) while the seminal work of Harrison Weir in establishing the Crystal Palace Cat Show is ignored. Assertions that grown men were not pictured with cats simply invites the knowledgeable reader to counter with contradictory examples — including the charming image of Herbert Burrows with two white cats perched on his shoulders.
Despite my reservations about the approach, I initially viewed the book positively, after all it was a re-working of a PhD. Yet the text overall reads as a collection of articles rather than a coherent monograph leading to a clear conclusion. The first part is more convincing about the different ways animals were part of a consumer culture on a personal and public level (including those enclosed in the zoo). The two concluding chapters — one previously published — on a white elephant in London and taxi-dermied animals add little to the general argument...