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  • Alice in Wonderland’s Animal Pedagogy: Governmentality and Alternative Subjectivity in Mid-Victorian Liberal Education
  • Anna Feuerstein (bio)

Representations of animals and relationships with them have long been a part of liberal discourses and their strategies of social organization and management, especially within the Victorian period. Nineteenth-century debates over the government’s role in regulating the treatment of animals through anti-cruelty legislation, for example, both challenged liberal ideology and embraced its strongest principles. While opponents of this legislation decried the regulation of private property, supporters believed kindness toward animals educated the lower class in bourgeois morality. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), formed in 1824, asked citizens to see mostly domestic animals as feeling and rational, yet constructed them as subjects who internalized an animal-human hierarchy. This mode of imagining animal subjectivity within pastoral power, what Foucault calls a power of care regulating conduct (154), suggests representations of animals were influenced by hegemonic notions of liberal subjectivity.1 Indeed, in the same period that liberal discourse cultivated what Elaine Hadley calls liberal cognition—“a wide range of strikingly formalized mental attitudes . . . such as disinterestedness, objectivity, reticence, conviction, impersonality, and sincerity, all of which carried with them a moral valence” (9)—animal interiority was represented in similar ways. Representations of animals as deserving of human care, for example, reinforce Susan Pearson’s claims that through a discourse of sentimental liberalism, animals were incorporated into the liberal state’s account of their dependence. Animals were thus employed in social reform movements, while representations of them were affected by the strategies of governmentality that Lauren Goodlad posits as central to Victorian liberalism: a set of ideas, discourses, and practices inspired by legislation, social reform movements, and political philosophy, constituting an often-regulatory set of habits.2

Placing animals within this history exposes the contradictions and anthropocentrism of Victorian liberalism and highlights the wide reach of liberal thought as it attempted to bring more subjects into its fold. While there is a large body of work discussing the animal welfare movement, and scholars such as Tess Cosslett, Monica Flegel, Ivan Kreilkamp, and Theresa [End Page 233] Magnum, among others, have analyzed the incorporation of animals into the nineteenth-century British novel, children’s literature, and discourses of the family, Victorianists have yet to place animals more fully in the history of Victorian liberalism and uncover how animals and representations of them were influenced by and challenged Victorian liberalism.3 Doing so invites us to understand governmentality’s opposition to alternative subjectivity and alterity. By alternative subjectivity, I mean a way of thinking beyond liberal cognition, a non-normative subjectivity that attempts to resist the individualizing effects of liberal discourses, especially those perpetuated by pastoral power. Looking at how Victorians envisioned animal subjectivity highlights how liberalism imagined and regulated non-human subjects, adds to the growing body of work concerned with liberal subjectivity, and places Victorian animal studies more firmly within other dominant discourses of the period.4 It also shows how representations of animals had the possibility for disruption; as Colleen Glenny Boggs suggests, animals are “integral to liberalism . . . a structuring force that destabilizes the liberal subject at its core” (9–10).

This essay discusses the role of animals in Victorian liberal education alongside Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I examine how a pedagogically charged animal subjectivity reflects and challenges the goals of liberal education, particularly as children’s literature develops and changes alongside mid-Victorian liberalism.5 I connect representations of animal subjectivity to mid-Victorian debates about education, democracy, and liberalism’s incorporation of, or resistance to, alternative subjectivities. In the mid-Victorian period, when the widening franchise and expansion of the political sphere were subjects of debate, anxieties concerning education and cultural difference became increasingly prominent. Beginning with John Locke in the late-seventeenth century and continuing well into the nineteenth century, representations of animals were charged with the task of instructing children in liberal norms; animals taught children to negotiate the political and social spheres, and reinforced social, species, and political hierarchies. As Cosslett argues, nineteenth-century talking animal stories often reinforce such hierarchies (2). Yet as Carroll...


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