Five Questions: Jane Spencer on Writing About Animals in the Age of Revolution

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Jane Spencer is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Exeter. Her numerous publications include the monographs The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), Elizabeth Gaskell (1993), Aphra Behn’s Afterlife (2000) and Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon, 1660-1830 (2005); the edited collection Political Gender (1994; with Josephine McDonagh and Sally Ledger); The Rover and Other Plays (1995); and essays ranging across fiction, poetry, drama and periodicals from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Her essay collection Reading Literary Animals: Medieval to Modern, co-edited with Karen Edwards and Derek Ryan, came out with Routledge in 2019. Her most recent book, Writing about Animals in the Age of Revolution, which we discuss below, was published in June 2020 by Oxford University Press.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book about Romantic-period perspectives on animals?

A number of impulses started to come together. I’d been thinking a lot about kinship for my previous book, Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon, 1660-1800, and I realised, too late for that book, that it’s vital to extend our concept of kinship beyond the human. Besides, much of my past research has been concerned with questions of women and feminism in the Romantic period and earlier, and I was interested in the way women were animalised by being so closely associated with our sexual and reproductive bodies; it seemed an obvious next step to go from writing about women to writing about animals. But more fundamentally, the subject answered a need in me to bring nonhuman animals, always an important part of my personal life, into my academic and intellectual existence. At the time my younger daughter was just discovering the world of wildlife conservation, and in exploring it with her I reconnected with my own childhood love of all animals, and knew that they needed to come to the centre of my research and writing. Up till then I hadn’t worked in critical animal studies, so I had a lot of catching up to do, and the book has been a long time coming.

2) What would you identify as the main factors that led to an increasingly politicised interest in the welfare and rights of animals during the late eighteenth century?

A number of long-term cultural trends starting in the early modern period, from the growth of pet-keeping to the development of a critical attitude to everyday violence, brought the welfare of animals into public view, and the eighteenth-century philosophy of sympathy provided legitimation and a vocabulary for concern about animal suffering. Then the political earthquakes of the late eighteenth century made real change seem possible. Talk of the rights of man, and even of the rights of woman, led to the idea that there could be rights for nonhuman animals. For many conservatives that kind of extension just proved that all rights discourse was ridiculous, while some of the most radical thinkers, those like Joseph Ritson and John Oswald at the fringe of the fringe, actually began to question the idea of human supremacy at the same time as they were trying to establish the concept of universal human rights.

So concern for animal welfare shifted from being the province of kindly clergymen and moral educationalists to being a hot political topic, and one that was full of quite troubling implications for many members of subordinated human groups, especially for people of colour, who were having to fight for their own rights against those who used animalised terms to define them as inferior. Those tensions within radical and progressive thought created by the notion of rights for animals particularly drew my attention, because they showed people grappling with questions we still haven’t solved: do rights for some only work by excluding others? Can we show respect for the nonhuman? Can we stop considering it an insult to be called, ourselves, animals?

3) In your introduction, you write that in the Romantic period ‘A new literature of animals emerged, flowering especially in poetry and children’s fiction.’ Why did those two forms prove to be particularly fertile ground, and how did developments in poetry and children’s fiction interact with developments in other discourses?

Poetry was understood as the place for feeling, including both compassion for suffering and a sense of connection with the natural world, and citing poetry gave people licence to introduce compassion into arenas supposedly ruled by reason. David Perkins in Romanticism and Animal Rights, and Tobias Menely more recently in The Animal Claim, showed how animal poetry fed into the campaign for welfare laws. There’s something of a time lag: it’s often slightly earlier, rather than contemporary Romantic poets, who are obviously influential. Thomson’s Spring, with its vision of the nightingale mourning the loss of her chicks, and Cowper’s Task with its recommendation of Christian stewardship of nonhuman life were quoted again and again by pamphleteers and MPs seeking to change the law.

Children’s literature centred on animals for partly similar reasons — children, like poets, were licensed to be feeling creatures — but in addition, children were considered to be like animals because of their undeveloped reasoning powers, so it was thought natural that they would identify with them. A number of children’s stories explored the world from a nonhuman viewpoint, and the use of free indirect discourse to enter into the imagined mind of a nonhuman animal is pioneered here. There isn’t the same easy transfer from children’s fiction into political discourse that we find with poetry. Romantic children’s literature about animals had a slow-burning influence, passing on its innovations to later adult literature. Writers like Jack London and Virginia Woolf follow early children’s stories when they write from the point of view of a dog.

4) Did you discover particular works on animals during the course of your research that you feel should be better known? Are there any texts that you’d particularly recommend to scholars seeking to bring Romantic-period animal studies into their syllabi?

Lots of them! Looking at the Romantic period through an animal-studies lens transforms it completely. Diana Donald, whose Picturing Animals in Britain has been an inspiration, told me about the little-known Scottish novelist Margaret Cullen, author of Mornton (1814). She’s Jane Austen as animal-rights activist. Drawing-room conversation centres on the merits and limitations of Erskine’s failed bill against cruelty to animals, and the heroine defends a donkey from a group of attackers. Other delights include Richard Porson’s A New Catechism for the Swinish Multitude, in which a pig explains the mechanisms of British class oppression, and John Oswald’s The Cry of Nature, perhaps the period’s most uncompromising expression of animal rights. I’d recommend all of these.

Equally, there are some already well-known works that read very differently when you take notice of the animals or the animal questions at their centre. What seems like a quaint old question – do animals have immortal souls? – turns out to be a troubling and productive one for Wollstonecraft in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I’d never thought much about Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, assuming that Shelley and Leigh Hunt and practically everyone since were right to dismiss it, but reading it afresh in the context of a tradition of ass literature I began to see that Wordsworth’s donkey, like some other literary donkeys, is the sign of a radical revision of humanity’s place in the world.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m hoping to edit Mornton for the Chawton House Library Series – it really deserves to be read again. And I’m beginning work on an essay for Michael Demson and Chris Clason’s new volume on Romantic Beasts. My contribution will be about birds in Romantic-period literature: the birds of the new ornithological studies as well as the nightingales, skylarks and green linnets of the poets.