I have just finished reading Wilkie Collins’s novel Heart and Science (1883). One of the things I was most struck by was the presence of animals in the world of the novel. In its exploration – and dichotomizing – of “heart and science,” the novel focuses on the issue of vivisection so animals obviously play an important thematic role. But in setting the stage for the horrific experiments happening behind closed laboratory doors, Collins populates London itself with animals, both domestic and captive. A dog appears in a carriage, the hero Ovid Vere adopts a starving cat, other cats lounge on city sidewalks, dogs run into the street, and the characters pay an important visit to the Zoological gardens in Regent’s Park. Of course, there are also the horses that figure prominently in most Victorian fiction in their capacity as transportation. But, in its sustained attention to animal-human interactions, this novel has led me to think about London as a city populated with animals as well as people.
One way to read Collins’s representation of animals within the city is to relate it to his pervasive interest in the encroachment of the city onto the natural environment. Hide and Seek (1854), for instance, opens with a long meditation on the violence and mediocrity of suburban dwellings and on the changes occasioned by the eradication of the natural environment for the built environment. In many of his novels, Collins’s protagonists take long walks out into the country around London when they feel that the city stifles their thinking. In Heart and Science, the villainous scientist Dr. Benjulia lives on land that is strangely isolated despite being “within an hour’s drive of Oxford street” (129). In this case, the space just beyond the city provides the retirement and isolation necessary for Benjulia’s cruel scientific experiments on animals. (This isolation will later be echoed in Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), where Moreau, chased out of London by anti-vivisectionists, moves as far away from human civilization as possible). However, even away from the vivisectionist’s laboratory, in the urban space of London, animals are continually endangered by humans. A dog dies by being run over in a busy London road and a monkey takes ill in captivity at the Zoological gardens. A cat is abandoned in a building to die and is then threatened with poison for being a pest. If animals represent a vestige of the natural world in the city, Collins points to how artificial their presence really is in London. That is, in Heart and Science, animals simultaneously inhabit London and show how unfit this urban space is for their habitation.
Collins, like many other Victorian writers, also includes animals in this novel as a device for delineating character. Our villain vivisects monkeys while our hero attempts to prevent a beetle from being trod upon. I think the Victorian master of this art of characterization through Human/animal relations is Hardy. In Jude the Obscure (1895), we register Jude’s compassion for all living creatures – his reluctance to scare crows or slaughter a pig – as both a marker of his unfitness for his social world and of his remarkable sympathy as a character. We love Jude because he loves pigs. Or at least, we don’t want harm to come to Jude because he doesn’t want harm to come to pigs. In fact, I almost shudder when I come across animals in a Hardy novel because they so often come to a bad end. Perhaps I have just used the shorthand here myself. Have I constructed a sympathetic persona through registering my discomfort with literary depictions of suffering animals? Seriously, though, it is remarkably difficult to read some of these novels that take vivisection as a theme; The Island of Dr. Moreau was excruciating in parts*.
Collins kept reader discomfort with animal suffering in mind as he wrote Heart and Science. In a letter to Frances Power Cobbe – perhaps the most famous Victorian anti-vivisectionist – Collins wrote:
I am writing to a very large public both at home and abroad; and it is quite needless (when I am writing to you) to dwell on the importance of producing the right impression by means which keep clear of terrifying and revolting the ordinary reader. I shall leave the detestable cruelties of the laboratory to be merely inferred…. (370)
Here we also see that Collins intends to marshal his considerable readership in the services of the anti-vivisection movement. Eddy, I think that anti-vivisection writing may be another moment of the hope that you are interested in on the part of Victorian writers. As Steve Farmer points out in his introduction to the Broadview edition, Collins weaves anti-vivisection rhetoric and argument throughout the work. However Farmer notes too that Collins’s explicit and didactic social aim was also a target of criticism. In describing the novel, Swinburne, for instance, quipped:
“What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered – ‘Wilkie! have a mission!’” (375).
Collins, Wilkie. Heart and Science. Ed. Steve Farmer. Peterborough: Broadview, 1996.
Kreilkamp, Ivan. “Petted Things: Wuthering Heights and the Animal. The Yale Journal of Criticism 18.1. Spring 2005 (87-110).
*Ivan Kreilkamp complicates this position of sympathetic witness to animal cruelty in his fantastic article “Petted Things: Wuthering Heights and the Animal” where he argues that “it is difficult to cordon off a reader’s proper dismay at such a scene [of violence against animals] from an undercurrent of voyeuristic fascination” (88).