Barbara K. Seeber - Jane Austen and Animals. Review by Jonas Cope

Saturday, November 28, 2015 - 08:16

Barbara K. Seeber. Jane Austen and Animals (Ashgate, 2013). 162 pp. (Hdbk. and ebook, $99.95; ISBN: 978-1-4094-5604-9).

Jonas Cope
California State University, Sacramento

Jane Austen and Animals is a thoughtful and lucid book. That it never loses sight of its object—tracing connections between the domination of the nonhuman world and the domination of women in the juvenilia, letters and novels of Jane Austen—may be both a merit and a weakness. On the one hand the book is well researched and remarkably consistent. On the other its argument can seem somewhat unadventurous and occasionally formulaic: the “bad” characters in Austen who exploit animals and natural resources usually exploit women; the “good” ones who are sensitive to the environment are also more sexually egalitarian. The point is not that the argument is not convincing—it is—but that even while it makes a solid case the reader longs for a few more intellectual twists and turns along the way.

Seeber’s book marks the “first full-length study of animals in Austen’s writing” (11). Its main goal is to decenter the largely anthropocentric perspective that has prevailed in Austen studies throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. Seeber writes in the wake of the relatively recent field of Romanticism and Animal Studies, but while she insists that Austen participated in contemporary debates (literary and nonliterary) on “animal welfare and rights,” “recogniz[ing] animals as subjects,” her project is best described as ecofeminist (7-8). Seeber suggests that Austen extends “the objectification of nature and ‘the logic of domination’ […] which underpins the turning of animals into meat” to “social groups associated with animals” (98). Hence the “commodified animals” that “are everywhere in Austen, whether as meat, prey, transportation, entertainment, or even decoration,” are “align[ed]” (one wonders how carefully or deliberately in each case) with commodified women (x, 11). Austen “draws parallels between the positions of women,” who are objectified in patriarchal rituals of courtship and marriage, and animals, who are hunted, shot, and raced (11). A major claim of Jane Austen and Animals is that one can more fully appreciate the “rich tradition of feminist studies of Austen” if one examines the subordination of animals and women in tandem as mutually reinforcing anthropocentric prerogatives.

The argument in Jane Austen and Animals does no meandering. Chapter one situates Austen in the context of eighteenth-century “scientific, philosophical, and political” debates on the Animal Question (16). The second and third chapters demonstrate an “implied connection” in the novels between the cruelties inherent in rural sport and in “sexual conquest” (39). Chapter four establishes the “interconnectedness of […] ideologies which objectify women, slaves, and animals” and contrasts these ideologies with the “green politics” promoted in characters like Fanny Price and Marianne Dashwood (77, 89). Chapter five identifies “the production, distribution, and consumption of food”—particularly animal meat—as a species of “patriarchal privileg[e]” and “domestic tyranny” (92, 103). In the final chapter the unfinished Sanditon administers the coup de grâce to androcentric privilege steadily though less dramatically critiqued in the published novels. In Sanditon the natural landscape becomes “invested with agency” that ultimately “disrupt[s]” the “male gaze that objectifies landscape and women” and “evade[s] human control” (116, 119). The conclusion argues that film adaptations of Austen do ideological work in leaving out the realities of enclosure and in glamorizing rural sport—effectively erasing “the novel’s connections between hunting and the exploitation of women” (126).

On the whole this study is timely, clearly presented, and well documented. Aside from Austen’s letters and novels, Seeber moves easily between, for instance, the human-animal divide advocated by Descartes, Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, Wilberforce’s anti-bullbaiting bills, Cowper’s Task, and Percy Shelley’s tracts on vegetarianism. Intertextual readings are indeed the strong point of Jane Austen and Animals. In one fine instance Seeber reads Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse in “[t]he context of Shelley and other vegetarian discourses” to suggest that, comical though his delicacies may be, his temperance (he avoids wine), preference for gruel over meat, and preoccupation with the wellbeing of family, servants and even horses mark an abdication of patriarchal authority rare in the novels—and one all the more striking when opposed to the idiotic bravado of Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe, whose objectification of animals (he thinks that rest ruins horses) mirrors his objectification of women and supports the argument in The Four Stages of Cruelty that violence against animals promotes violence against humans.

In the end it is never clear precisely where Austen’s novels stand on the Animal Question. They are said to “resonate with” anti-cruelty and vegetarian discourses, but their collective position is ambivalent (with respect to animals is Austen an ameliorist? gradual emancipationist? abolitionist?) (18). Austen herself consumed animal meat and spoke flippantly (if mockingly) about rural sport in her personal letters. Her casual comments on animals and the preparation of meat in the letters are difficult to reconcile with the strong and consistent satirical edge that Seeber carefully traces in the novels.