Animals and humans in the long eighteenth century: an intricate relationship

How does a scholarly book get started? In the majority of cases it is bound with the author or editor’s passion and deep-rooted (and often inexplicable) connection with his or her subject matter. For me, Animals and humans: sensibility and representation, 1650-1820 began nearly ten years ago, when I read Kathryn Shevelow’s eminently readable book For the love of animals, about the growth of the animal welfare movement in the eighteenth century. Our relationship with animals never ceases to fascinate, as we see from the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Making nature: how we see animals’, and animal studies has recently flourished in the academic mainstream. Like Shevelow’s book, it crosses the boundaries between specialised academic study and deeply felt human experience.

My own beginning with this subject, though, occurred almost in infancy. An innate attraction to animals, these others with whom we co-exist on this planet, is shared by almost all small children and all human cultures in one way or another, and is represented throughout human history. And as we see in very small children, in this oldest relationship of the human species we still find a deep connection and resonance. In bringing together and editing this book, it was wonderfully liberating to be able to combine a lifelong passionate interest in animals with my own professional field of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies.

Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782)

Thomas Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782), oil on canvas; Castle Howard Collection. © Castle Howard; reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family.

1650-1820 – the timeframe we cover in our study – is the period associated both with the growth of experimental science and the horrors of vivisection, and with the rise of modern humanitarianism. While the defence of animal rights itself goes back to classical times, in the eighteenth century it was directly linked to a growing awareness of universal human rights and a new definition of humanity based on the ability to feel rather than in the primacy of reason. Together with the abolitionist and feminist movements of the later eighteenth century, animal welfare came to resemble its modern self, with legislation first enacted in 1820.

Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman

Peter Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman (1791 [1787]), stipple engraving; Sudbury, Gainsborough House. © Gainsborough House.

But in this book we aim to explore more deeply the human relationship with animals in the long eighteenth century, in many different forms of expression. As shown by the different essays in this volume, this ancient relationship challenges not only the arbitrary divisions of Western cultural history (classicism and romanticism, for example), and not only disciplinary boundaries between poetry and science, art and animal husbandry, fiction and natural history, but also the basic assumptions of human self-perception, in which we do not see animals as objects of our ‘objective’ study, but rather as beings with whom we share a space and who demand a mutual response. A major thread of this book, then, is the re-evaluation of sentiment and sensibility, terms that in the eighteenth century referred to the primacy of emotion, and which were not solely the prerogative of humans. Through the lens of eighteenth-century European culture, contributors to this volume show how the animal presence, whether real or imagined, forces a different reading not only of texts but also of society: how humans are changed, and how we the readers are changed, in our encounters with the non-human other, in history, art, literature, natural science and economics. More deeply, we are reminded of the power and antiquity of this relationship.

– Katherine M. Quinsey

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