Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Representations of Animals in the Victorian era

The Victorians held very conflicting ideas towards the purpose of animals. They had sentiment towards household pets and admired the majesty of exotic creatures, yet, hunting and taxidermy was extremely popular. At the same time, there existed a unique type of respect between the victorians and their animals, as connections between race, gender, class, sex, violence and social relationships began to proliferate. There also existed explorations between animals as figures of racial difference, social marginality, loss of identity and exploitation of women.   

The bird, for example was symbolic of the victorian female. In victorian art you will find a lot of paintings representing nature and particularly, birds amongst nests or dainty floral settings. The colours were often vibrant and the style very feminine, as if the birds were glamourised. 

Not to mention, many paintings depicted birds nestling in their nests and feeding their chicks, thus representative of a woman’s maternal nature. 

The Physical representation of femininity through birds was dominant throughout women’s fashion, for example, with feathers. The more women’s hats became increasingly bigger and more opulent, so did the issues regarding females become larger. Behind the established element of aristocratic dress, there existed a dark side to fashion, as women’s oppression settled deep into the victorian values. The conventional victorian female was exampled through the use of animal representation in fashion, art and literature.

The Yellow Wallpaper is, for example, a renowned victorian novel written by Charlotte Gilman, a woman considered unorthodox for her lifestyle within the 1800s. Within the novel Gilman expresses the pain felt by many victorian women, as they were suppressed everyday by their husbands, house and responsibilities. In other words, victorian women were domestically encaged.  Birds were often kept as household pets, couped in cages, often quite luxurious and spacious. Though, despite resembling a miniature palace, the household bird within a cage is symbolic towards the patriarchal suppression of women within their own homes. Whether it was politics, sport or a mere desire to express opinions, women were not allowed to venture further than their own home, similar to the way a bird cannot fly far in a cage.  

In The Yellow Wallpaper, the un-named protagonist paces the room she is locked in muttering about the wallpaper:

“At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.” (764)

Here the narrator identifies the pattern within the wallpaper as if it is a prison, and that a woman exists inside the prison. The mention of twilight allows us to depict the narrator’s insanity, as it is a time of night that is often related to the maddening or abnormal. Therefore, we can assume that the narrator is indeed insane. The further she loses her sense through her suppression, the close she is to realising that the maddening woman in the wallpaper is a reflection of herself losing her mind.

During the victorian era, India had been the crown jewel of the british empire. With a growing obsession for their exotic culture and with queen Victoria’s regular enquiries and international visits, India had become an important part of the victorian era. Therefore, a lot of political representations were demonstrated through the use of exotic animals.

In 1857, Punch published this cartoon image in response to the indian rebellion. After the decline of british control within india and a profound rise in violence, the british searched for justification in their own moral terms, from the indians who raped and murdered british women, children and men within India. Therefore, propaganda was released throughout Britain to calm down the public’s outrage. Note the depiction of England as a lion and India as the bengal tiger. Even though both animals are equal in size and stamina, Britain is still symbolised as the dominant force, considering it is the lion who is pouncing onto the tiger. This cartoon gives the impression that Britain is ready to crush and sustain the rebellion, despite the fact that the rebellion was only sustained because large numbers of indian troops remained loyal to the empire, not because of Britain’s strength.

A very famous author who was prominent at this period of the victorian era was Rudyard Kipling, who was born into british India and wrote a series of children’s stories about adventures within the exotic land. His most successful short story, The Jungle Book, is still famous today. Through Kipling’s the Victorians were exposed to an exotic world that was much more exciting than their own westernised lifestyles. However, Kipling also exposed a lot of issues associating to moral and politics within the Victorian era, through the use of symbolism and animal imagery. From this passage we can summarise Kipling’s ideas towards insanity:

"Even the tiger runs and hides when little Tabaqui goes mad, for madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature." pg. 1

In this quote, Kipling creates a very intellectual connection between humans and animals, as  Tabaqui the jackal is said to have ‘gone mad’, a quality that would have been primarily associated with humans. Alike to the female narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, both character’s are being condemned negatively through their capacity to remain sane. By doing this, Kipling indirectly demonstrates the similarities between human emotions and animal codings regarding their emotions. There existed major anxiety towards the idea of insanity existing in the victorian era, as a result, the manner in which Kipling has deemed insanity ‘disgraceful’ for an animal allows the  Victorian audience to consider how much more worse it must be to be insane as a human, therefore, exposing the pain many felt.

                                      Queen Victoria and Sharp at Balmoral in 1867.

The most beloved animal in victorian England  was without a doubt the dog. The victorians adored dogs, which were by far the most popular domestic pet of the era, considerably due to the fact queen Victoria herself owned and highly respected her animals.  

Both merchant class and the aristocratic admired the nature of dogs, no home was complete in England without one. This, therefore, allowed canine traits such as loyalty and compassion to combine into the everyday culture of the 19th century. For example, music sheets dedicated to stories of heroic dogs existed, suggesting that even the artistic british culture considered canine traits to be admirable and positive. People had their portraits made with their dogs or, if they did not own one, with a “prop” dog, for canines were a symbol of wealth and status. 

Dogs were also used as a fashion statement, particularly toy breeds. These tiny dogs went      everywhere with their lady owners and were cared for like any other human member of the household. His well dressed, fur-clad lady has a clear affection for her pug, who himself is so contented, he has his eyes closed as she holds him. As smartly dressed as his owner, the Pug wears a studded leather collar with a little bell.

Victorian audiences were also fascinated in the connections that could be forged between animals and human beings. Such magazine cartoons, as shown on the left, of dogs representing their owner’s personalities were typical, as it was thought that the victorian’s pets were replicas of themselves. This can be seen in the classic victorian novel Oliver Twist, as the relationship between Sikes and his dog Bull’s-eye is seen to be almost familial:

He leaned his back against a bank, and felt that it stood above him, visibly out against the cold night sky. He threw himself upon the road—on his back upon the roadAt his head it stood, silent, erect, and still—a living grave-stone,  with its epitaph in blood. Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.”  (page 569)

After murdering Nancy, Sikes flees London, only to find that his conscience will not let him escape. This passage, from Chapter 48, embodies the idea that a guilty conscience is its own punishment, worse than any that the law can assign. The entire account of Sikes’s flight is also among the most psychologically sophisticated passages in the novel. Up until this point, Sikes has been a pure villain. In his guilt, however, he becomes more realistically human. We probably cannot sympathise with Sikes, but, in this chapter, we do see the world through his wretched eyes. Moreover, Dickens’s vivid descriptions allow us to experience Sikes’s sensation of being hunted, by both external and more horrifying internal pursuers.

                                                  Young Elizabeth with her Corgi

Overall, the dog as a pet has been the most adored animal throughout the whole of England spanning over centuries. They were the accustomed favourite companion or family households, prop for the aristocrats and positive representation of the British population’s animalistic nature. As is clearly shown above, even  queen Elizabeth shares the conventional admiration towards her Corgis.

Works Cited:

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Morse, D. and Danahay, M. (2007) Victorian Animal Dreams. Available at: (Accessed: 5/12/14). 

Victoria & Albert Museum (2001) Nature. Available at: (Accessed: 5/12/14). 

Images Cited: (2014) Victorian Days. Available at: (Accessed: 5/12/14). 

Darsie, F. (2013) Victorian British Paintings. Available at: (Accessed: 5/12/14). 

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Watson, K. (2013) The Graphics Fairy. Available at: (Accessed: 5/12/14). 

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