Tag Archives: animal studies

‘We do not need more men in pith helmets’: Environmental anxieties in the imperial romance novel

By Elly McCausland

Illustration by Charles Kerr in Rider Haggard, Maiwa’s Revenge; or, the War of the Little Hand (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1888)

In 2017, children’s author Katherine Rundell published The Explorer, a modern-day adventure novel that would go on to win the Costa Children’s Book Award. The novel follows a group of four children whose plane crash-lands in the jungle after the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. They stumble upon the ruins of a magnificent ancient city, deep in the heart of the Amazon. Its guardian is a former explorer who has taken it as his life’s mission to protect the ancient city. He has built a jungle canopy to shield it from ‘people surveying the land from the air […] From people looking for El Dorado. From people looking to pack places like this into parcels of stone and sell them to curious ladies and gentlemen in Chelsea for the price of a bus driver’s yearly wages. From people exactly like me’.[1] He is determined to keep the magnificent ruins a secret until human society relinquishes its obsession with dominating and plundering the environment: ‘The time will come, I hope, when the world values people as much as it values land. But for now, we do not need more men in pith helmets marching through the jungle towards us.’[2]

We can read Rundell’s story as ‘writing back’ to the adventure novels of the later nineteenth century, often grouped under the genre ‘imperial romance’ and featuring an all-male band of heroes who venture into the unknown – usually darkest Africa or South America – stumble upon a lost city and escape its inevitable booby traps and hordes of avenging ‘savages’ in order to regale a Victorian reading public with tales of their derring-do. Rundell offers a clear counter-narrative to such tales, with her gruff explorer condemning the activities of colonialist soldiers and the havoc they wrought upon the forest ecosystem. At the end of the novel, its young protagonist Fred grows up to become what the newspapers call ‘A new kind of explorer’ – one who, it is implied, is respectful of the landscape he traverses and aware of his potential impact.[3]

The Explorer situates itself firmly in opposition to what it implies to be the single narrative of exploration that dominated the late nineteenth century: masculinist, colonialist, anthropocentric. It is a narrative often brought to life in the fiction of renowned Victorian adventure writers such as Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, with recent scholarship devoted to identifying the problematic environmental ideologies of these novels in addition to their noted racist and misogynist tendencies. Destruction of animal and plant life is rampant in many of these texts, but gathers relatively little critical attention, overshadowed as it often is by the gratuitous slaughter of native peoples that is also often a key plot feature. Yet it struck me, while reading Rundell’s novel for the first time recently, that the counter-narrative she offers is not a new one, and in fact exists as a haunting sub-text within many of the novels themselves.

Recently, scholars have begun to identify more ambiguity in these texts, and I have attempted to continue this conversation in my article for Victorian Review, ‘“The Game has Gone”: Animal Fantasies and Environmental Realities in H. Rider Haggard’s Imperial Romance’. I argue that we ought to pay close attention to the frequent, detailed depictions of the animal body and native flora and fauna in Rider Haggard’s novels, as these offer clues to a fundamental anxiety that underpinned his depictions of colonial adventure. In Haggard’s writing we can identify a paradox that inflects a large proportion of nineteenth-century imperial romance: adventure relied for its thrills on tempting travellers into the ‘blank spaces’ of the map, but simultaneously acknowledged that those spaces could only retain their appeal if left uncharted. This tendency is evident in multiple examples from the genre – novels by Frank Aubrey, J. Provand Webster, R. D. Chetwode and James Cobban, among others – all of which close with a dramatic incident or accident that sees their explorers unable to return to, or map, the lost worlds at their hearts. We might actually trace the seeds of Rundell’s counter-narrative back to these novels, which, even as they promoted anthropocentric, violent adventure in exoticised locales, were simultaneously haunted by the guilt and anxiety that they might be contributing to the irreversible disappearance of such places. There is little difference, in actual fact, between the stern warnings of Rundell’s explorer and the sentiments of Haggard’s Henry Curtis, over a century earlier:

I have no fancy for handing over this beautiful country to be torn and fought for by speculators, tourists, politicians, and teachers, whose voice is as the voice of Babel […] nor will I endow it with the greed, drunkenness, new diseases, gunpowder, and general demoralisation which chiefly mark the progress of civilisation amongst unsophisticated peoples.[4]

To learn more, see McCausland, Elly. “”The Game Has Gone”: Animal Fantasies and Environmental Realities in H. Rider Haggard’s Imperial Romance.” Victorian Review, vol. 46 no. 2, 2020, p. 235-254. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2020.0021.

[1] Katherine Rundell, The Explorer (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 299.

[2] Rundell, The Explorer, p. 301.

[3] Rundell, The Explorer, p. 392.

[4] Rider Haggard, Allan Quatermain (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1994), p. 310-11.

Horse-racing Fraud, Then and Now

by Nancy Henry

This past March, twenty-seven people involved in U.S. horse racing, including trainers and veterinarians, were federally indicted for doping racehorses with banned substances. A New York Times article by Benjamin Weiser and Joe Drape reported: “To avoid detection of their scheme, the indictment said, the defendants routinely defrauded and misled federal and state regulators ‘and the betting public.’”

Three bookmakers are watching a horserace. Lithograph by Tom Merry, 7 September 1889. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This ongoing case is part of a long, troubling history of horse-racing fraud. In Victorian Britain, attempts to cheat sometimes erupted into full-blown scandals. For example, the 1844 Epsom Derby was compromised by a series of deceits that included entering a four-year old as a three-year old. There are many ways to “fix” a race, but drugging or injuring the horse is particularly shocking because it involves a betrayal of trust, as well as physical harm. Fiction is uniquely able to create sympathy for the horse, and in some cases, imagine his thoughts. In Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), for example, the steeplechaser Forest King has his bit painted with poison, and we see the ensuing delirium through his eyes.

In Victorian fiction generally and racing fiction in particular, there is tension between the horse as a living, feeling creature and the horse as source of monetary value. Jane Smiley observes that in the eighteenth century, “horseracing, fiction, and capitalism came to form a mutually nurturing threesome” (44). In the nineteenth-century racing plots are also financial plots; horses are characters and commodities. Forest King’s loss results in financial ruin for his owner Bertie Cecil, and it redirects the novel’s plot. In Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children (1880), Lord Silverbridge’s horse Prime Minister has a nail driven into his hoof on the morning of his race, causing Silverbridge to lose the tremendous sums he had bet on the horse.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Little Nell attends the races, reflecting, “how strange it was that horses who were such fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men they drew about them” (157). Later novelists like George Moore in Esther Waters (1894) agreed. More recently, The Sport of Kings (2016) by C.E. Morgan explores the economic cultures of racing and breeding horses in Kentucky.   

While many tracks closed temporarily, horse racing is one of the few sports that remained available for live viewing (and betting) in the US throughout the Covid-19 pandemic shut downs. For many gamblers, racing is entirely removed from the horses, who are represented by statistics in the racing form and numbers on a screen. Outrage over doping is apt to be more about financial loss than animal cruelty. Victorian literature is a good place to start when considering how horse racing, literary criticism and Animal Studies might intersect in order to bring attention to the harm done to horses when humans put money above the integrity of the sport and the safety of the horses.

This post forms part of a special issue on “Fraud and Forgery in Victorian Culture.” To read more see Nancy Henry, “Horse-Racing Fraud in Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 45, no. 2, Fall 2019, pp. 235-251.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Smiley, Jane. “The Fiction of Horseracing.” Cambridge Companion to Horseracing, edited by Rebecca Cassidy. Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 44–56.

Earthworm Magic

by Caroline Hovanec

I started composting a couple of years ago, and as I got into the habit of saving apple cores, potato peelings, and strawberry leaves, and carrying them out to the bin, I began thinking more and more of Darwin. Towards the end of his life, long after the voyage of the Beagle, the scandal of Origin of Species, and his instatement as scientific celebrity, Darwin began keeping earthworms in pots at his house in Downe. He fed them bits of onion and cabbage, shone lights upon them and played music for them, and monitored their activities with the curiosity of a child. He was working on a book about worms, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, which would be published in 1881, a year before his death.

Earthworm (probably a Lumbricus rubellus; definitely a Lumbricus) in humous surface soil in the eathern most part of Slavonia. Image Courtesy Wikipedia.

What Darwin knew about worms was the same insight that composters and gardeners know today. Worms and other decomposers turn the earth. They work on dead organic matter, making it into nutrient-rich soil. Darwin found that earthworms were tiny ploughmen, digesting enough dirt to keep the soil healthy for plants, smooth out rough terrain, and bury (and thus preserve) Roman ruins in rural England. Earthworms were a boon, he showed, for archaeologists, for seedling plants, even for aesthetes. “When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse,” he concluded, “we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms.”

Darwin suggested that people (specifically archaeologists) “ought to be grateful to worms,” and it’s this idea of gratefulness that led me to write my article “Darwin’s Earthworms in the Anthropocene” for Victorian Review. What I see in Darwin’s worm book, and in the practice of vermicomposters, is an ethics of hospitality across species. Darwin recognized, and composters today also recognize, that worms and other decomposers make the earth a good home for humans. In turn, we are obligated to make the earth a good home for other species. I think the environmental crises of our age can be understood as a failure of hospitality—humans have been poor guests and even worse hosts on this planet. Perhaps learning to be grateful for what the earth gives, and feeding the earth in turn, can help repair some of the damages.

My compost bin doesn’t have any earthworms (yet), but for the ambitious gardeners out there, one can obtain red wigglers, European nightcrawlers, and Alabama jumpers to make fertilizer and aerate the soil. Darwin found them to be marvelous creatures: architects of smooth fields, caretakers of plants, protectors of ruins. When you bite into a juicy tomato or a crisp snap pea, grown in a garden fertilized with vermicompost, you might feel the same way.

To read more, see Caroline Hovanec, “Darwin’s Earthworms in the Anthropocene.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 1, 2019, p. 81-96. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0032.