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Animals, Museum Culture and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain


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Animals, Museum Culture and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By: Laurence Talairach

Podcast Interview

Laurence Talairach discusses her new book, Animals, Museum Culture and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Curious Beasties (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), with Catherine Delyfer. You can listen here. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Laurence Talairach is Professor of English Literature at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès and associate researcher at the Alexandre Koyré Center for the History of Science and Technology. Catherine Delyfer is Professor of English at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France.

This review appeared in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2021, pp. 437-440.

Animals, Museum Culture and Children's Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Curious Beasties

Laurence Talairach

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021

Laurence Talairach’s Curious Beasties is a welcome addition to children’s literature studies, especially to the continuing work on the intersections of natural science and children’s literature during the long nineteenth century. Talairach traces the influx of animals, both zoological and paleontological, brought to England from around the world and displayed in museums and menageries. These living, skeletal, and taxidermy specimens not only “illustrated the expansion of knowledge,” but also “embodied British power and hegemony” (2). Children became a crucial part of this dual impact of exotic animal collection and display, being encouraged to participate in natural history “in the hope of moulding young minds into future British and imperial citizens” (3). The way that museums “offered visitors an experience of the natural world under control” also inculcates proper and productive children (4). The wonderous animals displayed for eager audiences “could simultaneously transport and instruct” (7), Talairach argues, while also “captur[ing] the elusive reality of imperial Britain” (8). Children’s books similarly “conjured up the British empire and its booming capitalist economy through adventures where characters could both feel and see the urge to possess and subjugate these ‘curious beasties’” (274). At the same time, however, children’s literature sometimes provided “the opportunity to question the ideologies of imperialism” (274). Regardless of the ideological stance, children’s literature of the long nineteenth century imaginatively represented “the sense of wonderment produced by museum culture” (10).

Structurally, Curious Beasties moves both chronologically through the long nineteenth century and from broad movements to discrete readings of nineteenth-century children’s authors, including Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Edith Nesbit. I find the latter half of the book more compelling, though the first half is just as engaging and readable. Chapter 2 explores how children’s literature of Georgian England uses “curious beasties” to “disseminate knowledge about the natural world” (32). Moving ahead to the Victorian period, chapter 3 further probes the “appropriation of animals” to examine how live animals “actively participated in the development of children’s literature” (12, 73). Chapter 4 investigates how children’s periodicals encouraged “children’s interest in natural history collecting” (126). Talairach also studies the rise of taxidermy, which “represented a period when naturalists willingly explored and promoted the relationship between science and myth, or knowledge and narrative” (173). Chapter 5 examines nonsense literature by Lear and Carroll, which “foregrounded and questioned the issue of species classification” (176). Carroll’s “curious beasties,” in particular, “probe the era’s taxonomic practices” (19). Talairach concludes with a chapter on representations of fossil discoveries in Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature, particularly focusing on Nesbit, whose “curious beasties” “convey her stance on imperialism and consumerism and challenge the master narrative of British control over the natural world” (20).

The main concern I have with Talairach’s book is that I consistently found myself wanting a more expansive vision. Science fiction, in particular, which experienced a concurrent “golden age,” seems relevant to the study, especially in regard to the “human/animal divide” that Talairach frequently mentions. Certainly, H. G. Wells imagined grotesque and subversive menageries, challenging practices such as vivisection, which Talairach chooses not to pursue. Are not many of Carroll’s monstrosities in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World examples of particularly disturbing cross-species (if not also subject/object melding) surgical experiments? And what about J. M. Barrie’s own island, the Neverland where “beasts” occupy a crucial position in the circle of life and death? I am also left wondering about other forms of children’s or adolescent writing in the Victorian period, particularly boys’ adventure stories. H. Rider Haggard’s novels, for example, often hinge on the role animals play in Britain’s imperial project. I am also left a little disappointed that Curious Beasties does not spend more time with Christina Rossetti. A short discussion of “Goblin Market” (1862) appears in chapter one, but it is mostly to highlight an essay by Jed Mayer. Given Talairach’s previous—and astute—reading of Rossetti in Moulding the Female Body (2007), I am a little surprised that Speaking Likenesses (1874) does not appear, seeing as the monstrosities Flora encounters seem to bridge the animal/ human divide. So, too, of course, do Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s illustrations of Christina’s goblins. Finally, does Rudyard Kipling deserve more of a place in this book, especially in regard to the imperial menagerie of Just So Stories (1902)? But these are, admittedly, minor quibbles, the sorts of ideas that actually draw attention to the crucial boundaries of Talairach’s study, which maintains such admirable depth because it restrains unnecessary breadth.

My only other issue concerns the terms “beastie” and “curious beasties.” Talairach seems to take for granted that her readers know what a “beastie” is. (The OED defines it as a “little animal; an endearing form of BEAST n.”) I similarly expected to be informed about the term “curious beasties” (is it the title or the subtitle?) and hoped to see it come from a long-nineteenth-century source. Having checked the 100-plus appearances in the book, I am still left befuddled. The term, I think, has a way of infantilizing the study, and might be more appropriate for a children’s book rather than a book about children’s literature. Some stylistic curiosities also impair the book’s readability. It is not clear, for example, why the introduction is chapter 1. Such an organizational scheme means that Talairach begins in earnest with chapter 2. (Chapter 1 is inexplicably titled “Introduction.”) In addition, footnotes are sometimes cumbersome. Why has the publisher insisted on full titles for short-form Chicago-style entries? Page 18 is especially egregious, featuring four unnecessarily long bibliographic notes from the same source. Even less significant, why the frequent move between “Chapter” and “Chap.”? Is there a distinction here?

These minor editorial annoyances, however, should not detract from Talairach’s achievement. As is always the case with Talairach’s ever-growing and impressive body of work on long-nineteenth-century children’s literature, Curious Beasties is highly readable and extremely engaging. It tackles many complex subjects with an immersive and responsible style. Talairach’s readings of Carroll and Nesbit in the context of Victorian and Edwardian zoology and paleontology are particularly intriguing and will be accessible and applicable to a diverse readership.

Clayton Tarr, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Laurence TalairachAbout Laurence Talairach

Laurence Talairach is Professor of English Literature at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès and associate researcher at the Alexandre Koyré Center for the History of Science and Technology. Her research interests cover medicine, life sciences and English literature in the long nineteenth century. She has authored five monographs (Animals, Museum Culture and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Curious Beasties (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021); Gothic Remains: Corpses, Terror and Anatomical Culture, 1764–1897 (University of Wales Press, 2019); Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture (Palgrave, 2014); Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic (University of Wales Press, 2009); Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Fiction (Ashgate, 2007)), and edited several collections of articles on the interrelations between science and literature and the popularisation of science in the nineteenth-century. She is also the author of 26 children’s books which deal with natural history collections and take place in actual museums of natural history.  



This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.