By Kathryn Shevelow
Reviewed by Dana Medoro
Henry Holt, 335 pages, $30.50
OVER the past five years, the subject of
animals and their welfare has generated
an astonishing amount of interest in
the world of ideas, with books pouring
off the presses to address its every permutation,
from the history of animals in science
and medicine to the representation of animals in
literature and philosophy.
Even the currently popular lifestyle manual Skinny Bitch is a kind of animal-ethics manifesto, a no-holds-barred demand to stop partaking in the "dead, rotting, decomposing, flesh diet."
Its popularity coincides, moreover, with the excitement surrounding the latest academic explorations of the subject, such as Tristram Stuart's brilliant The Bloodless Revolution on the history of vegetarianism as a form of radical politics.
Although excellent books on animals and ethics, pets and sentimentality, women as meat, and so on, have always and steadily been in print -- going as far back as the 1700s -- something new is in the air.
Some new energy is driving a wave of inquiries into what it means for humans to share the world with other animals.
Kathryn Shevelow's For the Love of Animals appears to ride this wave; with its fairly ordinary title and intention to explore a well-known historical period, it seems to open itself up to questions about its capacity to shed new light on such a carefully illuminated topic.
A few pages in, however, and Shevelow completely overturns any doubts. This is a great book, one marked by an absolutely magical command of details drawn from a vast array of historical and literary sources.
It's a masterful feat of rich interpretation and, of all things, impressive comic timing.
Shevelow, an American, teaches English at the University of California in San Diego. Her specialty is the 18th-century, and she's written two previous books with historical feminist themes.
The animal-protection movement Shevelow addresses here -- and puts at the centre of all others in the Western world --is the one that finds its roots in 17th-century England and that culminates in the early 19th-century parliamentary battles for rigorous, enforceable anti-cruelty legislation.
She draws a vivid picture of merry old England (merry for some of its human inhabitants anyway), and she structures each of her chapters around a particular historical figure who helped give rise to ideas about animal welfare.
In Shevelow's beautiful and accessible prose, each figure comes to life with all of his or her idiosyncrasies, aspirations, good and bad tempers, and strange pets.
Each of these mini-biographies, in turn, launches Shevelow's compellingly sustained argument about the reasons behind the support for animal-protection legislation and the factors that stood in its way.
Shevelow's ability to pair the events of the French Revolution or the African slave trade with animal-welfare setbacks in England is simply breathtaking, as is her refusal to draw an easy line between love and cruelty when it comes to the complexity of human motivations.
Although the subject of cruelty toward animals is an undeniably grim thing to contemplate, Shevelow sustains an illuminating and engaging way through it.
You might wince here and there, but you will laugh out loud, too. In fact, some of the stuff she digs up and frames her analyses with are consistently surprising and often hilarious.
There's her anecdote about a dog put on trial in the 1700s for stealing morsels from a plate and being busted by the parrot who could scream, "thief, thief." And the one about Lord Chancellor Thomas Erskine who adopted and named the leeches once used to bleed him, even bringing them out at a dinner party to prove that they also "felt grateful to him for saving them."
Shevelow concludes on the optimistic note that ideas about the treatment of non-human animals are still moving forward, that the world is increasingly more willing to grant them the right to freedom from suffering.
It is this sense of optimism -- this ability to look backward and forward with such intellectual generosity -- that pervades For the Love of Animals and that distinguishes it as both a valuable contribution to the history of animal welfare and a highly recommended read.
Dana Medoro is a professor in the department of English at the University of Manitoba and a member of the animal-welfare committees with the Winnipeg Humane Society.