Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Animal Companions in Sylvia Townsend Warner's More-Than-Marxist World

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Animal Companions in Sylvia Townsend Warner's More-Than-Marxist World

Article excerpt

Representations of animals in Warner's work anticipate twenty-first-century materialist feminism. In addressing animal exploitation and cross-species collaboration, Warner revises Marxist formulations of socioeconomic structures that include both human and more-than-human life. For her, animal agency parallels strategies of colonized peoples, as it must be exerted within alien domains.

Agency by these animals is exercised in ways similar to that of colonized peoples, as it must be exerted in domains that do not belong to them. Both oppressed animals and people deal with limitations imposed on their capacity for agency by rebelliously or subversively exerting their own wills.

--Shelly R Scott, "The Racehorse as Protagonist"

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote about animals throughout her career: sometimes animals exercise agency in extraordinary ways, sometimes they are victims, occasionally they are metaphorical stand-ins for humans, and sometimes humans seem to be metaphors for animals. In most of the literary criticism devoted to Warner's work, however, animal characters are scarcely mentioned.

This absence is not surprising. First, animals in literary works have typically been read as stand-ins for human concerns or portrayed as objects in human transactions. In Thinking Animals, Kari Weil observes that animals "have been either invisible or locked in representations authored by humans, representations that moreover have justified their use and abuse by humans" (25). Moreover, human language often seems inadequate for expressing connection and community with species not our own. Human language thus causes and justifies overlooking other animals except as they are useful for humans, even in criticism of literary works in which the author foregrounds animal characters. Second, for the Marxist feminists who have been Warner's most diligent critics, the author's concerns with cross-species exploitation and the positive features of multi-species community pale to transparency in comparison with Warner's positions on gender and class conflicts.

My purpose here is to represent the variety of narrative content and forms-realism and the fantastic, comedy and tragedy, fiction and life-writing--through which Warner explores a consistent logic about human-animal relationships, from the beginning of her career in 1926, with the publication of her first novel Lolly Willowes, until her death in 1978. Warner always presents animals, particularly domestic animals, as fully functioning members of human society, fully interpolated (if sometimes almost invisible) into the social and gender class systems. And if some readers have simplistically described the arc of Warner's development as a movement "from fantasy to realism," her representation of animals within human society remains steady, perhaps because the human societies in which she participated never got the point ("Sylvia").

In Warner's fiction and life-writing, the normal hierarchies of society are always viewed from an acute angle. Consider the following episodes from her 1972 short story collection Kingdoms of Elfin. No longer useful or entertaining, the elderly Tiffany is ejected from his community to wander the countryside, penniless and ill. Realizing Tiffany is not long for this world, a scientist sets to work vivisecting the old man in the interest of knowledge about human physiology. Professor Sutherland, a lecturer in rhetoric and an amateur ethnic historian, is kidnapped, imprisoned, and carefully examined by the very people he has studied since his youth. Decades later, when he is no longer useful, he is cast out into his old neighbourhood, where his seemingly incoherent conversation is mistaken for madness. Ib and Rollo, two childhood friends, are forced by the eager gallery into fighting almost to the death after a delivery of fighting cocks is unaccountably delayed. Twins Castor and Pollux fight each other for the amusement of a cheering crowd until they no longer amuse; then, expelled from the community, they are lucky enough to enter a theological college and eventually become archbishops. …

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