It’s with great pleasure that I welcome New York Times bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler to the Literary Sofa today. Karen and I met briefly at an event late last year and I was delighted when she offered to contribute a guest post to coincide with the UK publication of her latest novel We are all completely beside ourselves. Karen is best known for her hugely popular Jane Austen Book Club but her new release couldn’t be more different, marking her out as an author of extraordinary range. Karen decided to write about a subject that matters a lot to her in both real life and fiction (my mini-review follows):
I was never into dolls. For me, they fell into that contested space known as the uncanny valley – things that, because they resemble people, but not exactly, creep us out. I remember being given a doll that closed her eyes when prone, and opened them when upright. I put her carefully to bed every night so that I wouldn’t wake up and find her staring at me. Perhaps to the outside observer that looked something like playing, but I assure you it was only self-preservation.
In contrast, I loved my stuffed animals. And when the urge to motherhood overtook me, I tried to put the doll’s clothes on my cat Whiskers. Whiskers was a patient cat, but no cat is that patient.
My real passion was dogs. When my best friend Bruce and I played, we often pretended to be dogs. My breed varied unpredictably, because the world of dogs is vast and rich, but Bruce was always reliably a Welsh Corgi. When I began to read to myself, to pick out my own books, I leaned hard to dog stories. For many years, my favorite book was The Green Poodles by Charlotte Baker. An English orphan comes to live with her Texan cousins and brings her poodle Juliet. Soon there are puppies. There is a valuable and mysterious painting. A long-ago tale of family strife. Instructions on the first clip a poodle puppy should get. “There is no point in having a poodle, if it doesn’t look like a poodle,” Charlotte Baker informs us. This book has everything.
Identification with our non-human-animal compatriots is something strongly urged on a child. Children are often seen as closer to their animal natures, more guided by instinct and emotion than adults, though this strikes me as arguable. It is unarguable that stuffed animals have only gotten softer over the years and before the baby can roll over, several have usually found their way to the crib. First books are likely to feature animal characters, sometimes toy animals like Winnie the Pooh, sometimes animals who, like the child, listen to bedtime stories with animals in them, those characters presumably also listening to bedtime stories with animals in them, bedtime stories like Russian nesting dolls, animals all the way down.
Perhaps this is why a concern over the welfare of the creatures with whom we share the planet is often seen as childish, sentimental, maudlin, and a thing to be put away as a part of growing up. As a reader ages, fewer and fewer of the books she reads will feature animal protagonists however she might wish otherwise. Considering the vast number of childish behaviors we do not put aside, it seems to me a shame and a sorrow that this should have been the one to go.
I thought about all these things and more as I wrote We are all completely beside ourselves. I did a lot of fascinating research and somewhere in the course of this, I came upon an account of the Brown Dog Riots. I had never heard of these, a peculiar interlude sparked by the vivisection of a small terrier at University College London as observed by two Swedish women who had entered the lecture hall as spies.
In 1906, anti-vivisectionists memorialized this dog and the many others with a bronze statue set in Battersea, a hotbed of radicalism and socialism and also home to the first animal shelter. The statue bore an inscription that began “In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog Done to Death in the Laboratories of University College,” and continued, according to the New York Times, with more of the “hysterical language customary of anti-vivisectionists.”
The medical students responded with fury. Eventually the statue required 24-hour police protection. There was an overlap between the anti-vivisectionists and some of the suffragists; as a result the students disrupted the women’s meetings, smashing furniture, ripping clothing, and throwing stink bombs. They fought the police in Trafalgar Square and made repeated attempts to attack the statue in Battersea. They made up marching songs that ended with the line “Little brown dog how we hate thee.” Nothing hysterical there.
The labor movement, Fabians, Marxists, suffragists, and trade unionists all came to the support of the Brown Dog. George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain were moved to write about it. Gender and class issues complicated and illuminated the affair.
But finally the financial cost of protecting the statue struck the Battersea Council as too high. They quietly removed and destroyed it. The story could be said to end there, or it could be said to end, as so many stories from this period do, when the leaders of the student rioters went off to World War I and never came home again.
But given the breadth of support the anti-vivisectionists had during this episode, given the ambiguous end to the conflict, it surprises me to think how thoroughly the game was lost. After this, for many decades the whole question of research animals and how they should be treated seems to have been regarded as settled. Those who continued to object continued to find themselves dismissed as hysterical and childish as the issue and the treatment itself all but disappeared from view.
I feel a change coming. Perhaps I’ve mistaken my own recent immersion in these issues as something larger, but I don’t think so. Identification with our fellow animals is not a childish fancy; it’s not a relict of a children’s book; it’s a scientific fact. I think the Brown Dog is returning at last, only now he’s an orca or an elephant, a horse, a dog, a shark. He’s a Bengal tiger. He’s a dolphin or a crow. He’s an ape like us.
Thank you very much, Karen, for this thought-provoking article which taught me something I didn’t know about my own city.
This issue-driven novel opened my eyes to a subject about which I previously knew very little. Somehow it manages to be profoundly serious and disturbing yet also witty and entertaining. The result is a very compelling read especially if you enjoy a quintessentially American story of family dysfunction – Rosemary and the other Cookes have a unique reason to have ended up the way they are. The unusual structure and use of timeframes worked well, although the withholding of a key fact for quite some time makes this a debate-worthy book that is actually very hard to discuss in front of those who haven’t read it. To my mind this information could have been revealed much earlier – suspense is ultimately not that important in a story which raises such fundamental questions about family ties, nature/nurture and how we behave towards our fellow beings.
Next week: a post about my heavenly writing retreat at the Beach House, West Wittering; and the new Writers on Location series continues with Stephen May talking about San Francisco, the setting of his new novel Wake Up Happy Every Day.