Edith Carrington’s Writings

Edith Carrington’s Writings

“Friendship of Animals,” by Edith Carrington. Illustrated by Harrison Weir. One of the series of “Animal Life Readers.” George Bell and Son, 1896, I/-.

“HOW little we know of the inner life of animals!” wrote Thoreau in his journal. “How few our facts are, and how little certain we are of them! What a huge book, and what an intensely interesting one, is waiting to be written on this subject by some great genius of the future! Surely it tells not a little for the in-curiosity and perhaps for the conceit of us humans, that we have been taken up so entirely with our little selves for these many thousand years past, and have been honouring historians and poets and philosophers and novelists and travellers and essayists, simply because they told or imagined or guessed or reported the way and the manner and the conversations and thoughts and ideas and faculties of our fellow human-creatures; and all the time we have been acting as if we were alone in the world, and as if it were not inhabited by crowds of beings with ways towards us and towards each other, which, seeing how much we depend upon the same animals, it behoves us most strongly to understand.”

The truth of these reflections will strike everyone who has realized what a capacity for friendship exists between mankind and the animals. Our literature concerning animals has hitherto been miserably inadequate to express the better relations that have already been established in numerous recorded cases and may ultimately become general. The old method still largely prevalent in fiction, fable, and poetry, is simply to dramatise animal life for human purposes, to represent animals as endowed with human desires human fears, human virtues, human vices — puppets set in motion for the instruction or recreation of man. The attitude of science has been still worse, for Natural History has persistently regarded the lower animals as museum “specimens,” to be killed and “preserved” and catalogued, in short, to be studied altogether from an external standpoint as living automata, and not at all as the conscious, intelligent, self-centred beings that they are. Needless to say that the old Natural History, working on these lines, has quite failed to do more than observe outward appearances, and has had no more bearing on the real nature and history of animals than the chronicle of the Meat Market, which reports, as may be, that “ribs” and “sides” are “firm,” or pig and veal “steady.”

The new humane-naturalist school of the last fifty years has done something to improve matters, but the literary folk are still mostly on the old lines. Take, for instance, the much-praised “Jungle Book,” by Rudyard Kipling, replete with cleverness, audacity, and great qualities of style, yet almost always lacking the supreme insight which should give not man’s idea of the animals but the animals’ idea of man. It has been said by Kipling-enthusiasts that in this book he contrives to get within the very hides of his animals, and this in a sense is true, in so far as he peoples them with his own feelings and conceptions; but what we should have preferred is that, in getting there, he should have left his own feelings behind. The true secret of animal character has yet to be sought and found, not by making the animals pegs on which to hang our own human traits and habiliments, but by going back across the gulf which, under the era of civilization, has more and more widened between Man and Nature, to the great common qualities which belong to human and non-human alike. Some day, perhaps, when a profounder sympathy has enabled us to make this  “return to nature,” we shall re-establish our long-lost harmony with the lower races, the “dumb” animal as we absurdly call them because we do not happen to understand the language that they speak. At present this harmonious intercourse is but rarely and partially apprehended, and has found but little expression in the literature of animal life.

Perhaps it is for this reason that some of us who have felt a deep sympathy with animals, and even hold certain friendships of this character among our most cherished memories, have nevertheless a strong disinclination, in most case, to the literature of “zoophily.” It would perhaps be fastidious to complain that a great deal of nonsense is written nowadays on the subject of “the animals,” because a great deal of nonsense is written on every subject that is written about at all; but, to judge from a good many zoophilist books and papers, it does seem as if a sane critical and literary judgment were specially wanting in this quarter. Nothing in the way of sentiment, poetry, or anecdote seems to be regarded as too vapid or commonplace when “dumb animals” are the theme; and the well-meaning persons who write or publish such twaddle are apparently quite unsuspicious that a good cause may be injured, instead of aided, by inadequate championship, and that bad work is always and forever bad work, however excellent the intention.

This being so, it is all the more refreshing to note here and there an author who is diligently working in the right direction towards a saner yet more sympathetic study of animal life. It really is no compliment to our “rudimentary brethren” to suppose that the merest novice that ever set pen to paper is capable of writing their praises or pleading their case against the oppressor, for the subject is a vast and difficult one, as Thoreau remarks, and one which can only be fully treated by “some great genius of the future.” Meantime it is pleasant, as I say, to observe any advance towards such treatment, and this we find, to a very considerable degree, in the writings of Edith Carrington, a few characteristics of which I now proceed to mention.

In the first place, Miss Carrington has that rare quality which is essential to a right understanding and representation of animal character—the charm of sympathy, untainted by the least suspicion of patronage. The Superior Person is rampant in these modern days, and few are the institutions that know not the light of his countenance, but there is at least one society, the society of animals, where superiority is not a passport to success. Respectability is fatal to a right intercourse with animals. As Whitman sings,

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

This is the true spirit of zoophily, if the zoophilists knew it. Miss Carrington does know it, and what is better, she acts on it in her life and in her writings. She is not kind to animals, if we may judge from the tone of her books—she is friendly with them, and that is the best relation of all. “Each and all of these are our friends,” she says, in the book which I have selected as the nominal subject of this article, “if we will deign to treat them as such. But if we would have real friends among these wondrous creatures, we must learn to understand them, and to make a careful study of their requirements. We cannot hope to make and to keep a human friend without knowledge of his character, his wants, his nature; neither can we make and keep animal friends unless we learn much of their needs their dispositions, their joys and pains. Therefore he is a false and not a true friend of animals who keeps them wrongly, feeds them badly, treats them in any way unfairly.”

Secondly, Edith Carrington has the gift of knowledge, which is, as she says, a necessary adjunct to friendliness. This, as regards the true nature of animals, is a rarer gift than might be supposed, for though there are a number of learned people who know a great deal about the classification, structure, appearance, and what may be called the external habits of animals, there are a very few indeed who possess, in addition to this, the subtler knowledge of the mind. And it is the mind of animals, not merely their hides and carcasses, that Miss Carrington has studied, as anyone may gather from the hundreds of examples of her methods of dealing with them scattered incidentally through her pages-numberless instances of humane  services, friendships, reminiscences, and anecdotes, all showing a deep instinctive knowledge of the living creature as distinguished from the dead or dead-alive “specimen” of the collector. This fuller knowledge, so rarely attained by the “naturalist,” can only result from a reverential love of Life.

Lastly, Miss Carrington has the crowning quality of style. She can write; and would that this could be said of many of the champions of animals! Despite a tendency to diffuseness, which seems to be her chief fault as an author, it remains true that to take up any article or book by her is to read what is written with the grace and tenderness of genuine workmanship. In the ordinary parlance, “she wields a facile pen”; but it has to be remembered that it is not in reality easy to write like that, for much previous patient thought and work must have gone to the making of it, as every writer of any distinction will know to his cost. It is beginners only who “wield facile pens,” and the result is not quite so facile for their readers.

Miss Carrington's works are so numerous that I have not attempted in this article to do more than indicate their general tone and purport, but it may be convenient if I now subjoin a list of the chief of them. They all date since 1889, as before that time the author was an artist.

“Stories for Somebody,” “Nobody’s Business,” “Flower Folk,” “Bread and Butter Stories,” “Ten Tales Without a Title,” “Workers Without Wage.” (Griffith, Farren & Co.)
“A Narrow, Narrow World,” “A Story of Wings.” (Sonnesschein.)
“Five Stars in a Little Pool.” (Cassell & Co.)
“The Dog, his Rights and Wrongs,” “The Cat, her Place in Society and Treatment,” “Animals in the Wrong Place,” “Anecdotes of Horses,” “The Ass, his Welfare, Wants, and Woes,” “Animal Life Readers,” “Ages Ago.” (George Bell & Sons.)

During the seven years of Miss Carrington’s literary labours, the cause which she has so much at heart—the recognition of the rights of animals—has made unmistakable progress, and there can be no doubt that her writings, now popular and widely read, have been a distinct factor in this creation of a better public conscience. She has done, and I trust will continue to do, most valuable work as a pioneer of that saner and humaner Natural History towards which Thoreau aspired, that knowledge of the “inner life of animals” which is destined to transcend and supersede the present superficial “science,” as surely as this science itself superseded the grosser superstitions of the past.

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, November 1896