Victorian Attitudes

DSC04714There was a big demonstration in London today against the proposed amending of the Hunting Act. Mostly the demonstrators looked and shouted across the road at the Houses of Parliament, to whom the message was being directed. But when some speeches were made by Brian May and others, from the steps of a statue further back from the road, this great assembly – with its placards, fox outfits, and other insignia of protest against field “sports” – turned to face none other than King George V, whose statue it is, standing high above the green there. A most ironic situation, because King George was not just a stickler for correct dress and procedure, but also a habitual killer of wild-life: principally so-called “game” birds, but also, when he got the chance as Emperor of India, more exotic creatures like tigers, rhinoceroses, and bears. For much of the time during today’s speeches, the King had a pigeon on his head, preening and scratching itself: in his lifetime, that would perhaps have been the only safe place anywhere near him for a bird to be.

In John Betjeman’s poem of 1936, ‘Death of King George V’, there is mention of this hunting and shooting, but King George is presented as rather poignantly old-fashioned in his tastes and standards. In the last line, by contrast, his successor Edward VIII is a modern figure, turning up casually dressed for the time and occasion, and by aeroplane: “A young man lands hatless from the air.” This more modern king did indeed pursue less rural and destructive hobbies than his father had, but, as we know, it was not the end of hunting and shooting as royal pastimes. Even the present Prince of Wales, for all his earnest promotion of green causes, seems to have no particular feeling for wild animals as individual lives, deserving of respect as ours are.

It seems that the royal family refuses to modernize in this matter. The one British monarch who has had a really powerful and personal hatred of cruelty to animals was George V’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. Admittedly she seems to have accepted her consort Albert’s hunting and shooting. Perhaps also, like the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to which she gave royal approval in 1840, she was readier to mind cruelty to animals among the working people than among their superiors. If so, she made an exception to that in her plain-spoken indignation against what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection [her own underlining]. In a letter she wrote to the Home Secretary, whose office had been made responsible by the 1876 Act for overseeing the practice, she called it “a disgrace to a civilized country.”

That Act, incidentally, was not euphemistically titled, as the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is; it was bluntly named the Cruelty to Animals Act. Everyone knew what they were talking about. However, at the time of the Queen’s letter, the early 1880s, the Act was in the hands of Sir William Harcourt, and so far from agreeing with Queen Victoria, or paying attention to her complaint, he did more perhaps than any other Home Secretary before or since to give the scientists what they wanted: that is, the power to administer the Act themselves, and to enjoy its professional protections without being troubled by its restrictions.

The quotations from Queen Victoria’s letters can be found in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s magnificent anthology of anti-speciesist writings, The Extended Circle (Centaur Press, 1985: revised edition 2009). This book is a sort of permanent demonstration, a great collective statement to the effect that we cannot call ourselves civilized until we cease to tyrannize over our fellow-animals. It ought to be the bedside reading of every politician and monarch.

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