‘That Tail of His Quite Ruined the Breakfast-Room Paper’: Pets and Middle-Class Domestic Space in Victorian England

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During the nineteenth century pet keeping became increasingly popular in middle-class homes, at the same time as the home itself was demarcated and understood in new ways. Recent scholarship has highlighted the social and cultural importance of the home in nineteenth-century Britain and its role in inculcating middle-class identities and values (Cohen 2006; Ponsonby 2007; Hamlett 2010; Rich 2011). The home is held to have become an increasingly private, segregated space – in which rooms were demarcated by function and used according to a carefully set up daily timetable. Those that could afford it filled their homes with things and often decorated them elaborately. Domestic space was also set up to create and control relationships – polite marriage was built between husbands and wives in the drawing room, children and adults were separated through the nursery system and servants consigned to attics and basements. Amongst this proliferation of rules and objects, animals were often present, but what was their role? How did they fit into the idealization of the home and structures of domestic authority? To what extent could the presence and agency of animals challenge the ordering of the middle-class home?
Using domestic advice manuals and manuals providing instruction on pet keeping, this paper will explore how studying animal life can deepen our understanding of the home. According to advice writers, an increasing range of dogs and cats as well as imported monkeys, ‘foreign’ birds, squirrels, hedgehogs and British birds were to be found in Victorian homes. The utility value of certain animals – guard dogs, cats that pursued mice, and hedgehogs that ate black beetles – were written into a literature that argued that animal presence could strengthen the ordered world of the home. Yet the same writers also often acknowledged the disruptive role of animals – muddy dogs, noisy parrots and destructive magpies – and the damage they caused to decoration and furniture. The movement of animals could traverse the rigid spatial boundaries set up by contemporary domestic advisors – although cages and kennels were created for some pets, others could roam freely, connecting the drawing room with life below stairs. Their presence also intervened in family relationships – a favoured pet might be allowed at the dinner table, while children were confined to the nursery. Relations between servants and pets were often shown to be fraught, but there was the potential for special relationships to be formed in the kitchen.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019

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