In 1936, Georg Lukacs wrote of the ‘degradation and crippling under capitalism [that] is far more tragic, its bestiality viler, more ferocious and terrible than that pictured even in the best of these novels’. He was referring to modern realism, which, in his view, had ‘lost its capacity to depict the dynamics of life, and thus its representation of capitalist reality is inadequate, diluted and constrained’. The present study grapples with this vile bestiality, but examines its earlier manifestation in British texts between 1885 and 1900 – the period that saw the development of realism and its sister movement, naturalism, and which is most commonly described in literary and cultural studies as an ‘age of transition’.
During these years, ‘[t]he Late Victorians themselves were intensely conscious of their transitory state’. The literary historian Peter Keating outlines, for example, the transformation of education into a system of social mobility; cultural transformation; the transformation, ‘even perhaps the death’, of the Victorian family; and a ‘revolutionary transformation in every aspect of communications’. To these, we might add urbanisation, whose ‘whetted fangs of change/Daily devour the old demesne’. John Davidson's lines growl with the sense of class menace.
The changes that many experienced in late nineteenth-century Britain are symbolised by the obsessive display of figures of indeterminate or altered shape: beasts with human characteristics; humans who are, or who become, beastly; creatures of dubious or shifting classification. Some of these have been the subject of considerable critical attention, but rather than timeless mythical or psychological examples of metamorphosis – for which they are often taken – these physical alterations might be viewed more productively as reflections of changes to the social body.
In ‘one of the most important documents of the fin de siecle’, Max Nordau considers the notion behind the latter term:
It means a practical emancipation from traditional discipline, which theoretically is still in force. To the voluptuary this means unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man…