The British Library’s Animal Tales

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I went along to the British Library’s Animal Tales Exhibition today. The show is divided into subsections which include ‘metamorphosis’, ‘wildness’, ‘animal allegories’, ‘tales for children’ and more. The highlight for me was undoubtedly the manuscript of  Angela Carter’s ‘Mr Lyon’. A short story first published in Vogue in which Carter subtly reworks ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Mr Lyon and Beauty are both transformed in the course of the story: the beast from Lion to Man, and Beauty from selfish socialite to selfless wife. The description of the work argues that the metamorphosis is ironically undercut in the text’s final image of dying petals. The story was later published in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, a collection that inspired and fed into the concept for our ‘Company of Wolves’ conference, being rich in animal/human transmogrifications (new word from today).

Having written on eighteenth-century natural history texts by women, I was pleased that Sarah Trimmer’s History of Robin Redbreast (1793) made it into the exhibition (though not Priscilla Wakefield’s work). Amongst the literary gems were a nineteenth-century illustrated edition of Grimm with wolf image, Keats’s ‘Lamia’, the wonderful Journey to the West (including monkey, a character that has always fascinated), Montaigne’s essay on the cat (1602) and The Bees, a contemporary novel by Laline Paull (2014). I was struck by this unusual cover to Dave Egger’s The Wild Things. Peeking out from the furry binding were lonely nine year old Max’s human eyes from Where the Wild Things Are (creepy).

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The exhibition is open until 1st November and is certainly worth a visit. There are tempting  books accompanying the displays in the BL shop too where they are stocking a wide range of animal tales from Ovid to Kafka and Kipling and promoting some classic animal novels such as Moby Dick, Animal Farm, Call of the Wild and Watership Down (I am still traumatised by the ‘Bright Eyes’ theme tune to that animation). Seriously though do go along, it is timely and hugely enjoyable following CoW.

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About Lucy Northenra

Dr Sam George, Coffin Boffin, Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire, Convener Open Graves, Open Minds Project
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