Gender, Animals, and Gaskell’s Cousin PhillisAyşe Çelikkol
The so-called animal turn in the humanities has given rise to an increased interest in the ways in which representations of animals shape human cultures. In Victorian studies, scholars have attended to the significance of domestic pets and other animals in the production of Victorian ideologies and subjectivities. Recent studies often point out the role animals played in the formation of Victorian domesticity. While these studies in general assign a key role to animal figures in the mediation of traditional domesticity, this essay explores the opposite phenomenon taking place in the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis, a novella in which pets and farm animals are prominent. In this work, the eponymous protagonist, a young woman living on a farm, falls in love with a cosmopolitan engineer. Rather than portraying Phillis as an ethereal angelic creature who would be typical of the ideal Victorian woman, Gaskell ascribes to her a passionate nature, though hidden behind a constrained façade. Phillis is partly able to express her deep-set emotions, including her interest in the cosmopolitan engineer, when interacting with animals. This non-traditional gender role becomes possible through the representation of birds and the family dog. Animals enable the imagination of a femininity that resists restrictive gender codes. The traditional association of animals with women has sometimes worked to denigrate the latter, but as Gaskell shows that this link also has an emancipatory potential.