Talking animals in fiction have, for the most part, been confined to children’s or otherwise peripheral literature. Yet they often serve a serious purpose. Aesop’s fables, with their anthropoid wolves, frogs, and ants, have been put to use as moral lessons for children since the Renaissance. The ‘it-narrative’, fashionable in eighteenth-century England and perhaps best exemplified by Francis Coventry’s History of Pompey the Little: Or, the life and adventures of a lap-dog (1752), saw various animals expatiate their suffering at human hands.
In a similar vein, the equine hero of Black Beauty (1877), the creation of Victorian Quaker-reformist Anna Sewell, railed against life as a taxicab horse. The habit of contemporaneous critics has been to dismiss such works as irredeemably sentimental, anthropomorphic, or merely curious, even when – as with George Orwell’s political fable Animal Farm (1945) or Virginia Woolf’s Flush (1933), a ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel – starkly adult concerns are operating.