‘Never mind the dog’: Experimental Subjects in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science

Erika Behrisch Elce

Department of English, Royal Military College of Canada


Drs Moreau and Benjulia, the experimental physiologists of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883), push the moral boundaries of science by digging through living bodies to discover ‘the fastness’ that holds the human core (Wells 130). Identified by literary critics as notorious ‘mad-scientist villain[s],’ Moreau and Benjulia practice vivisection, and in their respective laboratories they pursue what look to be ‘arcane intellectual goals redolent of ideological evil’ (Stiles 319, 323). Laura Otis considers both texts––and both scientists––as popular responses to the 1881 trial of Dr David Ferrier, an experimental physiologist who found himself charged with violating a regulation in the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act: vivisecting without a license.[1] Although the anti-vivisectionist case collapsed, and Dr Ferrier was neither convicted nor fined for his experiments, both Wells and Collins’ novels continued the public exploration of moral science that the trial began, encouraging ‘readers to question the motives, methods, and value of physiological research’ (Otis 42). In the parlance of the Victorian anti-vivisection movement, vivisection is a ‘practice of cruelty’ that, in Collins’ words, ‘fatally [deteriorates] the nature of man’ (38).[2] As Otis notes, this critique exists in both novels: Moreau and Benjulia’s natures are shown to be ‘fatally deteriorated’ by their work, and both die violently: Moreau savaged by one of his own vivisected subjects, Benjulia burned alive by his own hand amongst his mutilated research animals. In the words of one Victorian reviewer of Moreau, these ends are awful enough to ‘satisf[y] the mind of the reader’ with a sense of ‘poetic justice’: both scientists get what they deserve (Hutton 189). [3]

But while the parallels between the two men as ‘crazed biologists’ is generally recognised, there has been little analysis of their work spaces, and their effects on the social world around them (Stiles 324). This article compares the two controversial scientists from this new angle: it examines not only how they interact with their research subjects, but where they do so, evaluating their respective laboratories in order to analyse both the danger and the potential impact of their scientific methods. I argue that, though Moreau’s wild ideas and extreme physical violence make him seem the more obvious villain, it is in fact Collins’ Benjulia whose psychological violence carries the greater threat to the human world. Though both novels depict the ‘potential ravages of science unchecked’, Collins’ novel provides a much stronger warning of the moral threat that vivisection represents (Otis 47). Indeed, a look beyond the superficial horror of vivisection, and into the private spaces in the two novels where it is conducted, reveals surprising gradations of ‘villainy’: the two scientists are not quite what they initially appear (Talairach-Vielmas 153).

Moreau’s attempts on a remote island to create a new evolutionary path make him a perverse demigod, but his experimental subjects quickly, and comfortingly, revert to their original, animal forms.[4] His operations are conducted in profound isolation: on an unmapped island and only on non-human animals. This keeps the intellectual as well as biological separation between the scientist and his research subject––and the society that might be affected by his research––intact. Indeed, Moreau’s quest to create humans from animals can be read as an assertion of an essential difference between humans and other animals, a difference that is reasserted in the Beast People’s inevitable reversion to their original forms. Likewise, his research has no impact on the society he hopes to revolutionise through his work. In contrast, in Heart and Science, Benjulia does not leave the city to escape from the critical ‘public gaze’ (Mayer 414); instead, he leaves his private laboratory and makes the frightening leap across the human/animal divide by using the population of London itself as an experimental group. While appearing to interact normally with the general public, Benjulia searches for vulnerable individuals he can psychologically manipulate, and metaphorically vivisect, in order to discover the secret of ‘brain disease’: a quest he has already pursued unsuccessfully through experiments on animals.[5] Much more than the conventional vivisection that Moreau practices in his manipulation of bodies, Benjulia’s willingness to experiment on humans in the midst of society threatens not only moral boundaries but the ‘classic hierarchies ordering the species’ (Mayer 405). Moreau wants to make animals humans, but Benjulia treats humans as animals, collapsing the social as well as biological distance between them.[6] In Benjulia’s erasure of the human-animal divide, Collins offers Heart and Science as an indictment of complacent readers, and society at large, for allowing any vivisection to happen: if such cruelty happens to any living creature, it happens to us all.

  1. Moreau, Benjulia, and the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act

Both novels confront the provocative relationship between morality and science, specifically vivisection, after the 1876 passing of the Cruelty to Animals Act. Instigated by public pressure from anti-vivisection lobbyists, the Act articulated the findings of a government-appointed Royal Commission (1875), which was a committee formed to hear arguments both for and against vivisection. Based on its findings, the Royal Commission drafted the Act, which sought to regulate the use of animals for scientific purposes, both for pure research and for medicine. Specifically, the Act ordered that experiments on animals could henceforth only occur with a license obtained from the Home Office (Act para 7). The crux of the vivisection debate in the 1870s was the increasingly ‘blurred […] division between humans and nonhumans’, which Jed Mayer describes as part of the ‘country’s evolving culture of compassion’ (Mayer 400, 404). Although some scientists protested its implementation, arguing that its restrictions ‘stymied British science’, the Act hardly limited the range of work still available to physiologists (Finn and Stark 12).[7] Rather, it sought to regulate how, when, and where it occurred.

The main priority of the Act was, understandably, to limit needless pain to animal research subjects, and, although the Royal Commission recognised that some ‘painful experiments are necessary for original research’, it became officially illegal to perform an ‘experiment calculated to give pain’ to an animal except under regulated circumstances (Vivisection viii; Act para 2). In addition, the Act limited both the audience and location of the venues for such work. Specifically, physiology labs were to be inaccessible to lay audiences: ‘Any exhibition to the general public […] of experiments on living animals calculated to give pain shall be illegal’ (Act para 6). Prior to the Act, vivisection could, hypothetically, happen anywhere. Physiologists like London’s Dr Cooke, for example, could make a business of it. Taking advantage of the number of medical students working near University College, Dr Cooke’s lab was located on Gower Street, one of ‘several private laboratories’ that offered regular ‘lessons to students in Vivisection’ who might need a refresher (Anti-Vivisectionist 159). It was a thriving trade, as indicated by Cooke’s advertisement: ‘The whole of Anatomy (on the dissected body) and of Physiology (with microscopical preparations and vivisections) [were] gone through carefully every three months’ (Vivisection 122). The lessons were ‘rapidly conducted, yet the instruction given [was] complete and exhaustive’ (Vivisection 122). Understandably, the Royal Commission found such scenarios ethically problematic, ‘suggestive, to say the least, of […] a dilettante evening séance in a private parlour laboratory’ (viii). Licenses to use animals, and the spaces for such work, became equally regulated through the Home Office licensing system after 1876.

This system of licensing research spaces, although intended to regulate laboratory work, ultimately benefited the practicing physiologists because it effectively closed the door on public oversight, contributing to the ‘strategic isolation [of professional science] from the broader public’ (Hamilton 69).[8] Don LePan articulates the link between the visibility of cruelty towards animals and activism on their behalf. In his study of the Smithfield slaughterhouse, LePan notes that, after it was moved to the suburbs and out of the easy line of sight, the abattoir ceased to be a source of public interest.[9] The same cruelty towards the animals may well have continued, but because it was out of sight of the milling urban crowds, writers seemed to become ‘entirely uncurious’ about it (6). In its efforts ‘to regulate vivisection’ and minimise abuse, the Home Office’s increased oversight effectively strengthened ‘the barriers between laboratory investigation and the public gaze’: the very public that had protested against the labs and sought for their abolition in the first place (Mayer 414). Susan Hamilton notes this trend as a tragic irony, that the specialised and increasingly isolated laboratory increasingly became the site of ‘elite science’ (77). This in turn enabled the frustratingly ‘secretive obfuscating scientific brotherhoods’ to flourish, with the civilian public increasingly ignorant of their work (77). This is certainly reflected in Wells’ novel where a ‘wretched dog, flayed and otherwise mutilated’ precipitates the ‘Moreau Horrors’: the public scandal that sends Moreau running from England (94, 93). However, on the private island, Moreau’s work continues as if there had been no interruption.

If Wells’ Island narrativises the consequences of physiology’s ‘strategic isolation’, Collins’ Heart and Science explores the threat to society at large of such science continuing at all. W. F. Bynum notes that the use of vivisection for conducting medical research ‘raised a number of salient issues’ in the nineteenth century, most notably ‘the relationship between experimentation on animals and more subtle forms of experimentation on patients,’, and the fear of ‘cruelty to animals manifesting itself in cruelty to patients’, the same fear that Collins defines, as mentioned above, as ‘fatally deteriorating the nature of man’ (Bynum 171; Collins 38). In its discoveries, experimental physiology validated the ‘continuum linking humans with other animals’ but, in so doing, it simultaneously suggested that such science was a violence society inflicted upon itself (Mayer 404). As Heart and Science implies, experimenting on animals will not be where such science ends. Indeed, dissatisfied with monkeys and dogs, Benjulia turns to people and, disturbingly, his experiments on his human interlocutors are conducted in full view of everyone––including his medical colleagues––and no one reacts.

  1. ‘Only the puma’: Intellectual and Physical Isolation in the Lab

In The Island of Dr Moreau, Moreau sets himself up as a god in his own private universe, running his particular style of surgical evolution alongside Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As John Glendening observes, Moreau’s island is ‘in the actual vicinity of the Galapagos, islands [which constitute] a virtual laboratory for natural selection’ (572). The small volcanic island is Edenically lush and, though danger lurks in the forest in the form of Moreau’s reverting Beast People (vivisected animals distorted to look, think, and behave like humans), it is also ripe with a natural fecundity, with fruits available for eating and streams for drinking. Moreau’s island compound is thus aligned, at least metaphorically, with the natural order, while Moreau himself chooses which genetic strains are best ‘for moulding’ (Wells 128). Ultimately, I would contend that Moreau’s kingdom in the jungle represents no heart of darkness for Victorian science, but the fantasy of return to respectability: Moreau’s ambition is to ‘make a rational creature’ and then, most importantly, to present his findings to his peers, ‘to wake up English physiology’ to vivisection’s positive potential (129). He hopes to confirm the status quo, not break it. To ‘wake up’ his erstwhile colleagues is not to change their methods, but to encourage them to continue down the path they have only tentatively begun.

Given the profound terror that the animal shrieks emanating from Moreau’s laboratory initially evoke in Wells’ narrator, Prendick, his acceptance of the work that Moreau does seems shockingly nonchalant. Rather than condemning Moreau for his creation of the Beast People, Prendick regards Moreau as the ‘prominent and masterful physiologist’ he was before his exile from England (93). Indeed, it is Prendick, not Moreau, who is ‘hot with shame’ upon his discovery of what happens in the physiologist’s laboratory: that the crying creatures are ‘animalia qui nos habemus––vivisected’ and not human beings as he initially believed (123, 120). The screams of pain emanating from the lab are sources of pride for Moreau, not embarrassment. A cool logic dominates Moreau’s explanation of his vision and Prendick is impressed by the physiologist’s ‘serenity, the touch almost of beauty that resulted from his set tranquillity and his magnificent build’ as he tells his ghastly tale (131). Moreau’s calmness implies that no drama (or trauma) exists in what he does. Prendick’s own physical response to Moreau––‘I shivered’––is initially suggestive of his unconscious revulsion that Moreau’s activities might elicit (131). It is, however, a reaction to the products of Moreau’s experiments––the ‘Beast People’ lurking beyond the enclosure––rather than to Moreau himself. Indeed, after explaining his experiments, Moreau invites Prendick to reside with the Beast People if he feels unsafe in the compound, but Prendick ultimately locks the door to the rest of the island (where the Beast People live) and keeps his access to Moreau’s laboratory open. This response to Moreau’s final question––‘Are you in fear of me still?’––reifies the distinction between humans and animals that Moreau himself makes, and that the functioning physiological laboratory requires (131).

In his attitude towards his research animals, Moreau is the fictional counterpart to historical physiologists of the period such as Drs Claude Bernard and Emanuel Klein, whose work galvanised the Victorian antivivisection community, and who went on record before the Royal Commission to state that, when considering the animals they vivisected, they paid ‘[n]o regard at all’ to the pain they inflicted (Report 261). Like them, in the novel Moreau is not automatically villainous because of the nature of his work, but because of his coldness towards his research subjects. Anne Stiles, who sees Moreau as the archetypal ‘mad scientist’, calls him ‘ruthlessly intellectual’ (319). Mason Harris concurs, pointing out Moreau’s identification of the animals under his knife as ‘inert matter’ (Harris 50). A ‘dedicated researcher’ refusing to acknowledge any sympathy with his research subjects, Moreau enjoys ‘a bodiless exercise of pure reason’ at the vivisection table (44). But in his disdain for anesthesia, Moreau is no renegade; Dr Klein, for one, told the Royal Commission that he used anaesthesia only when it was ‘necessary for convenience’ (Report 261).

Although Moreau’s island keeps him geographically separated from the English scientific community, his work puts him right in the middle of it. Montgomery, Moreau’s degraded assistant, even likens the island to London’s University College campus, a centre for experimental research. Complaining about the sounds of agony coming from the vivisected puma, he cries, ‘I’m damned […] if this place is not as bad as Gower Street, with its cats’ (105).[10] In making this allusion, Montgomery underscores Moreau’s connection to the conventional scientific community. Prendick does the same when he laments Moreau’s exile from England; it is not the result of his ethical failing, but of the scientific community’s cowardice. Moreau’s work is discovered when a dog escapes from his lab, sparking the ‘Moreau Horrors’, and Moreau is left to his own defence (94). In Prendick’s estimation, Moreau’s ‘desertion by the great body of scientific workers was a shameful thing’ (94). Indeed, in Prendick’s telling, Moreau is the victim in the controversy, rather than the villain: he is ‘howled out of the country’ by the antivivisectionists and Prendick’s description of the uproar they create links the lobbyists, effective only in ‘the silly season’, to the very animals which Moreau attempts to improve (94).

In his frightened experimental subjects, Moreau sees merely ‘stuff’ that is only occasionally worthy of ‘man-making’; the creatures are fundamentally separate from his definition of human (91, 126). Mayer explains the value of this distinction in the Victorian experimental lab: the ‘reinforcement of classic hierarchies ordering the species served to protect the physiological researcher from […] unwonted reminders of emotional kinship’ (Mayer 404). Significantly, Moreau is equally cold towards himself: when explaining his work to Prendick, Moreau delivers his lecture on the importance of rejecting pain while simultaneously driving a knife ‘into his leg’, hardly pausing in his monologue as he does it (Wells 126). Moreau applies his theory of rational development––that pain will be ‘ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later’––to himself as much as to his research animals (130). Again, Moreau’s clinical detachment from his work (and even from his own body) is consistent with what historians of science have noted was a concerted push in the nineteenth-century laboratory to ‘to seal the research space off from emotional contagion’ (Mayer 404). It also perpetuates the strict hierarchy between the scientist and his subject, an element considered essential to responsible physiological research. Indeed, far from feeling kinship in his lab, Moreau considers the subjects of his work as enemies to the success of his project; they are ‘inimical phenomena’ that resist being positively transformed by his genius (Wells 121). For Moreau, there is no ‘continuum’ between the researcher and his subject––emotional or otherwise––because of the animal’s response to pain (Mayer 404).

Moreau mocks Prendick for being a ‘materialist’ because he fears pain like other animals do, not because he feels innate sympathy for the creatures on which Moreau experiments (Wells 126). Moreau is correct: Prendick describes their cries merely as ‘singularly irritating’, and expresses throughout a deep ambivalence to the pain of nonhuman animals (97). As Prendick admits after listening to the tortured puma, ‘had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, […] I could have stood it’ (97, my emphasis). This nonchalance about the suffering of animals supports Mayer’s assertion that, in fact, the Victorian ‘experimental physiology laboratory [was] sanctioned by […] public indifference’ (413). Supporting this sense of indifference is Prendick’s profound relief when he realises that the island’s ‘man-like creatures [are] in truth only bestial monsters’ (Wells 132). Ironically, the Beast People’s collective trait that most disgusts both Moreau and Prendick is their desperate ‘wish for […] fully human status’; their constant ‘upward striving’ is their most human characteristic, but also incontrovertible proof of their continued inferiority (Harris 39; Wells 131).

According to Moreau, sensitivity to ‘pain and pleasure’ is the ‘mark of the beast’; overcoming it is blocked by a barrier in the core of the body that the Beast People cannot cross (and Moreau cannot destroy), and their retreat into their animal instincts is inevitable (Wells 127). As Moreau expresses it, the moment he releases a creature from his operating table, ‘the beast begins to creep back’ (130). But while Harris calls the biological backsliding of the Beast People the ‘grimmest aspect’ of their ordeal, I argue that it also provides the greatest narrative relief, because it shows Moreau to be little more than a physiologist consistent with his time, and ultimately not a threat to the social order (Harris 38). The Beast People’s reversion is certainly grim in its process, but not worrying: the reversion of the beast not only to animal habits but also to animal form keeps the boundary clear and safe for the human observer. Prendick ceases to feel bad for the animals once he knows what they are, and he looks at the puma on the table more than once to ‘assure [himself] of its inhumanity’ (Wells 122).[11]

Significantly, Moreau does not actually try to cross the human/nonhuman divide: although he discusses his experiments in terms of ‘man-making’, this refers more generically to his ideal of rationalism and the ‘pugnacious energy to face torment’, which he identifies with humans, rather than considering making actual humans (128). Although Prendick sees a ‘strange wickedness’ in Moreau’s efforts to make the human form, Moreau chooses the human shape only ‘by chance’: something in it ‘appeals to the artistic turn’ (126). Indeed, Moreau’s aim is not specifically to recreate a human but rather to create a ‘rational creature’, whatever it may look like (130). He expresses this in his choice of animals, rejecting, for instance, the gorilla (known in 1896 as one of humankind’s closest relatives) in favour of a puma as an experimental subject. For Moreau, form is hardly the point. As he explains, he ‘might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas and llamas into sheep’ if their brains could move beyond their ‘fear-hunted, pain-driven’ instincts (126, 128).

Like his historical contemporaries monitored under the 1876 Act, Moreau appears to bow to social pressure by relocating his laboratory on an island that is, literally, off the map. In this he implicitly acknowledges that his work goes against contemporary moral standards, what Mayer calls the ‘culture of compassion’ that happened to grow alongside the development of experimental physiology (404). That Moreau leaves England but continues in the same work in a ‘locked enclosure on a lonely island’, however, is simply a difference from his fellow scientists in the degree of his isolation, not in kind; his activities do not set him radically apart from the other physiologists practicing with licences from the Home Office (Wells 95). In relocating, Moreau does just what the Commission enforces: he hides. Though he lacks a formal permit to conduct vivisection, Moreau fits the stereotype of the nationally sanctioned experimental physiologist: he takes advantage of ‘the public’s willful ignorance’, absents himself from the ‘snooping fanatics’, and continues his work with only a brief interruption (Mayer 413; Bynum 170).

Moreau makes his beasts talk; they walk upright; they do not ‘suck up Drink’, but because Moreau cannot fully excise the animal from the animal, his crimes against the physiological continuum remain contained (Wells 114). What stops him is neither moral nor legal, but animal, that ‘seat of the emotions’ he remains unable to discover and conquer (130). In Moreau’s words, ‘the stubborn beast-flesh grows day by day back again’ (129). Therefore, even while Moreau tries to bridge the distance between animal and human, his experimentation reveals the essential chasm between them—a distance which, much to his consternation, the beasts themselves steadfastly maintain. Moreau’s science, like his story, fades quickly into obscurity: within three years after his death, his island supports nothing more unnatural than ‘hogs and rabbits, and some rather peculiar rats’ (71). Thus, for all the ‘exceedingly ghastly’ activity in his compound, as one nineteenth-century review fumed, Moreau maintains the evolutionary and moral status quo and so does not threaten the reader (Guardian 191). Moreau operates within the standard nineteenth-century scientific argument that animal responses to physical stimuli ‘operate at a lower level of significance on moral and evolutionary scales, thus warranting negligible ethical concern,’ as Mayer articulates the position (406). The fact that, after twenty years of trying to make animals rational, he has ‘never troubled about the ethics of the matter’, proves him to be, as galling as this conclusion would be to Moreau himself, merely conventional (Wells 128).

3: Working with ‘inferior creatures’: London as Laboratory

The whip-snapping, pistol-wielding Moreau appears to be a much more dangerous villain than the scrupulously polite Benjulia, who frequently asks during his social exchanges, ‘Am I being rude?’ (Collins 101). Through Moreau’s explanations and narrator Edward Prendick’s observations of the creatures he encounters (Moreau’s vivisected ‘Beast People’), readers experience the horror of Moreau’s compound in agonising detail. Moreau’s eyes mist over as he imagines delving into his ‘new stuff’: his latest shipment of live animals for experimentation (Wells 91). In the lab, Moreau rips and tears, subjecting each of his fully conscious victims to a ‘bath of burning pain’ in order to ‘make a rational creature’ and establish himself as a god among them (130). The landscape around Moreau’s compound is littered with ‘white rags’ from healed wounds and ‘smears of blood on the leaves of the shrubs’, while the tropical air is punctuated by cries of pain (149). In contrast, in Heart and Science, Dr Benjulia’s work is kept carefully hidden: not just by Benjulia himself, whose laboratory contains no windows and whose servants are dismissed the instant they become curious, but by Collins, who explains in his Preface his intention to leave readers in grateful ‘ignorance of [vivisection’s] hideous secrets’ (Collins 38). Continuing his vivisection in private, Benjulia remains a capable and respected doctor, called in to effect miracle cures of sensational cases that baffle his colleagues. He is, in the observation of his fellow characters, ‘a gentleman’ who is ‘liberal’ with servants, generous with money, pays his debts and serves his friends: a ‘good citizen’ of London (319, 190). Indeed, even though his research is the subject of some speculation, Benjulia achieves and maintains high social status among his colleagues. Though Benjulia’s hands are more than once seen covered in blood, he remains an honoured guest among the ‘famous professors of science’ (98).

Due to his accepted social status, I contend that, though Collins’ vivisector seems less overtly diabolical than Moreau, Dr Benjulia represents in fact a much more dangerous threat to society at large: not through his lack of empathy for the animals he dissects, but for his manipulation of the humans he exploits as unwitting research subjects. If Moreau wants to destroy the animal instinct in his subject, Benjulia hopes to draw it out; much more than Moreau’s work, Benjulia’s threatens the ‘classic hierarchies ordering the species’ that keep humans at the top (Mayer 405). I have argued elsewhere that science is far from universally villainous in Heart and Science, and that there is ample room for redemption in the practice.[12] Even Benjulia is capable of making moral decisions beyond his ‘torture-table’ (Collins 247). Indeed, Benjulia ultimately comes to regret his vivisection, setting his research animals free, leaving the gate open for them to escape before he locks himself in his lab, and attempting to atone for his experiments through suicide (323). Significantly, though, he has no regrets over his actions to humans. Indeed, although Benjulia’s empathy for the animals in his laboratory is painfully clear even to him, the humans who surround him fail to elicit any warm feeling at all. Due to this, they are the ones truly in danger from his scientific violation of their bodies and minds.

If Moreau fits a stereotype of the Victorian ‘sinister vivisector’––beautiful, powerful, remote––Benjulia seems more like his readers: tax-paying, occasionally ugly people concerned with fitting in (Stiles 323). For Moreau, pain is for the animals, and he separates himself from the ‘materialists’ by stabbing himself in the leg (Wells 126). In contrast, Benjulia is as sensitive to pain as the next man: he roars in agony at his gout-ridden toe and cannot bear to be touched, even by his own fingers, which can ‘handle the frailest objects with the most exquisite delicacy’ when he wants them to (Collins 95). He is occasionally confined to his home by fits of melancholia or pique. In this and other personality quirks, Benjulia retains his humanness: in his questions about law, God, and love, in his willingness to pay his debts and be polite, ‘Benjulia is consistent throughout,––consistent with himself, consistent with human nature’, as an 1883 writer in The Spectator observed (337). Unlike Moreau, he is also a successful medical consultant, a type who would have been recognisable to Collins’ readers as a ‘prestigious and fashionable [member] of nineteenth-century English society’ (Peterson 136). Called in as an expert for the most difficult medical cases, Benjulia is one of what Jeanne Peterson calls ‘the London medical and surgical elite’ (136). Indeed, Benjulia is so successful as a doctor that he ceases to have a public practice; he is a leader in a complex and highly competitive social and professional process. Peterson elaborates: ‘the path to the consulting elite could be long, the competition hard, and success rare’ (137). With his servants, acreage, ‘episcopal hat’, and ‘manners of a prince’, Benjulia fits the historical stereotype of Victorian medical royalty, with all the velvet trappings ‘that daily bespoke their elevated status’ (Collins 97; Peterson 136). He is, as Collins’ narrator admits, one of the ‘famous professors of science’ who are fêted around town, and he is used to being the centre of attention, enjoying ‘learned talk’ with his peers and admirers (Collins 98, 99).

As a suspected vivisectionist, Benjulia is the object of some curiosity by a few of the book’s other characters; Ovid Vere, himself a physician, has a sense of ‘horror’ when he considers Benjulia’s locked laboratory, which sits isolated in a field, ‘unnatural in [its] solitude’ (130, 129). In contrast, Benjulia’s psychological experimentation on humans remains invisible even to the very people he works upon, and they have no recourse to defend themselves against him. In this sense, I argue that Benjulia’s work on humans is akin to psychological vivisection: like Moreau’s ‘wretched dog’, Benjulia’s patients are powerless to resist him, and he manipulates their brains with impunity (Wells 94). Admittedly, Benjulia’s violence against his fellow humans does not lead to bloodshed––it is not conventional vivisection––but it is a deliberate infliction of suffering nonetheless. What would be negligent for a doctor is perfectly consistent with the methods of conventional vivisection, which were acceptable according to the 1876 Act if they were ‘performed with a view to the advancement by new discovery of physiological knowledge or of knowledge which will be useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering’ (Act para 3.1). For instance, Benjulia precipitates and then exploits one character’s ‘nervous hysteria’ in order to watch the ‘instructive process of [her] malady proceed’ (Collins 255). Carmina, the young woman who becomes Benjulia’s experimental subject in this scene, is sacrificed for the potential benefit of ‘saving or prolonging [the] life’ of other patients yet to come. And because Benjulia’s experimentation on humans remains invisible to the people around him (even to the narrator), he continues to be invited into the very places––the sick room, the parlour––where he can do most harm.

Benjulia is, like Moreau and his fellow historical physiologists, at the ‘mercy of snooping fanatics’ in the form of nosy servants and suspicious neighbours, but he does not escape to an island (Bynum 170). Indeed, he is far from being isolated in his lonely laboratory. Benjulia’s most fruitful research space is central London itself, and he turns his own visibility to his scientific advantage. The very people who try to shock Benjulia out of what they consider his moral torpor become his experimental subjects, and the more they remonstrate with him, the greater his opportunity to study their behaviour. For example, Benjulia teases his brother, Lemuel, because he is ‘interested in developing the state of his brother’s brain’ and he torments his cook in the same way that he would work on ‘a vivisected animal’ (Collins 187, 214). He leaves the novel’s heroine, Carmina, to languish in feverish agony in order to observe her as ‘an exceptionally interesting case’ (254). He regards his human patients the same way as he does ‘the other inferior creatures stretched under him on the table’: ‘experimentally’ (215).

Benjulia’s emotional disconnection from his fellow humans is especially apparent in his response to his brother, Lemuel, an unrepentant dog lover who threatens Benjulia with exposure and the one character with whom Benjulia should have the most natural and abiding emotional connection. During an argument over the morality of vivisection, Lemuel channels his canine friend to speak against his brother’s science: ‘Bow-wow means […] Fie upon the cruel hands that bore holes in our head[s] and use saws on our backs’ (186). Benjulia’s response is not to defend his right to experiment on animals, but to imagine actually vivisecting Lemuel himself. As Lemuel warms to his topic, Benjulia interrupts with questions of his condition: ‘Have you had headaches lately? Do you find your memory failing you?’ (186, 187). Far from even listening to his brother’s anti-vivisection tirade, Benjulia is instead wistful for the experiment that might have been: ‘I wish I had him on my table!’ (187).

Benjulia’s choice of locale for his laboratory underscores the threat to the human social world that his experimental science represents. His home and lab are located within walking distance of a rural paradise, where ‘wooded lanes and wild-flowers’ abound, although his uncultivated, undomesticated space is at the end ‘of a lonely lane […] in the middle of a barren little field’ (129). The uncanny silence surrounding Benjulia’s laboratory suggests the activities within, of course, but its proximity to a major urban centre should be a greater cause for alarm:  it is disturbingly ‘near to London,’ and he moves in and out of the metropolis with ease (129). Attending lectures and giving well-attended scientific presentations of his own, Benjulia maintains his public persona as a ‘celebrated doctor’ and chooses his subjects––human as well as animal––in the very heart of the city. His nefarious scientific work goes on under the careless eyes of average people. Contacted by the Zoological Gardens to retrieve an ill monkey, for instance, he encounters families at picnic, children at play, and lovers. In this scene, Benjulia’s interaction with Zo, a young girl of his acquaintance, shows the scientific and social worlds to be at fundamental odds with each other: just before he tucks the monkey under his arm to take back to his laboratory, Benjulia tickles Zo ‘with as serious an interest as if he had been conducting a medical experiment’ (96). This rather heavy-handed connection between children and animals may be interpreted as proof of Benjulia’s abandonment of emotion: he watches with clinical detachment as he applies his finger to Zo’s ‘Cervical Plexus’ and makes her kick like a dog (96). Zo, however, finds this hilarious, curious about her physical connection to her canine friend. As is made clear in his interaction with his brother, Benjulia is not particularly concerned with the canine reflex action and instead his ‘gloomy grey eyes’ look at people ‘as they might have rested on any inanimate object near him’ (96). Despite the narrator’s insistence otherwise, I argue that Benjulia does not see the rest of the world as inanimate. For Benjulia, humans are not inanimate subjects, and it is their very animation that fascinates him. Like his fingers working on Zo’s back, Benjulia seeks out the mentally vulnerable in order to push his physiological agenda. His preference for human subjects over animal ones is clear in his response to Zo’s question of whether the dog likes his leg involuntarily kicking: ‘Never mind the dog. Do you like it?’ (96, original emphasis). The monkey continues to wait.

An 1883 review of Collins’s book in the Spectator calls Benjulia ‘pitiless’, but this is not the case (335). I argue that Benjulia actually feels deeply for the animals on whom he experiments, and his work galls him. Indeed, Benjulia remains horrified ‘regarding the wanton infliction of suffering on his animal kin’ (Mayer 406). His work on animals makes him ‘gloomy’ and ‘dreary’ (Collins 131, 255). In contrast, his experiments on humans fill him with joy: when he sends his cook into a fit, for example, Benjulia actually ‘burst[s] out laughing’ (216). For Benjulia, humans are the animals upon whom he feels no moral qualms in experimenting. Everyone he encounters––monkeys, rabbits, dogs, and humans––is a potential experimental subject, but humans are his first choice. Moreover, it is not Benjulia’s lack of ‘sympathetic pain’ that makes him monstrous as it does Moreau, but his exploitation of it in others. In each exchange, Benjulia attempts to push his subject into an emotional fit, and then carefully reads his or her emotional as well as physical responses as evidence of burgeoning brain disease. Moreau simply rejects all feelings of sympathy as proof that we still ‘wriggle in the dust’ like animals (Wells 127). However, for Benjulia, it is precisely these emotional responses––the outward manifestations of inward struggles––that he depends upon to conduct his experiments.

In his Introduction, Collins insists that vivisection deadens sympathy and constructs Benjulia’s ‘gloomy’ character to represent this, but I argue that Benjulia’s continued horror of cruelty to animals is obvious throughout the novel (Collins 96). Benjulia himself feels and understands sympathetic pain, as he reveals in his stuttering description to his brother, Lemuel, of his experience with a monkey at the operating table: ‘My hands turned cold––my heart ached––I thought of a child I sometimes play with––I suffered––I resisted––I went on’ (191). Otis sees Benjulia’s cruelty to animals as the first step on the downward slope to cruelty toward humans, in which ‘people who conduct or even witness animal experiments will perform cruel experiments on human beings’ (Otis 39). The order of Benjulia’s confession, however, reveals different priorities: Zo, the little girl on whom Benjulia ‘operates’ at the Zoological Gardens, is brought to mind by the suffering of the monkey, rather than the other way around. Benjulia himself is traumatised by what he has done to the monkey: his hands turn cold and his heart aches. However, Benjulia’s resolution to continue is strengthened by his recollection of the girl. When the monkey resembles a small human, Benjulia pushes aside his revulsion––resists his innate sympathy––and continues.

Benjulia’s suffering echoes Victorian zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester’s assertion that there ‘is no lack of sympathy with the probable sufferings of animals experimented upon in the mind of the physiologist. He suffers with them […] and the mutual suffering of both vivisector and vivisected becomes a sacrifice offered upon the altar of science’ (qtd in Mayer 409). If Benjulia sacrificed his emotional equilibrium for medical advancement, he would be, if it’s possible to be, an ideal vivisector, hurting himself as much as his animal subjects for the benefit of humanity. For Benjulia himself, as I argue elsewhere, vivisection on animals remains ‘hideous’ (Collins 183).[13] In a sinister twist, however, it is only Benjulia’s experimentation on animals that causes him this remorse. When he turns his scientific gaze on humans, Benjulia is able to maintain his clinical detachment. In neglecting Carmina’s growing hysteria, in teasing his brother, and even in tickling Zo’s back, Benjulia considers his reprehensible course of treatment ‘not only excised, but even ennobled, by [its] scientific connection with the interests of Medical Research’ (255). Benjulia contends, ‘if I could steal a living man without being found out, I would tie him on my table, and grasp my grand discovery in days, instead of months’ (190). What keeps Benjulia working on the lower animals is thus not a moral check, but a legal one. Benjulia’s gloomy aspect is not a product just of his inability to wrest the secret from his animal subjects, but his inability to wrestle his ideal subject––a living human––under his knife.


The spaces in which the two scientists conduct their experiments remain key indicators of their relative levels of villainy. While Moreau’s violence is physically more brutal than Benjulia’s, its effects are mitigated by his geographical isolation. Indeed, Moreau’s experiments are as isolated as his island: they are one-offs, each unique in its shape and as anonymous as the volcanic rock on which he makes them. The puma, ragged and eviscerated on Moreau’s table, is still ‘only the puma’ (Wells 122). In contrast, when tickling children and examining monkeys in the pleasure centres of London, Dr Benjulia reveals how short the distance is between humans and animals, if the physiologist is only bold enough to make the experiment. For Benjulia, there is no mystery as to where humans fit in with their nonhuman fellows. Whereas Moreau believes that animals might be humans if enough work is done, Benjulia exploits the knowledge that humans are already animals. If humans and nonhumans exist on a continuum, as both experimental physiologists and anti-vivisectionists insist, then there is no real distinction between the kinds of living creatures one can work upon. This is the final warning at the heart of Collins’ novel: to allow any living animal to be victimised in the lab is to make us all potential fodder for the vivisection table.


Works Cited

Behrisch Elce, Erika. ‘‘One remarkable evening’: Redemptive Science in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science.’ Journal of Literature and Science 7.1 (2014). www.literatureandscience.org.

Bynum, W.F. Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

City of London Central Markets’ Association. An Appeal to the British Public; Or, The Abuses of Smithfield Market and the Advantages of a New Central Cattle Market Fairly Considered. London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1851.

Collins, Wilkie. Heart and Science. 1883. Ed Steve Farmer. Peterborough: Broadview Literary Texts, 1996.

Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876. An Act to amend the Law relating to Cruelty to Animals. 15 August 1876.

Finn, Michael A., and James F. Stark. ‘Medical Science and the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876: A Re-examination of Anti-vivisectionism in provincial Britain.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 49 (2015): 12–23.

Glendening, John. ‘“Green Confusion”: Evolution and Entanglement in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau.’ Victorian Literature and Culture 30.2 (2002): 571–597.

Hamilton, Susan. ‘Reading the Popular Critique of Science in the Victorian Anti-Vivisection Press: Frances Power Cobbe’s Writing for the Victoria Street Society.’ Victorian Review 26.2 (Fall 2010): 66–79.

Harris, Mason. ‘Introduction.’ The Island of Dr Moreau. Ed Mason Harris. Peterborough: Broadview Editions, 2009. 13–58.

Hutton, R.H. Review of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Spectator, 11 April 1896: 519–20. In Mason Harris, Ed. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 188–190.

LePan, Don. ‘‘Torture in the Way of Business’: Educating Victorians about Animal Food.’ Proceedings of the ‘Victorian Education’ VSAWC/VISAWUS Joint 2017 Conference: Vancouver BC, 28–29 April 2017.

Mayer, Jed. ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Laboratory Animals.’ Victorian Studies 50.3 (Spring 2008): 399–417.

Mitchell, Chalmers. Review of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art 11 April 1896. 368–69. In Mason Harris, Ed. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 184–187.

Otis, Laura. ‘Howled out of the Country: Wilkie Collins and H.G. Wells Retry David Ferrier.’ Neurology and Literature, 1860–1920. Ed. Anne Stiles. London: Palgrave, 2007. 27–51.

Peterson, M. Jeanne. The Medical Profession in Mid-Victorian London. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes. Dr Emanuel Klein’s testimony. 1876. Excerpted in Mason Harris, Ed. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 261–261.

Review of Heart and Science. The Academy 573 (28 April 1883): 290. In Steve Farmer, Ed. Heart and Science. 329–330.

Review of Heart and Science. The Spectator 26 May 1883: 679–81. In Steve Farmer, Ed. Heart and Science. 333–337.

Review of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The Guardian 3 June 1896: 871. In Mason Harris, Ed. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 191.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Royal Commission, etc. Vivisection. 2e. London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1876.

Stiles, Anne. ‘Literature in Mind: H.G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist’ Journal of the History of Ideas 70.2 (2009): 317–339.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

‘The number of Vivisectors in this Country’ The Anti-Vivisectionist Volume 6 (March 13, 1880). 159.

Wells, H.G. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 1896. Ed Mason Harris. Peterborough: Broadview Editions, 2009.


[1] Specifically, Ferrier was charged with allowing a vivisected monkey (whose brain had been exposed and altered) to ‘recover from anesthesia’ without having first obtained a special certificate to do so (Otis 35). One of the regulations of the 1876 Act required physiologists to euthanize an animal ‘before it recovers from the influence of the anæsthetic [unless] the so killing the animal would necessarily frustrate the object of the experiment’ (Act para 3.6.1). When it was discovered that Ferrier’s colleague, Dr Gerald Yeo, had done the surgery and ‘had obtained the necessary certificate’, the case was dismissed (Otis 37).

[2] Collins was a keen antivivisectionist, corresponding with the movement’s most prominent advocate, Frances Power Cobbe, and writing Heart and Science as his contribution to the cause. In contrast, H.G. Wells, a former biology student and lifelong follower of T.H. Huxley, was a supporter of experimental research, which included vivisection. See Harris’s ‘Introduction’ to The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Farmer’s ‘Introduction’ to Heart and Science.

[3] By 1883, when Heart and Science was published, Collins was already well known for his sensation novels, Wells equally so in 1896 (the publication date for The Island of Doctor Moreau) for his science fiction narratives, but the combination of science and sensation in the two books was not a formula for success. The reception of both books was tepid, specifically concerning their treatment of science: Collins’s ‘anti-vivisection manifesto’ was labelled heavy-handed and unconvincing ‘save by those who do not need to be convinced’ (Academy 329), while reviewers accused Wells of selling science out, slapping together lurid, sensational details ‘with the zeal of a sanitary inspector probing a crowded graveyard’ (Mitchell 185).

[4] Otis as well as others have pointed out that Wells is a ‘cautious supporter of animal experiments’, and this has been cited as a reason for the ambivalence of Moreau’s critique of vivisection (Otis 28). However, I argue that Moreau’s brutality towards his laboratory animals defies any attempt to read his character sympathetically.

[5] Even though Benjulia does not cut into human bodies, I use the term ‘vivisection’ because he looks for, and hopes to precipitate, physiological changes in his patients, rather than merely focussing on their emotions.

[6] This argument, that there was ‘specific, irrefutable […] similarity [between] people and animals,’ was used both by experimental physiologists and their anti-vivisectionist opponents in support of their sides of the debate (Otis 31). The similarity of non-human animal systems to humans made the experiments more valuable, but it also brought them closer to the threat of actual experiments on humans. That Moreau’s experiments ultimately reify the divide between the two groups mitigates the danger to the human world his experiments represent.

[7] This was especially true for physiologists, who were the most ‘wary of anti-vivisectionist activity, because their experiments often involved major surgery on the animal’ (Bynum 170).

[8] This may have been an intentional effect; Bynum notes that the enforcers of the Act, the ‘Home Office inspectorate’, was itself peopled with ‘individuals sympathetic to the research cause’ (170).

[9] Smithfield Market was a public cattle market managed by the City of London, established ‘for upwards of five centuries’ by the mid 1800s (Appeal 4). The convenience of having the cattle market in the city centre was compromised by the space it took up in the now-crowded metropole, and the interruptions it caused to traffic and commerce. In its Appeal to the British Public, a pamphlet advocating moving the market and slaughterhouses our of the city centre, the London Markets’ Association blamed the state of Smithfield on ‘the insufficiency of its areas, and the consequent cruelty to the animals there exhibited for sale’ (Appeal 6). The public’s complaint about ‘cruelty to animals’ was therefore due not to human behaviour, but to geography: ‘an endeavour to crowd them into a space which is by far too small’ (6).

[10] Harris identifies Gower Street as the location of University College, noting that cats were ‘used by medical students for dissection and vivisection’ (Harris 105 n1). As mentioned above, it was also the site for the vivisection business, run by professionals like Dr Cooke, whose labs catered to students.

[11] Admittedly, Prendick calls the state of the puma ‘vile’, ‘cut and mutilated’, but his later receptiveness to and acceptance of Moreau’s arguments shows this to be only a superficial revulsion born of ignorance (Wells 122).

[12] See ‘“One remarkable evening”: Redemptive Science in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science’. Journal of Literature and Science 7.1 (2014). www.literatureandscience.org.

[13] See ‘“One remarkable evening”: Redemptive Science in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science’.

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