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Antonia Hodgson: Cock-fighting and Animal Cruelty

Posted on: 01/06/2015 with tags: antonia hodgson, devil in the marshalsea, historical crime, history, the last confession of thomas hawkins

Cock-fighting and Animal Cruelty

 by Antonia Hodgson, author of THE LAST CONFESSION OF THOMAS HAWKINS and THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA

Reading fiction is an act of empathy. As we step into another world – whether it’s set in the past, present or some distant future – we disappear into other lives. We meet characters we might avoid or not even notice in real life, and as we turn the pages, we begin to care about them. We put ourselves in their place, question their choices, worry for their safety.

Sometimes an author will make us care for the very darkest of souls. Reading The Talented Mr Ripley, for instance, is an unsettling experience – and intentionally so. Ripley is a psychopath and a killer, but most readers find themselves willing him not only to survive, but to win. Caught up in his particular view of the world, and seduced by his wit and charisma, we find it all too easy to ignore our moral compass. It makes for a provocative, disturbing, and utterly compelling read.

So – given that so many of us have fallen for Ripley, and Hannibal Lecter, and Dexter Morgan – what about a character who is deliberately and repeatedly cruel to animals?  Or even one who – for example – enjoys cock-fighting? It’s a well-worn saying about crime fiction, that you can kill ten people and no one will complain. But if you hurt a puppy… prepare for the oncoming storm.

In my new novel, a key scene unfolds at a cock fight. I needed a place where people gambled and got drunk, but also where rich and poor were pressed together, caught up in the same activity. Where rank and privilege were
at least half-forgotten. Where violence mingled with entertainment, and commerce.

My books are set in the 1720s, when cock-fighting was one of the most popular public entertainments. I was drawn to this period in part because it’s so neglected, but also because it feels so familiar. England had just suffered a catastrophic economic collapse. London was expanding rapidly, handsome new buildings were going up, pushing the ‘lower orders’ into slums. When I look at Hogarth’s paintings, or read Moll Flanders or The Beggar’s Opera, I recognise the characters. Put them in jeans and a T-shirt and they would quickly pass for twenty-first century Britons. They fall in love, greet friends with joy, get drunk, have children, feel the sting of betrayal, worry about illness and old age.

It’s one of the great lessons of history: that we have changed so little. But there are also many differences and one of the most significant is our attitude towards animals. Hogarth – the great chronicler of the age – despaired of the casual cruelty he witnessed on the streets of London. (Hogarth
loved animals, and included his pug Trump in his self portrait of 1745.)

In 1751, in an attempt to change attitudes, Hogarth created a
series of prints known as the Four Stages of Cruelty. In the first print, the central character Tom Nero is shown as a young boy, torturing a dog. As his story progresses we see him flogging his horse to death, before turning to theft and murder. He is hanged, and in the final scene his body is shown being cut up by anatomists. 

The message is simple – cruelty begets cruelty, violence escalates. And in fact these days we know that people on the psychopathy scale have a greater tendency as children to torture animals. We are back to empathy –
or the lack of it – again.

Hogarth was pleased with the reaction to his prints and it has been suggested that it did have some small impact. But the cock-fights continued until 1835 in England and Wales, and 1895 in Scotland.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. At the beginning of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, we see Tom being dragged through the streets towards the gallows. Hanging days were holidays in the 1720s and the most celebrated criminals drew huge crowds – two hundred thousand strong.

When life is cheap and violent; when young children are carried high on their father’s shoulders to better witness a hanging; when husbands beat their wives with impunity and even approval; in other words, when humans are cruel to humans – it’s perhaps not surprising that cruelty to animals could
be seen as sport.

It’s easy to judge our ancestors – and it’s evident that as a nation we are much less casually cruel to animals these days. That said, the RSPCA still deals with over 150,000 cases of animal cruelty every year. Meanwhile the Conservative Party pledged a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act in its manifesto… then quietly dropped it from the Queen’s speech. For now at least, foxes have been granted a reprieve. I think Hogarth would have approved.

Antonia Hodgson’s new novel, THE LAST CONFESSION OF THOMAS HAWKINS, publishes in hardback and ebook on 4 June 2015.

Amy Dolman

© Chris Adams

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient;
Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave;
Upcoming book i’m most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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