The Selkie and the Fur Trade: Eliza Keary’s ‘Little Seal-skin’

15 April 2019
By John Miller

An 1889 article in Bow Bells articulated a common sentiment in the late nineteenth century: ‘There is nothing […] so luxurious as a fur garment [and] nothing quite so lovely as a sealskin.’ Sealskin’s pre-eminence in Victorian fashion was built on the bodies of northern fur seals, a species resident mainly in the North Pacific with the majority of the population concentrated in the Bering Strait. It was America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 that made the remains of these creatures available to the European fur trade in unprecedented numbers: in 1860 10,000 fur seal pelts were used in European fashion; by the 1880s the figure had increased to 200,000. Unsurprisingly, such an increase came at a significant cost. Millions of animals were, to quote The London Illustrated Magazine, ‘skinned alive’ to service an industry that by the mid-1890s had brought the northern fur seal perilously close to extinction. Debates raged in the Victorian press between the hard heads of the fur trade and the tender hearts of emerging pro-animal groups, informing a surge in writing about seals in which tender anthropomorphic imaginings, ecological concerns and economic imperatives existed in tense interrelation.

Among the sudden explosion of seal-lit in the 1870s is a now obscure poem by the Yorkshire poet Eliza Keary. Keary is known, as far as she’s known at all, as an author of popular children’s literature. Her 1874 collection Little Seal-Skin and Other Poems includes a striking contribution to Victorian debates around the ethics of fur wearing that makes it worthy of critical attention. The title poem tells the story of a fisherman who walking along the beach discovers a seal-skin ‘with no seal within’. Initially puzzled by his unusual find, the fisherman recalls legends of ‘Sea-Men and women, who are stirred/ One day in every year/ To drop their seal-skins on the sand’ to play for a while on land before returning to their watery homes. Since the skin appears to have been abandoned, he takes it home, only to be woken that night by the ‘prettiest little sea-woman’ who has come to his cottage door to retrieve her skin. Cruelly, the fisherman decides to hide the skin in a ‘secret hole in the thatch’ so that he can seduce the sea-woman. She agrees to be his wife and they live together for seven years and have three children.

But while the fisherman is happy, the sea-woman remains distraught at her exile from the ocean. One day, a pang of remorse leads the fisherman to remove the skin from its hiding place and to leave it on a chair before he goes to sea to fish, hoping however that the sea-woman will prefer to remain with her human family. Returning to his cottage he discovers his children weeping on the floor and no sign of his wife. He soon realises that the sea-woman has returned to the sea leaving her distraught children behind her without so much as a goodbye. The poem ends bleakly with the eldest daughter’s plaintive cry: ‘Oh! Mammy’s gone, Daddy— Mammy’s gone!/ She slipped into the sea’.

Although the story makes no direct reference to the unfolding seal-skin controversy, the resonances of this sad tale are clear. The fisherman senses he shouldn’t take the seal-skin, but does so anyway and even though he gets exactly what he wants in the form of his pinniped bride, the poem resolutely refuses to side with the human characters. The sea-woman’s unfeeling abandonment of her children at the poem’s conclusion performs a remarkable adjustment of sentimental and normative ideas about mothering. Although the sea-woman appears heartless, the poem concentrates on her as the poem’s ethical core. Behind this we might locate the Victorian press’s interest in the figure of the orphaned seal-pup. Keary substitutes human children for seal children in order to support the case against the fur trade through an anthropomorphic logic that draws on the longstanding myth of the selkie. Selkies are half-human/half-seal creatures of Scottish, Irish and Icelandic legend and beings which garnered significant attention through the intellectual developments leading to the formation of the Folklore Society in 1878. Myth and activism come into close alignment in Keary’s intriguing poem.

Texts like ‘Little Seal-Skin’ are part of my current book project Victorians in Furs: Fiction, Fashion and Activism in which I’m engaging with the ways in which fur’s remarkable popularity in the rise of mass fashion in the second half of the nineteenth century was both encouraged and contested in creative literature.

This paper focuses on one small, but evocative component of the fur seal controversy: the role of the mythic figure of the selkie. Selkies are half-human/half-seal creatures of Scottish, Irish and Icelandic legend and beings which garnered significant attention through the intellectual developments leading to the formation of the Folklore Society in 1878. As arguments intensified about the ethics of killing seals for clothing, the selkie came to occupy a significant strategic role as a sign of cross-species intimacy and a point of creaturely identification.