Close Reading of Fannie’s Pets

From the archives of Dickinson’s Trout gallery (

In the image called Fannie’s Pets there is a fair young woman, dressed in white (of course!) surrounded by animals of the forest. These animals are charged with symbolism in the painting which contribute to the overall message or themes being portrayed to the audience, who at the time was Victorian society. Rabbits symbolize fertility and procreation, doves represent purity and religion (most likely Christianity or Catholicism), chickens are symbolic of fertility and motherhood, and the rest of the animals seem to also have to do with sexual desire and reproduction, especially the Peacock. And with all these animals that are vulnerable and easily preyed upon (including this new Woman in White), there is a man lurking in the forest, acting as predator to the woman who would be his sexual prey. The forest itself is symbolic of a dark, creepy, mysterious space where evil and predators lurk. The man is crouched in a dark, shady corner watching amazed as he sees this woman, ultimately a Snow White figure who seems to be luring him in with her purity and youthful fertility to bear more lurking sons in the future.

Here, the image signifies that on the surface, this woman looks like the ideal Victorian “Angel in the House” as Kathryn Hughes’ article Gender Roles in the Nineteenth Century puts itHowever, the symbolism of the animals around her show her in a different light, as a sexual creature who has her own desires and sexual identity even though she is yet another Woman in White to add to our ever-growing collection and is ultimately the same as Laura Fairlie or the woman in the painting Health and Beauty, or insert-other-woman-in-white. This connects to Christina Rosetti’s poem in which she says these women being painted are “The same one meaning, neither more or less” and ultimately stripped of their individual identities because their purpose is to serve as sustenance and carnal pleasure for men. There is an under-layer of fetishizing the body of women as part of sexual fantasy such as Walter Hartright’s portrait of Laura that he keeps with him all the time or the imagery from Rosetti’s poem of a man who “feeds upon her face by day and night” as she is a feast for his eyes. In Fannie’s Pets, this woman serves as a feast for her predator’s eyes and most likely mouth as well.

Appearance also plays a major role in how women were perceived. In Judith Flander’s article Prostitution, “women who dressed or behaved in ways men considered inappropriate were deemed to be whores.” So, if their skirts were held up “just a little higher” than respectable women, they would be considered “streetwalkers” or prostitutes which is such an arbitrary and vague ( and all around ridiculously wrong) way of labeling women. Tying it back to Fannie and her pets, she is attracting a suitor because she is not defying the male patriarchal standards of what a woman should be (which is chaste, a virgin, and smart but not smarter than a man) at least with her physical appearance. She is dressed modestly and fully covered and dressed in the fairest of whites to represent her youth, fertility, and virginity.