Review: ‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1894. This year was something of an annus mirabilis for Wells’s fiction: The Time Machine, his first novel, was only a year away, and he published many of his best short stories in 1894. This is one of the shortest – and lightest.

The story (which can be read here) can be summarised as follows. The narrator, Bellows, sits with a taxidermist and drinks several glasses of whisky. As the drink flows, the taxidermist starts to open up about his trade, and tells Bellows about some of the things he has stuffed. He tells Bellows that nobody else could stuff as well as he can. He has stuffed everything from elephants to moths, and even once stuffed a dead black man, whose body he used as a hat-rack until an associate grew angry with the stuffed corpse one night and ruined it.

He tells Bellows that he views taxidermy as a ‘promising’ alternative to burial or cremation. But he has also produced stuffed great auks and plans to create a complete stuffed moa, an extinct bird from New Zealand, fraudulently using ostrich feathers among other things.

But then the taxidermist confides to Bellows that he has done better than this. He has, through his innovative approach to stuffing specimens, created new kinds of birds. For instance, owing to a scholar’s error, a new species of New Zealand bird was falsely identified as real, and Javvers, a bird-collector, requested a stuffed one at any price. The taxidermist obliged by creating one.

As another whisky is poured, the taxidermist tells Bellows that he also created an effigy of a mermaid which was destroyed by a travelling preacher, who saw it as idolatrous. Bellows, as narrator, confirms these ‘triumphs of a taxidermist’ are founded on genuine fact.

‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ is one of the light pieces of fiction Wells wrote early in his career, but it does tap into some of the concerns we find in his major fiction. For example, we can glimpse an early version of Dr Moreau’s sinister experiments in the taxidermist’s creation of whole new species. Although Moreau was creating living creatures, the taxidermist uses his skill and ingenuity to fashion dead animals which people believe did once live, much as a well-stuffed elephant or man would be believed to have once lived and breathed.

John Huntington, in an incisive analysis and overview of Wells’s science fiction (reprinted in Patrick Parrinder’s Science Fiction: A Critical Guide), points out that Bellows, the journalist in ‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’, is Wells’s stand-in in this story (and another story in which he features, ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes). Not only was young Wells a journalist, but Bellows’ name hides Wells’s.

Huntington also observes ‘the balanced opposition between the true and the false’ which he often find in Wells’s science fiction. And ‘The Triumphs of a Taxidermist’ is a short, concentrated example of this opposition. Indeed, in some ways the taxidermist is another representative of Wells, only this time it is Wells the author of scientific romances, taking existing things and fashioning something new, unusual, and technically unreal (time travel, human invisibility) from those real items he finds around him:

It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers. Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in the art.

Taxidermy and writing are both an ‘art’ practised by a ‘real artist’ who can produce a ‘masterpiece’.

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