The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Heathens of the Heath (1874)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Heathens of the Heath was written by William McDonnell. There is little information available on McDonnell apart from his lifespan (1814-1900) and the fact that he was an American “freethinker.”

Heathens of the Heath is about the lives of the Romany in England and about their queen, Zingari. The novel is a spectacularly didactic and long-winded screed, one of the shrillest of the nineteenth century. McDonnell’s hostility toward Christianity and all organized religion is so pronounced it is a wonder the novel’s pages do not drip with acid. McDonnell is scathing toward the Catholic Church and Christianity and scarcely relents when it comes to Judaism. McDonnell is considerably friendlier toward “primitive” religions, including Zoroastrianism, Shinto, and Buddhism, and he quotes numerous scholars and writers to support his arguments in favor of the older religions and against the Judeo-Christian tradition. McDonnell uses his mouthpiece characters to support the claim that the Vedas were the source of the Bible and of Christianity. Likewise, McDonnell is misanthropic about modern man, portraying the English as reveling in bloodshed and gaining a prurient, voyeuristic thrill from watching humans and animals fight. But McDonnell is much more sympathetic toward the Romany, writing eloquently about the difficulty of their lives in Great Britain.

It is true that, as mentioned in the Hagar of the Pawn-Shop entry, the mid-century decades in England were a time when the traditional and unfavorable view of the Romany was giving way to a more balanced view (at least in literature), where Romany could be both villains and heroes. But the purpose of Heathens of the Heath, like the rest of McDonnell’s fiction, is clearly not to make a statement about the Romany so much as to condemn, in the wildest and most savage way, organized religion. McDonnell displays some knowledge about the English Romany, especially in the character of “Zingari,” the mystic and “seeress” who acts as the “queen” of her clan. But even with the Romany plot scaffolding and Romany characters, Heathens of the Heath ultimately is about the evils of religion. Zingari acts as McDonnell’s mouthpiece on the subject:

...your old book is full of our ancient rites and ceremonies; your new book is but a re-hash of our doctrines.

I know ye too well, ye canting hypocrites who revel in deceit. I know ye, placid schemers, who proclaim toleration, yet fiercely persecute, who denounce slavery, yet keep the mind in bondage. O, ye proud-unassuming, ye humble-arrogant knaves, ye specious frauds that feed man upon myths which many of yourselves reject!

By reading your Scriptures, you can come to no other conclusion than that the Jewish Deity - now the Christian God - was like an insatiable fury, jealous and revengeful, ever ready to take offence.1 

The fierce debates about religion in the United States and Great Britain during the mid- and late-nineteenth century included atheist and agnostic participants who argued not for the dominance of one religion but for the abolition of religious influence altogether on society. Britain’s National Secular Society was founded in 1866 by the notorious atheist Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), and his American counterpart, Robert Green Ingersoll, was noted as an orator, a politician, but most of all as “The Great Agnostic,” although his enemies labeled him “Injure Soul.”2 Ingersoll and similar atheists and freethinkers “surged in cultural visibility,” and “secularist publishing ventures expanded congruently,”3 leading to a wave of pro-atheist, anti-religious publications and then pro-religious, anti-atheist responses. There were few pro-atheist novels, however, something that D.M. Bennett (1818-1882), an outspoken “freethinker,” must have decided to change by forming a vanity publishing company named after himself. D.M. Bennett, Co. published a wide range of publications, but Heathens of the Heath was its only novel, and is one of the only atheist novels of the century.

Readers in the mood for a tirade about organized religion dressed up as a novel about the Romany in England could do worse than try Heathens of the Heath. All others should give it a pass.

Recommended Edition

Print: William McDonnell, Heathens of the Heath. London: Forgotten Books, 2016.



1 William McDonnell, Heathens of the Heath (New York: D.M. Bennett, 1875), 164-166.

2 Mike King, Secularism: The Hidden Origins of Disbelief (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 2007), 143.

3 Leigh Eric Schmidt, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2016), 11.