The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Rebellion of the Beasts: or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live The Ass!!! (1825)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Rebellion of The Beasts: or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live The Ass!!! has traditionally been attributed to Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), a prominent man of letters during the first half of the nineteenth century, a controversial political writer, a magazine editor who published work by Hazlitt, Lamb, Shelley, and Keats, and a poet and critic. But there are problems with this attribution,1 and the attribution to Hunt can only be called possible and not probable.
John Sprat is a Quaker. When he is a young man both of his parents die, leaving him all of their wealth. Before he died John’s father foretold great success for his son, prophesying that he will be the “Liberator of Donkeys” and will be crowned king of the jackasses. Sprat goes to Trinity College at Cambridge and one night, as a prank, he and his friends break into the college library. Sprat finds a manuscript by Cornelius Agrippa, De Bestis, which describes how animals speak with each other and which gives directions for a magic ritual which will allow a human to speak with animals. Sprat performs the ritual and takes the potion which Agrippa describes. The potion makes Sprat ill, but he finishes it and then finds a donkey to speak with, as Agrippa directs. The donkey is happy to talk to Sprat and tells him that “there is a grand conspiracy amongst all the beasts in the world, to liberate themselves from the tyranny of mankind.”2 The donkey complains of his ill-treatment at the hands of his human master, so Sprat buys the donkey. They are walking together when they meet some cattle. The donkey tells the cattle about Sprat’s ability, and Sprat speaks to the cattle, causing them to go down on one knee before him, hailing him as their ruler. The donkey proposes to introduce Sprat to the leaders of the animal conspiracy. The cows and cattle bombard Sprat with complaints, so Sprat agrees to meet with the leaders and then returns to his quarters. That night one of the fleas in Sprat’s bed tell him that the other fleas have agreed never to bite him.
The next day Sprat is walking to meet the animal conspirators when he passes a fishmonger’s shop and hears the fish and crabs, set out for sale, complaining of their coming fate and enthusiastically discussing the revolution. When Sprat meets the conspirators they greet him as their ruler and ask him to help them during the rebellion, which Sprat is happy to do. The animals give a typical set of revolutionary speeches about the evils of the human tyrants and tell Sprat that the rebellion is to begin the following Monday. Sprat goes to London with the conspirators. All of the animals in the city are filled with revolutionary fervor and have gathered on street corners, excitedly discussing what is to come. Sprat attends various meetings of animals. At one meeting foreign animals appear: “a poodle-dog, a deputy from France, was introduced to the assembly; a merino sheep from Spain; a bouquetin from the Alps; a bear and a wolf from the Pyrenees.”3 The animals compose a letter to the English King complaining about their six thousand years of servitude to humans and how matters between animals and humans are now at a “pitch of abominable cruelty.”4 The letter complains at length about the various ways in which animals are treated and consumed by humans. Sprat carries the letter to the Minister for the Home Department, but he will not even read the letter, much less pass it on to His Majesty. The English aristocracy treat Sprat even worse; when he accidentally nudges the Duchess of Straddle he is caned. The bed-maker who Sprat used to get the ingredients for Agrippa’s magic formula tells the doctor of divinity whose toenails were needed for the potion what Sprat took from him, and the academic has Sprat expelled from Cambridge.
The animal revolution begins. Humans everywhere are attacked and tormented. The ghosts of geese, “let loose from Tartarus by Pluto,”5 haunt those who sleep on down. Thousands of humans in England are killed. The animals take control of London and the “Rights of Brutes” are established. A committee of donkeys and monkeys is formed as the new government. However, the animals’ revolutionary unity is short-lived, and they soon split into three factions: the Ultra-Liberators, who want to exterminate humanity; the Liberators, who want “a separate interest to be formed between man and brute, by which one should mutually assist the other;”6 and the Anti-Liberals, who were happy in the old order (like “king’s horses, who having been long used to warm stables, and plenty of corn, were mortal enemies to the new order of things that deprived them of all their luxuries”7). The Ultra-Liberators gain strength when foreign animals, who began a Continental revolt in Berne, arrive in England. The human government of England makes a few feeble attempts to suppress the rebellion, but these succeed only in enriching the aristocracy and depriving the people of their “few remaining liberties.” The English army is defeated in battle by the animals, and Wellington is “compelled to deliver up his sword to a fat Lincolnshire goose.”8
All the world knows what followed—how the old triad of king, lords, and commons was abolished—how the church was destroyed—how the country gentlemen were ruined—and all ranks of society shaved smooth down by the razor of liberty.9 \
The new animal republic is rife with dissension. There are numerous factions, from the royalists (rats, who always liked the palace’s rubbish) to republicans to democrats to terrorists. The party of the ass, “the most ambitious and designing of all the animals,”10 gains strength day by day: “those who have been long in a state of servility, are most likely to be corrupt in principle, and fond of dominion, and when by accident they have got power, to abuse it most odiously.”11 The most cunning Ass intrigues and succeeds in humiliating his rivals. He then leads a revolt against the Committee, aided by his allies, the beasts of war, and by his adulteress mistress, the horse Camilla. The Ass triumphs and declares himself King and then declares Camilla to be his Queen. Although humans are kicked and beaten if they dare appear before their “lords and betters, the brutes,”12 Sprat is the exception: he gains the favor of the King and Queen by licking the tail of the King, who then declares Sprat “physician in ordinary, groom of the mouth, and knight of the thistle; and I had the honor that evening to lick tails on coming into office.”13 The Ass holds an expensive coronation and forms a royal court in which humans serve as the animals’ slaves. The Mammoth is made the new symbol of worship, followed by Behemoth, Leviathan, Craken [sic], and the Sea Serpent. Under the Ass’ rule liberals are put to death.
Unfortunately, the Ass is indolent, unintelligent, and vain, and when a Chinese boar prints a satire of the royal family, the Ass has the boar put on trial and then whipped. Two years later Camilla gets pregnant, but her children are an elephant and a baboon. King Ass has both children put to death and lets Camilla live. She leads a revolution, and the King is captured and killed. Camilla becomes the sole ruler, and Sprat retires from royal service.
The Rebellion of the Beasts is a pointed and even savage satire. The author does not hesitate to aim at both royalty and revolutionaries. Modern readers are likely to find the author’s treatment of revolutionaries more biting and effective than his send-up of royalty. There are few in the modern world who are so wedded to the idea of royalty, especially the British Crown, that they will wince at the author’s depiction of the Ass as an exaggerated version of King George IV. But there are many who are sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution, and they may feel the sting of the author’s words. In The Rebellion of the Beasts the animals address each other as “citizen,” and the ending of the declaration of the rights of animals ends with “Liberty! Fraternity! Equality!” But the animals’ revolution ends, as the French Revolution did, in bloodshed, horror, and with a vicious, ambitious creature taking power.
More effective than novel’s political satire is its forceful denunciation of cruelty toward animals. The author is emphatic in the message that the way in which humans treat animals is unconscionable. This was likely more satire on the author’s part–the animals condemn cruelty but engage in it themselves, another barb aimed at revolutionaries–but modern readers opposed to cruelty to animals will likely find themselves often nodding their heads while reading the novel.
The Rebellion of the Beasts is a combination of the medieval bestiary and contemporary political sentiment, a combination that was well-established by 1825. Percy Shelley had done it, in his play Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820), and there were numerous examples of animals-as-political-figures in English poetry, drama, and fiction in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.14 The pseudonymical attribution of The Rebellion of the Beasts was likely because Leigh Hunt and his brother John, the publishers of The Rebellion of the Beasts,
had provoked the government on several occasions; in 1813, both John and Leigh Hunt had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for seditious libel against the Prince Regent, and John Hunt was again imprisoned in the early 1820s. The advantage of The Rebellion of the Beasts was that it could certainly be read as a radical critique of monarchy, but that due to its use of the beast-fable form, it could also be read as a general moral allegory.15
The allegory itself
is slippery, rendered more so by the comically intrusive narrator who continues to admire his friend, the Ass, even as he is slaughtering countless of his enemies. 32 Some of the beasts’ declarations of liberty echo French revolutionary sentiments, and were readers to look for a conservative moral, it might be that replacing the existing government will only lead to an even more oppressive form of rule. At the same time, the battle between the Ass and the mare might recall the Queen Caroline Affair and Shelley’s Swell-foot the Tyrant, and the author cannot resist sly jibes at the established church. For example, the elephants compile “The Book of the Mammoth,” which claims “that it was necessary to give the tenth of grass lands to the elephants” and that “the emancipation of mankind was the same as king-killing” (118). The religion of beasts hence defends the right to tithes, class-structure, and the divine right of kings.16
Although there seem to be obvious similarities between The Rebellion of the Beasts and Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), there’s no reason to believe that Orwell had heard of Rebellion of the Beasts, much less read it. The Rebellion of the Beasts was obscure and out of print during Orwell’s lifetime.
While the sort of fictional-future-projection that The Rebellion of the Beasts satirically indulges in was–not common, exactly, but not unknown, either, by 1825, The Rebellion of the Beasts represented a new beginning in future fiction. “From the 1820s onwards the tale of the future changed in direction, moving from the political and the military, as writers found new fields for exploration and experimentation.”17 The novel not only did not involve an invasion by the French or a future of air flight and technological or social changes, it was a pure fantasy, a first in British future fiction.18
The Rebellion of the Beasts has some humorous lines and has an entertaining comment about how the animals approve of one human’s “Voyage to the Houhynims,”19 a reference to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The Rebellion of the Beasts is generally an enjoyable satire whose heat has lessened but not gone out.
Print: Leigh Hunt, The Rebellion of The Beasts: or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live The Ass!!! Chicago: Wicker Park Press, 2004.
1 See Douglas A. Anderson, “Introduction,” The Rebellion of the Beasts: Or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live the Ass! (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishing, 2005), for a convincing (to this reader) case against Hunt as the author.
2 A Late Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, The Rebellion of The Beasts: or, The Ass is Dead! Long Live The Ass!!! (London: J. & H.L. Hunt, 1825), 29.
3 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 49.
4 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 50.
5 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 70.
6 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 74.
7 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 75.
8 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 82.
9 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 82.
10 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 84.
11 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 84-85.
12 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 94.
13 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 105.
14 See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), esp. chapter four, “The Radical Bestiary.”
15 Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 137.
16 Simmons, Popular Medievalism, 139.
17 I.F. Clarke, British Future Fiction, volume I (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 32.
18 Clarke, British Future Fiction, 32.
19 A Late Fellow, Rebellion, 129.