How many of us have read a Darcy and Elizabeth story that has a dog in it? How about a cat? I daresay most of us can think of a story that has at least one of these animals. Dogs and cats were common pets in the regency era, so they naturally make frequent appearances in Jane Austen fan fiction. But what about a pet nightingale? Or a pet monkey? Can anyone imagine a story featuring Darcy and his pet kangaroo?
When I started researching pets in the regency era I expected to find lots of dogs and cats, and perhaps a smattering of other animals. But I was unprepared for the amazing number of exotic animals that made frequent appearances in the homes of upper-class Englishmen during the regency era.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. The regency era was, after all, the age of English colonialism and domination around the world. It was only natural that English citizens who traveled to Africa and Asia would bring back some of the exotic animals they found and show them off to friends and family.
This tendency started well before the regency period, and even before Jane Austen’s lifetime. London was famous for centuries for the Royal Menagerie, a collection of animals brought to England from around the world and put on display. The Royal Menagerie had lions, tigers, bears, orangutans, ocelots, zebras, macaws, and pretty much every other kind of exotic animal you could think of.
As time went by more of these animals were imported to England, and they increasingly made their way out of the royal collection and into private households. There are records of a mongoose, a lemur, and a marmoset being owned in London in the early 1700’s. There is even a mention of a jerboa as a pet. (Have you ever heard of a jerboa? I hadn’t.) Monkeys were also fairly common, especially in wealthier households. Besides the animals already listed there were also wolverines, flamingos, and even orangutans kept as pets by the very wealthy.
Queen Charlotte, who was queen consort during Jane Austen’s lifetime, was a frequent patron of the Royal Menagerie. She had a collection of zebras in her possession and sometimes gave kangaroos away to her friends and supporters. The animals thus became status symbols, a living example of the wealth and influence of their owners.
One can only imagine the living conditions many of these poor animals had to endure. Often they were captured in their native country, taken from everything familiar, and sent on a hazardous journey to an unfamiliar climate. Obviously the trip would have been stressful to say the least. Then they were housed in cages we would consider barbaric and fed diets that were completely unnatural to them. It’s a safe bet that many did not survive the process.
If they did survive and made it into somebody’s private collection they might have had a fairly decent life. Not a natural life, of course, but because they were expensive and represented great status, they had staff members dedicated to feeding, grooming and exercising them every day. Sometimes strong bonds developed between the animals and their owners. Other times their owners grew bored with them, or else the fashion of the day changed to a different kind of exotic animal, and yesterday’s favorite would be sent away or otherwise discarded.
What would Darcy and Elizabeth have thought of all this? I would like to think that Darcy, being a practical man, would have been repulsed by the waste of money and other resources on animals that should have been left in their natural environments. And I would love to believe that Elizabeth would take pity on some poor exotic animal being kept at a house in the neighborhood, and might go to some lengths to try to improve its lot. Perhaps she would even sneak it out of the house when nobody was looking!
But I also have to smile at the comedic possibilities of any of these animals in close proximity to our favorite characters for any length of time. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Caroline Bingley’s favorite ostrich feather hat was stolen by a monkey and paraded around during the ball at Netherfield? It would be terrific fun to hear a parrot repeat some of Mr. Collins’ most ridiculous phrases at precisely the wrong time. A mongoose disappearing up Sir William Lucas’s pant leg would be great, especially during one of his speeches about the glories of St. James. And then there’s this little scene that popped into my head, set during Darcy and Elizabeth’s married life at Pemberley. Enjoy!
One afternoon Elizabeth unexpectedly came upon her husband in the menagerie, in close consultation with his head groom. With them stood a creature she had never seen in person before, passively chewing on a long stem of grass. It stood about as tall as Elizabeth and had short, stubby arms and long slender ears. The animal regarded Elizabeth with mild curiosity.
“My dear,” she began, not quite able to believe her eyes, “when exactly did we acquire a kangaroo?”
Darcy looked as perplexed as Elizabeth had even seen him. “My uncle the earl of Matlock sent it. He received it as a gift from the queen two years ago but thinks that the animal might do better out in the country than in town.”
There were no words to describe Elizabeth’s surprise. “So he sent it to us? What are we supposed to do with it?”
“Keep it, I suppose. It would never do to offend my uncle. But I never saw a more useless, impractical creature to have on an estate! Perhaps we can pay some family in the village to take it.” He shook his head in frustration.
Elizabeth looked at the animal again, wondering what sort of life it had led until now. “The poor creature. Does it have a name?”
Darcy looked again at the note that had come along with the delivery. “My uncle says his name is Hammer.”
“Short for Thor’s Hammer. I suppose it is a joke of some kind.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at the unexpected moniker. She cautiously reached out to pet the beast on the head and Hammer leaned into the caress, looking at her gratefully with his warm brown eyes. He certainly seemed tame enough. “I think perhaps I would like to keep him here.”
Darcy’s eyes widened. “My dear, a kangaroo at Pemberley? What good could he possibly serve? He cannot even pull a cart, or-” His words were cut off by the entrance of the butler, Jenkins, who was trailed closely by the last person Darcy ever wanted to see at Pemberley.
“My apologies, sir, he would not wait to be announced,” Jenkins sputtered indignantly.
“Wickham!” Darcy fairly exploded.
“Brother! How good to see you!” Wickham had a faint odor of drink about him. He ignored Elizabeth but stared at the kangaroo, who looked back at him with wide, startled eyes. “What is that?”
“Never mind. How dare you come to Pemberley! And uninvited, too!”
Wickham put on his most charming smile. “Now, Darcy, you must not be so peevish. We are family, you know.”
“Not by choice.”
“Nevertheless, we are related, and as my relative you have a duty to give me a hand when needed. I am in desperate straits.”
Darcy stared at him, unblinking. “How much this time?”
“Not much, at least for you. Fifty pounds or so should do the trick. Lydia and I are in rather desperate circumstances and must needs leave our latest establishment.”
“You mean that you are being hounded for debts. But you financial worries are not my responsibility.”
“You may not wish to claim me as your brother, but I know you cannot turn away your own sister.”
“If Lydia wishes, she can write to Elizabeth and ask for money. But you will get nothing from me.”
“I am already here. Why make me wait when you know you will eventually give me what I want?”
Darcy felt his temper rising. “Do not overestimate the tie that binds us. You shall leave Pemberley at once and never come back!”
“I certainly shall not, not until you give me what I came for.” Wickham sneered and crossed his arms. The scent of drink was stronger than ever.
Darcy glanced at Elizabeth, who was watching the scene with fearful fascination. “I have no wish to create a scene. Do not make me call my servants to have you physically removed.”
Wickham uncrossed his arms and raised his chin defiantly, taking a sudden step towards Darcy. “I should like to see them try it!”
Without warning a large brown fist sailed through the air and connected with Wickham’s chin. For a moment Wickham stood stunned. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and his legs collapsed from under him. He fell backwards, his head hitting the soft ground with a satisfying dull thud.
“Good lord!” Elizabeth stared down at Wickham, who lay groaning and holding his head, then back at the animal still standing next to her. “I do not envy my brother the megrim he is going to have! Fitzwilliam, I am suddenly excessively fond of our new pet. Are you sure you want to send him away?”
“No indeed!” Darcy smiled broadly. “Jenkins, see to it that this pathetic creature,” he nodded at Wickham, “is taken into Lambton and sees a doctor. Then put him on the first coach. But first take Thor’s Hammer to the stable and give him the best stall there is. I think perhaps he has found a home at Pemberley after all.”
For further reading about exotic animals in regency England: