Regency Bicentennial:   "An Ass of the Eighteenth Century"

Two hundred years ago, Jemmy, who called himself "An Ass of the Eighteenth Century" made his debut in the children’s book, The Adventures of a Donkey. Jemmy’s "autobiography" predated that of Black Beauty by more than sixty years. In fact, a number of scenes in Jemmy’s life are remarkably similar to those which appear in Anna Sewell’s later tale. However, unlike Black Beauty, Jemmy becomes bored in retirement and goes on to star in a sequel published a few years later.

Jemmy’s purpose in children’s literature . . .

Talking animals, like Jemmy, have long had a place in British children’s literature, dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. This genre of children’s literature had its origins in the Enlightenment style of children’s education, as championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which held that uncorrupted morals in man had its roots in nature. And what better representatives could nature have than animals who were able to share their life experiences with children. It was believed than animal stories could help adults and children connect, while adding a measure of wonder and delight to learning. Unlike Aesop’s Fables, which imparted a specific moral lesson, these children’s’ stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were intended to teach natural and historical information about the animal and/or presented a philosophy against mis-treatment and cruelty to animals.

Curiously, though some of these stories, like Black Beauty, included scenes of violence and cruelty, Regency parents, like their parents and grandparents before them, were much more concerned that it was the talking animals which would frighten or upset their children. Thus, in most stories, the animal spoke through an "interpreter" or it was made clear that an editor with special powers of understanding had recorded the animal’s thoughts, just for the children. It was believed these stories would influence children to be more caring and considerate of animals, as well as teaching them good manners; that is, to always be kind and considerate to others, such as servants, not just animals. For example, the eighteenth-century children’s author, Sarah Trimmer, was of the opinion that teaching kindness to children would lead them to behave with "universal benevolence" when they grew to adulthood.

The first "animal autobiography" is believed to be Life and Perambulations of a Mouse, by Dorothy Kilner, though not under her real name. Kilner used the pseudonyms of M. P., or Mary Pelham, when her books were initially published. Kilner’s country mouse "autobiography" was first published, in 1793, in two volumes, by the London publisher, John Marshall, who specialized in children’s books. Life and Perambulations . . . tells the tale of Nimble, the mouse, and his various adventures in the country, which he has related to the author, who is actually telling the tale. The story was very popular and went through many editions by the end of the nineteenth century. It was certainly in print during the Regency. The success of books like this, as well as a desire to improve the plight of animals, probably encouraged the woman(?) who wrote The Adventures of a Donkey.

The name given for the author of The Adventures of a Donkey is Arabella Argus. This is a pseudonym for an author, probably female, who wrote and published a number of children’s books in the early nineteenth century. Unlike Kilner, whose real name was eventually revealed, Argus was successful in protecting her privacy and her true identity was never known. Though all of her stories have a moral overtone, they are much more light-hearted and spirited than the children’s books written by some of her contemporaries. It seems likely that Argus had spent much time with, and truly understood children, since most found her stories very engaging. And parents liked them as well, because they provided sound moral lessons which most children took to heart.

It is possible that Arabella Argus was a Quaker, since her books were published by William Darton, Junior, of London. The Dartons, William, Senior, and his eldest son, William, Junior, were from a Quaker family who founded a publishing dynasty run by successive generations for over a century. The publisher’s imprint of the first edition of The Adventures of a Donkey in 1815, reads:   "Printed By and For William Darton, Jun., 58, Holborn Hill." The imprint on later editions also listed that same location, though William the younger no longer styled himself "Junior" after the death of his father, in 1819. Though the Dartons published a number of children’s books, including primers, abcedariums, and penmanship books, that was not their sole output in the early nineteenth century. They are also known to have published a host of religious tracts, as well as travel and guide books, maps and several games. As the nineteenth century progressed, under William Junior’s grandson, Frederick J. H. Darton, the firm turned increasingly to the publication of children’s literature.

The hero of The Adventures of a Donkey is Jemmy, who opens the tale in his Preferatory Address, written in his old age, wherein he states: "Though the services of my species are no longer of that character which distinguished them in former ages, I presume to think the biography of an Ass, may yet, be worthy of publication." In the first chapter, he begins his tale when he was just a few months old. He is a playful young Ass, living on a farm with his parents and a number of other animals. Jemmy enjoyed his life as a youngster, though he got into several scapes on the farm where he lived. On one occasion he chased a flock of ducks into the barn, amused by the noise they made as they fled from him. The farmer was not pleased by this and Jemmy was soundly scolded by his mother. But for the most part, he led a carefree and happy life in those early months. He was a rather vain young donkey, having heard several people mention how handsome he was. Then, one day, he saw a young lady riding a donkey on the road near the farm where he lived. He became very envious of the white leather bridle and smart saddle which adorned his fellow Ass and began to long for similar trappings for himself.

Jemmy goes on to tell of the first time he was fitted with shoes, which though he did not like at first, he then came to enjoy, believing they made him taller. He took to galloping across the stone paths, pleased with the sound of his iron shoes striking the hard stones. He made the acquaintance of an older donkey whose sage wisdom he at first resents, but eventually comes to respect. Jemmy’s idyllic and bucolic life of play and freedom comes to an abrupt end at the close of the first chapter, when a man he does not know puts a rope around his neck and leads him away from the farm. He does not realize he has been sold until the next chapter, when he arrives at his new home, where he has been purchased as a mount for spoiled young boy. Fortunately for him, he does not long have to endure the cruelty of the boy and is sold to a new owner. He then becomes the mount of a lovely but delicate little girl and finally achieves the white leather bridle and fine saddle of his dreams. Jemmy adores his new mistress and is happy in his new life. But, sadly, the young girl is not well and after a year or so, passes away. The family who purchased him continues to keep and care for him. But still an ambitious young Ass, and bored with the lack of activity, one day Jemmy wanders away from his home and begins a series of adventures which fill out the rest of the tale.

The Adventures of a Donkey is a charming tale, which even adults would have enjoyed. As he moves from owner to owner, some kind and considerate, some much less so, Jemmy gradually learns wisdom and an understanding of the wider world. He is eventually able to be content with his lot in life, even without a white leather bridle and fine saddle, so long as he is shown some kindness and care. In several cases, children figure in the story, some very kind and well-behaved and a few selfish and cruel. One suspects that most children would be strongly motivated to emulate the good children in this story, thus taking a valuable lesson from Jemmy’s adventures. In fact, The Adventures of a Donkey was so popular, a sequel, Further Adventures of Jemmy Donkey, was published in 1821, just as the Regency came to a close. Both stories remained popular with children for decades and were reprinted many times during the nineteenth century.

The first edition of The Adventures of a Donkey can be found at the Internet Archive.

Further Adventures of Jemmy Donkey can be found at Google Books.

Dear Regency Authors, if you are seeking a Regency-era children’s story to feature in an upcoming novel, The Adventures of a Donkey by Arabella Argus, might be just the thing. Though it carries a number of moral lessons, it is not a dull and dreary religious tract. It is an engaging story which most young readers would enjoy. Perhaps the heroine, a young governess, has asked the hero, her employer and single father, to get a copy for the children. Might his mother or other elderly relative object, initially because it is not a religious tract, then claiming to fear the children would be frightened by a story of talking animals? Of course, the heroine can show her good taste and consideration for the children since neither Jemmy, nor any of the other animals, ever actually speaks directly to the reader. Thus, it is unlikely any of the children would be frightened by the tale. Or, perhaps another heroine, also a governess, is out with her young charge one day, only to have the youngster, who has read The Adventures of a Donkey, fly at a man whipping a donkey. Will the cruel man turn his whip on the little girl, then the heroine, as she tries to shield the child? What will the hero do when he comes upon this scene? In fact, The Adventures of a Donkey is a lovely story which even today’s readers would enjoy. Better still, it is an authentic period tale, written and published during the Regency, and modern authors might find any number of embellishments for a Regency romance within its pages.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   "An Ass of the Eighteenth Century"

  1. What a splendid sounding book! alas that it’s too late for my Charity School stories – though it may well be early enough for some of the later books in the series. And I have in mind the adventures of one of the orphans when she grows up to become a governess to high spirited boys, being herself an inveterate rescuer of animals…. I think she will find a copy that ‘papa bought’ and it helps her to recognise that ‘papa’ who is a widower with 4 small children is a good man….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Perhaps you could use Life and Perambulations of a Mouse? I have not read it, so I do not know how it compares to The Adventures of a Donkey. But Perambulations … was first published in 1793, and was still in print during the Regency. Or, you can always make up a children’s story with the points you need. I suspect there were a number of children’s stories printed before and during the Regency which have not survived into the 21st century.

      I do like the idea of the young woman finding that her papa had bought a copy of Jemmy’s story. You might want to read it before you write that book, it is a fairly quick read and you may find some good period instances in which your heroine can save animals.



      • I certainly shall be reading it. And I’ll have to see if I can find the mouse story too. I’ve used a few that you have mentioned, and I’m on the verge of publishing Ophelia’s Opportunity in which I’ve mentioned abcedaria [I presume that’s the proper plural] and sundry others, including The History of Little Fanny, which I need to blog about, since I have a facsimile, the first ever dressing dolly book. The literary efforts of the same are not much kop though!

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Please do post a link to Ophelia’s Opportunity in a comment to the post on alphabet books when it has been published.

          I shall be looking forward to your blog post about “Little Fanny.” I had no idea such books were available that early.


          • I shall, thank you! I was quite surprised too, but it was published in 1810 which fit in quite nicely with my story. It’s horribly pi! but I suspect, like Lucy, the child who is a recipient of the book as a gift, the doll was used to make up other stories by most of its owners. I know I would have done!

  2. skrizzolo says:

    Wonderful post as usual, Kat! I find it interesting that parents were concerned about children being frightened of talking animals–something new with as yet unexplored imaginative power perhaps.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The idea that parents were concerned about talking animals surprised me, too. I was wondering if it might have roots in some kind of superstition or that something “unnatural,” like talking animals, might be considered irreligious. It has come full circle today, when most parents would object to cruelty and violence, but have no problems with talking animals.



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