I See You Baby, Shakin’ That Ass

…and when I say ass, I mean donkey. In fact, make that donkeys, plural.

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While making slow but steady progress through David Copperfield, I recently encountered a veritable donkey infestion involving the home of the aunt of our young eponymous hero, Betsy Trotwood, which I found both curious and inexplicable. Having entered the novel like a whirlwind on the eve of David’s birth, Miss Trotwood, determined the newborn would be a girl, took her nephew’s arrival into the world as personal affront, and left ‘The Rookery’ with an equal tempestuousness.

Some time later, having fled from the cruel neglect of his stepfather and his spiteful step-aunt, David sets out on a perilous journey to find his fierce and eccentric aunt, as her sanctuary is his only hope of escaping such a miserable existence. When he arrives outside her home, he is met by the sound of his crazed aunt’s furious and frequent exclamation, ‘Janet! Donkeys!’

Upon which, Janet came running up the stairs as if the house were in flames, darted out on a little piece of green in front, and warned off two saddle-donkeys, lady ridden, that had presumed to set hoof upon it; while my aunt, rushing out of the house, seized the bridle of a third animal laden with a bestriding child, turned him, led him forth from those sacred precincts, and boxed the ears of the unlucky urchin in attendance who had dared to profane that hallowed ground.

To this hour I don’t know whether my aunt had any lawful right of way over that patch of green; but she had settled it in her own mind that she had, and it was all the same to her. The one great outrage of her life, demanding to be constantly avenged, was the passage of a donkey over that immaculate spot.

I laughed when I read this, although in truth, I just couldn’t summon the sudden donkey population explosion that this passage depicted. When I imagine a Dickensian street scene, there are all manner of tinkers and urchins up to no good, portly gentlemen strolling with jovial ease, mob-capped washerwomen with rosy cheeks and gap teeth, coin-clenching skinflints… (maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of ‘Dickensian’ lately) all to the sound of horses clop, clopping along, drawing their carts across the cobbles. What I don’t expect to see are donkeys.

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I recently read a blog that confirmed that donkeys were in fact a common sight in mid 19th century London. In her heart-warming post Wheatley v. Hollis: The case of the Purloined Pet Donkey Mimi Matthews outlines the legal case of a donkey that is returned to its owner many years after it was stolen, after a chance encounter in which the donkey and owner recognised each other in a London street. As the images illustrating the post show, both town and country seemed to be teeming with donkeys at the time. How did I not know this?

Charged with the heavy responsibility of educating the public in the narratives of classic literature and historical frockery, I feel the fault lies entirely with the BBC drama department. In all my experience of watching period dramas by the Beeb, I have admired horses galore, both the galloping kind and those in slower vehicular mode, but have never witnessed a donkey involved in either the transportation of persons or goods, nor indulging in flanerie across the treasured lawn of an irate local resident.

I find it quite incomprehensible that such a glaring oversight has been made, but rest assured, I shall be writing a letter of complaint forthwith.

*If you get the chance, do pop over to Mimi Matthews blog for a look. It is a sublime cornucopia of fascinating, well-researched posts on history, literature and period costume, and I especially love her animal posts.*

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