W.S. Gilbert was known for his irascible disposition, quick temper and readiness to fight any person whom he thought deserved to be taken down. But he had a soft spot for animals and birds of all kinds, and his home of Grim’s Dyke was also home to a wide variety of creatures.
Hesketh Pearson says in W.S. Gilbert, His Life and Strife:
“His estate became a sort of zoological gardens… In his idyllic oasis of lawns, flowers, trees, bracken, rhododendrons, fruit gardens, ferns and beehives, he had made a lake of one-and-a-half acres, and the whole place was a sanctuary for birds and animals, many of which were quite at home in his house as well.”
In Gilbert and Sullivan, Pearson adds:
“Compared with the average sportsman Gilbert was a softhearted humanitarian. For all his longing to be a despot, he had no real malevolence in him at all. He adored children and animals and could not bear the infliction of pain on either. “Deer stalking,” he once said, “would be a very fine sport if only the deer had guns.”
And when William Archer mentioned the theory that the fox enjoyed his little run with the hounds, Gilbert broke in, “I should like to hear the fox on that point. The time will no doubt come when the sport of the present day will be regarded very much as we regard the Spanish bullfight or the bearbaiting of our ancestors.”
He was not a fanatic on the subject of taking life, but he could not outrage his own sensibilities. To understand his nature we must contrast the figurative cruelty in his poems with a fond following personal confession: “I have a constitutional objection to taking life in any form. I don’t think I ever wittingly killed the black beetle. It is not humanity on my part. I am perfectly willing that other people should kill things for my comfort and advantage. But the mechanism of life is so wonderful that I shrink from stopping its action. To tread on a black beetle would be to me like crushing a watch of complex and exquisite workmanship.”
His home at Grim’s Dyke was shared with a wide variety of animals: Dogs, cats, a pet fawn, a donkey named Adelina (after Adelina Patti, the famous singer), monkeys, lemurs, pigeons, turkeys, parrots, and – one summer – a bee that wandered in an open window and stayed. Gilbert fed it sugar-water, gave it a little box to rest in, and called it Buzfuz.
For several years he kept a number of monkeys, building a large house for them. His favorites were a pair of lemurs. Pearson says that on September 26, 1905, Gilbert made the following announcement:
“[There has been] a most interesting occurrence in our household. A baby, quite unexpectedly, has been born – to whom do you think? – to our two lemurs! It is the rarest possible thing for ringtail lemurs to breed in captivity. The Sec. to the Zoological Gardens… tells me that such a thing has not happened since 1881.”
Gilbert loved birds, too, and all were safe from being hunted on the grounds of Grim’s Dyke. Pearson reported that:
“The air was full of the song of birds, or to quote an invitation Gilbert once issued, “the gooseberry bushes are thickly hung with stomach aches; and while the cuckoo delights by day, the nightingale and the screech owl do their best to make the night lovely.”
Fantail pigeons occasionally hopped into the library to see what they could pick up, being partial to cigar ends, and when he smoked out-of-doors several of them would sit on his shoulder and peck at his cigar. Once half a dozen turkeys, bored with the farmyard, strolled through the French windows and took up their positions on chairs, tables and desk. Gilbert’s arrival caused their tumultuous departure with some damage to the ornaments in the room.
At one time he formed an intimacy with a robin, which came to him from any distance within call, fed from his hand, and perch twittering on his head as he moved about the garden. Siberian cranes occasionally stalked into the library, though their presence was not encouraged.”
Gilbert was a practical joker, and Pearson reports on a joke he played on his wife, Lucy:
“A piping bullfinch which he had given to his wife became very tame, but one morning she noticed that it was nervous and piped dissimilar notes. Later in the day it was tame again and back to its usual musical form. This went on for more than a week, timidity and a different song alternating with friendliness and the old one.
She remained in a state of the perplexity until she found three bullfinches in the library, each closely resembling the other and each in a cage of exactly the same pattern. It was one of her husband’s little practical jokes, which he contrived with as much thought and care as he gave to the stage-management of the Savoy operas. The butler had been taken into his confidence, and one cage was substituted for another with a different bird at regular intervals.
For ten days he kept up the mystery, to his amusement and her amazement.”
(Because it fits in with my fictional stories, I like to think that Gilbert did it because he knew Lucy loved to solve mysteries. So he gave her this little mystery to solve – but that’s merely my surmise!)
Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring you all the good things you desire!
Bullfinch by © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675952