When thinking of 18th and 19th century pets, we inevitably imagine dogs or cats or small, caged canaries. Large and colorful exotic birds are not generally the type of animal we envision inhabiting the pages of a Georgian or Regency novel, much less an actual Georgian or Regency home. It may surprise you to learn that parrots were, in fact, quite popular as pets during the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of the most famous parrots belonged to Colonel O’Kelly. He bought her in Bristol for one hundred guineas and, over the next thirty years, she became something of a celebrity in England. She was so well known that when she died on October 9th, 1802, her death was announced in the General Evening Post:
“A few days ago died, in Half Moon-street, Piccadilly, the celebrated parrot of Colonel O’Kelly. This singular bird sang a number of songs in perfect time and tune; she could express her wants articulately, and give her orders in a manner approaching nearly to rationality. Her age was not known; it was, however, more than thirty years, for previously to that period Mr. O’Kelly bought her at Bristol for a hundred guineas. The colonel was repeatedly offered five hundred guineas a year for the bird, by persons who wished to make a public exhibition of her; but this, out of tenderness to the favourite, he constantly refused.”
Reverend W. H. Herbert had the privilege of meeting Colonel O’Kelly’s parrot. He recounts the experience in James Rennie’s Natural History of Birds:
“That wonderful bird, Colonel O’Kelly’s parrot, which I had the satisfaction of seeing and hearing (about the year 1799, if I recollect rightly), beat the time always with his foot, turning round upon the perch while singing, and marking the time as it turned. This extraordinary creature sang perfectly about fifty different tunes of every kind, ‘God save the King,’ solemn psalms, and humorous or low ballads, of which it articulated every word as distinctly as a man could do, without even making a mistake. If a bystander sang any part of the song, it would pause and take up the song where the person had left off without repeating what he had said. When moulting and unwilling to sing, it would answer all solicitations by turning its back and repeatedly saying, ‘Poll’s sick.’”
Lord Byron also kept a pet parrot. He liked to have it near him while he was writing. Though it was a beautiful bird, it was somewhat aggressive and, on one occasion, it swooped down as he was leaving the room and attacked him until the “blood flowed copiously.” According to biographer Wilson Knight:
“Instead of being excited by the pain produced, his Lordship was only lost in admiration at the strong attachment of the bird, which he instantly caressed, and...exclaimed, ‘Was this well done, Jenny?’”
Parrots are mentioned as pets in many other factual accounts of the 18th and 19th centuries. One particular incident involved a court case in which two parties disputed the ownership of a pet parrot:
“The plaintiff taking the bird upon his ﬁnger, said, ‘Come, old boy, give me a kiss,’ which the parrot instantly did. A youth in the defendant’s interest, remarked that this proved nothing, as the parrot would kiss anybody. ‘You had better not try,’ remarked the plaintiff. Nevertheless the young man asked the parrot to kiss him. Poll, Judas like, advanced as if to give the required salute, but seized the youth’s lip and made him roar with pain. This fact, and the parrot’s obeying the plaintiff in several other requisitions, caused it to be instantly ordered into the possession of its original master.”
Parrots have their place in literature of the Georgian and Regency era as well. In Scottish author Christian Isobel Johnstone’s popular 1815 novel, Clan-Albin, she describes the “large and beautiful grey parrot” ensconced in a splendid cage in the drawing room. This particular parrot has been “most unluckily” instructed in politics. When the politics of the household change, the parrot is not informed and sees “no necessity for renouncing old principles and practices.” As Johnstone writes:
“When Mr. Secretary approached, therefore, with the manifest design of making its acquaintance, it croaked proud disdain; and...in the loudest and most discordant tones it screamed forth its usual political creed, throwing a bold defiance in the teeth of statesman and courtier, squalling, ‘Rope for Pitt’— ‘Walk rogues,’ — ‘Coach for Fox:’ and over and over, with might and main, it screamed the eternal sum of its political opinions, in defiance of threats and remonstrances.”
Talking parrots are often used in this way in historical novels, both for comic effect and to say that which cannot be said by the characters themselves. In Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance, The Grand Sophy, the title character arrives at her relative’s residence in London with a parrot –and several other animals – in tow. The parrot promptly scandalizes the governess with its salty talk:
“Charles! Charles!” said Amabel, tugging at his sleeve. “She has brought us a parrot too, and it talks capitally! Only Addy would put her shawl over its cage, because she said horrid, rough sailors must have taught it to speak. Do tell her not to!”
“Oh, good God, I am quite undone!” Sophy exclaimed in comical dismay. “And the man promised the wretched bird would say nothing to put anyone to the blush! Now, what is to be done?”
Depictions of parrots were not limited to novels. From as far back in history as the writings of Ovid, poets have incorporated the exotic, talking birds into their poems. In the early 19th century, poet T. S. Allen wrote The Parrot: a Poem In Four Cantos. In it, we learn the story of Ver-vert, a pampered parrot residing in a convent. The poem reads in part:
A parrot lately dwelt, (you ask me where,)
At Nevers, with the Visitandines there,
A famous bird, so well he play’d his part,
Of manners easy, and of generous heart,
And might have fill’d a station less severe,
If lovely creatures always happy were.
This noted bird from India’s borders came,
Transported thence, and Ver-vert was his name;
Was very young, and little understood, —
Shut up within this convent for his good.
Fair, florid, neat, and very gay was he,
Lovely and frank, as youth are wont to be;
In short, a prating bird, yet meek and lowly,
And well deserving of a place so holy
If you are an author writing a story set in the 18th or 19th centuries, I hope the above examples have given you some idea of how useful parrots can be as animal characters in historical novels. Whether you prefer to use them for comic relief, a bit of extra drama, or merely as a prop in the drawing room of a particularly tonnish lady, the possibilities are endless.
This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com and has been reprinted with permission.
Mimi Matthews writes both non-fiction history and traditional historical romances set in 19th century England. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, The Beau Monde, Savvy Authors, and English Historical Fiction Authors, and is currently represented by Serendipity Literary Agency in New York. Her articles on 19th-century romance, literature, and history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated weekly at BUST Magazine.
Mimi’s first non-fiction book, titled The Pug who Bit Napoleon and Other Animal Tales from the 18th and 19thCenturies, will be released by Pen and Sword Books (UK) in late 2017. Her second non-fiction book, titled A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, will be released by Pen and Sword in 2018.
In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family – which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.
More from BUST