Not All Allegories Are Equal

Adam Biles, Beasts of England

Galley Beggar Press, 280pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781913111458

reviewed by Peter Adkins

I’ve always felt George Orwell was hard on sheep in Animal Farm. Presented as a mindless indistinguishable mass, ready to unremember the past and change their allegiances on the slightest of porcine instruction, Orwell drew on farmyard clichés that anyone who has spent five-minutes with a sheep will know to be wrong. Sheep are wilful, resourceful and clever animals, inquisitive and cautious, independent and companionable. Or perhaps, I am the one who is wrong. After all, the beastly characters we encounter in animal fables and fairytales are written not with fidelity to nature in mind, but as easily identifiable metaphorical bundles that function as tropes rather than representatives of a given species. Donkeys are stubborn. Foxes are sly. Cats are cunning. Dogs are bone-headed — and sometimes vicious. They reveal not something about the animal (indeed, they often actively distort it) but about ourselves and, crucially, our own animality.

Orwell’s Animal Farm aimed to lay bare our beastly nature at a critical juncture in the twentieth century. Written between November 1943 and February 1944, it offered a corrective to what he saw as a political and social complacency towards Stalin and the USSR during World War Two. Adam Biles’s Beasts of England, a sequel to Orwell’s novel, arrives in what the allegorical content of the novel would suggest is another moment of political peril in which we once more need to turn to the farmyard to understand what has happened to democracy.

When the novel opens, Manor Farm has undergone what might be called agro-business diversification. It now operates primarily as a petting zoo, the barn functioning as a gift shop, while the farm windmill generates electricity that it sells to its neighbours in the Wealden Union of Farmers. The autocracy established at the end of Animal Farm has given way to something resembling a two-party state, with the inhabitants of Manor Farm voting for progressive Animalist or traditionalist Jonesist candidates to take up the role of First Beast. Pigs still rule the roost (to mix metaphors), representative of the political class who assume power. When the novel opens it is the moderate, if rather self-satisfied, Animalist Buttercup who is First Beast. Life on Manor Farm is more comfortable and varied than ever. Geckos and alpacas rub shoulders with horses and geese, and everyone adheres to what is now the farm’s motto, that ‘All Animals Are More Equal Than Others’. Totalitarianism has evolved into free-market liberalism. Yet this picture of progress is a thin and brittle veneer. When a murmuration of starlings suddenly appear in the sky, spreading disinformation through their sky-writing formations, at the same time that the windmill unexpectedly stops producing energy, plummeting the farm into economic peril, the Jonesist Curly, a calculating ‘Baston pig with a squashed face and a thick pelt of fur’, sees an opportunity to disrupt the social order for his own gain.

As with Animal Farm, the events that follow can be neatly mapped onto recent political history. The starlings, serving as a new and disruptive media-ecology akin to the internet and social media, stir political discontent. Surprised by the sudden plummet in popular approval, Buttercup, representative of a complacent and self-serving political class, is ousted and quickly removes himself from the farm. Into this power-vacuum steps Jumbo, a larger-than-life Jonesist pig, who wears a floppy-haired wig, has sired an unknown number of piglets and has the bumbling charisma to win over most of the farmyard. He is also ‘a liar and a drunkard’ and ‘the most openly mendacious pig ever to be farrowed on Manor Farm’. With Curly’s support and against the backdrop of economic chaos and the spread of misinformation, Jumbo rises to power. The progressive Animalist party, rather than standing ready to counter Jumbo and Curly, has instead been co-opted by a hopelessly idealistic and naïve faction who spend all their efforts digging for the fabled ‘Sugarcandy Mountain’. The events that follow, including the derision of experts, the severance with the Wealden Union and the rise of a xenophobic nativism (suddenly the sheep become aware of how much more fodder the alpacas get) are easy to align with recent events not just in Britain, but various nation states.

Biles is a superior writer of animals to Orwell. If earlier I noted how animal fables rely on caricature, Biles’s approach is more generous, more interested and more carefully observed than most. Moreover, a number of the novel’s plot points revolve around issues that draw on modern industrial farming not as a metaphor but as a subject of concern in and of itself. For instance, compounding the farm’s woes is the rapid spread of a lethal pathogenic illness. Avoiding what might have been an easy COVID analogy, instead the novel explores the realities of the closed circuit between the rendering of animal carcasses and the cheap feed used to fatten them, recalling the BSE scandal of the late 1990s. Similarly, when the farm’s economic pressures lead to milk being produced for human consumption, Marguerite the Holstein feels an ‘indignity’ to which she ‘never again expected her species to be subjected’ (although, interestingly, no mention is made of the constant cycles of pregnancy that this milk production would require).

Later, when a notebook is found listing the livestock value of every animal that has ever resided on the farm, the horror serves both as a metaphor for the reduction of humans to bare life and of animals to meat and bone. Animal vulnerability becomes a way of understanding human vulnerability, and vice-versa. As with Orwell’s novel where, on breaching the farmhouse, the animals give a burial to the ‘hams that were hanging in the kitchen’, this interest in animals as animals remains a poignant shadow narrative to the allegorical content, itself a kind of shadow.

Perhaps surprisingly, Orwell’s novel is the more radical of the two. From the beginning Orwell presents the validity of many of the Marxist and Leninist critiques of capitalism. It is why the reader can feel so strongly in the justness of the animal’s revolt and their disappointment in the despotism that follows. In comparison, the representatives of the left in Beasts of England, the Sugarcandy Mountain devotees, are presented as idealistic to the point of bearing some responsibility for the ascendency of Jumbo and Curly.

And herein lies one of the drawbacks to allegorical fiction: all too often you can feel the author breathing down your neck, telling you what to think. Reading Animal Farm can sometimes feel like homework — Orwell wants to teach you the correct way to see world history. Biles’s novel suffers much less from this. The plot is more layered and the allegory opaquer than Animal Farm, and, as a result, less didactic. Yet, unlike Orwell, who felt that World War Two propaganda had obscured the realities of Stalinist Russia from many in Britain, Biles’s narrative of a squeezed political centre is unlikely to jolt anyone into fresh recognition of how things are. Its clearest allegorical commentary — that political complacency and the emergence of a decentralised mass-communications system has led to the undermining of democracy and the rise of a mendacious right and a hopelessly idealistic left — will be a point of view already be familiar to many of its readers.

Unlike Animal Farm, there’s no political revelation in Beasts of England, only confirmation. Instead, if there’s something new to learn, then it comes from the beasts themselves, in the moments of vulnerability and empathy that cross species distinctions and call into question what it means to be an animal, human or otherwise.

Peter Adkins is an Early Career Teaching and Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.