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06 Nov

Of Horses and Humans: Looking through the Blinkers- Ritushree Sengupta

Of Horses and Humans: Looking through the blinkers into the Victorian ideas of Beauty and Obedience

Ritushree Sengupta

Ph.D Scholar, Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan


“If a thing is right it can be done and if it is wrong it can be done without; and a good man will find a way.” writes Anna Sewell in Black Beauty. Victorian society celebrated the notion of apparent perfection above everything, considering almost nothing to look beyond artificial finesse. As a result of the industrial revolution and the economic boom it brought along, the society concentrated upon several schemes to project their burgeoning success in every field. On the other hand, the members of the ‘other’ classes were left at the whim of the aristocrats and the associative power houses such as the ministry and the church.

While authors like Charles Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell were overtly pointing out at the misery of the underprivileged classes and moving their readers to consider the decaying society in its true light, Anna Sewell was taking a different stance altogether. Amidst the vast gamut of ‘conditions of England’ novels, she was talking about the horses that were brutally treated in Victorian England as mere functional instruments to run carriages and also to serve decorative purposes. It was only after the publication of Black Beauty that the animals got a better treatment from their masters.

As Ecocriticism is a growing interdisciplinary critical tool that explores the relationship between literature and environment which nevertheless involves the society, it is possible to ponder upon the literary text of Sewell and assert its longstanding contribution in the development of the treatment of the animals. This paper shall intervene into the Victorian text by Sewell and attempt to establish how it had changed the outlook of the society towards animals and had contributed to the environmental progress at large.

The history of human civilization bears the imprint of anthropocentric subjugation of every other form of non-human existence since the very beginning of its development. The hierarchical structure formed by mis-reading or mis-appropriating the most ancient texts of mankind, Bible leading the list, man has overtly justified its treatment of other biotic creatures. In order to stabilize its own supremacy, partly credited to the Christian myth of Adam bestowed with the power to make use of nature as per his own convenience and benefit and partly to the enlightenment faith which successfully proved that man was the supreme creature because of his ( by the masculine address it is referred to the very patriarchal idea of man that had emerged in the eighteenth century where the benchmark of the ideal man was to be white, rational and masculine in appearance) potential of reason. An analytical probing into the interrelationship between the humans and non-humans in the discourse of animal studies or eco criticism at large would definitely point at the vast gap that exists between the philosophical standpoints maintained traditionally and the much later developments in the field of animal rights and the explorations of their cultural representations in various forms of art and literature. But it must also be acknowledged that the perspectives about animals have always varied among different ages and social theorists who have asserted the need of extending our considerations for the animals (both tamed and untamed, a popular hierarchy that developed during the Victorian period) in order to maintain a proper order of natural structure. Greg Garrard in his much acclaimed book in the field of ecocriticism, namely Ecocriticism, refers to Peter Singer’s analysis of the animal issues:

“…Peter Singer’s revolutionary Animal Liberation (1975), which examined an issue until then discussed in passing by moral philosophers but seldom fully explored. Singer drew upon arguments first put forward by Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who suggested that cruelty to animals was analogous to slavery and claimed that the capacity to feel pain, not the power of reason, entitled a being to moral consideration. Singer gives the label ‘speciesism’ to the irrational prejudice that Bentham identifies as the basis of our different treatment of animals and humans. Just as, say women or Africans have been mistreated on the grounds of morally irrelevant physiological differences, so animals suffer because they fall on the wrong side of a supposedly ‘insuperable line’ dividing beings that count from those that do not.”(Garrard, 136).

Such observations gave birth to several pertinent questions such as how far the treatments towards animals can be justified in terms of human social conventions and order or why had been the treatment towards the systematically ‘othered’ creatures (involves both animals and other creatures not qualifying as man such as slaves, blacks etc) been so brutal and obnoxiously disturbing. The anthropocentric social order since antiquity had been observed to be less inclined towards considering the socio-political needs as well as the positions of other creatures mostly because that would have a quasi-negative effect on their hegemonising power politics and threaten their all controlling domination upon the entire social and cultural order. In seventeenth century, the prevailing organic structure portrayed earth or nature as mother which worked as a visible restraint against rampant exploitation of the natural sources gave way to a new form of experimental science. This inquisitive new form of scientific pursuit propagated a novel worldview that projected nature not as a living organism but as a mere machine which is static, dead and not responsive to human activities. Renaissance social order which saw the onset of capitalism supported the domination of nature for socio-economic benefit, valued in terms of production capable of generating huge profit replacing the concept of production for mere subsistence, a comparatively primitive order by then. While the economy in medieval period was mostly based on natural or renewable sources such as water, wood, animals etc, the newly evolved capitalist economy was thoroughly based or rather dependant on non renewable resources or inorganic substances such as coal, iron, gold etc. Ironically even the steady availability of these non renewable resources also had to depend on nature and even with the advent of capitalism, the exploitation of the animals reduced by no means causing apparently invisible yet tremendous ecological disturbance. Carolyn Merchant in her discursive book named Radical Ecology observes,

The new commercial and industrial enterprises meant that the older cultural constraints against the exploitation of the earth no longer held sway. While the organic framework was for many centuries sufficiently integrative to override commercial development and technological innovation, the acceleration of economic change throughout Western Europe began to undermine the organic unity of cosmos and society. Because the needs and purposes of society as a whole were changing with the commercial revolution, the values associated with the organic view of nature were no longer applicable; hence the plausibility of the conceptual framework itself was slowly, but continuously, being threatened. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the tension between the technological development in the world of action and the controlling organic images in the world of the mind had become too great. The old worldview was incompatible with the new activities. (Merchant, 44)

Among the new activities that gradually became a part of the prevailing socio-cultural order, one was the fundamental domination of animals as a contributor in the production, making it an intrinsic part of the capitalistic unit.  However a fundamental shift can also be located in the treatment of animals in general. It has been observed by Harriet Ritvo that animals even in early seventeenth century suffered capital punishment much like their human counterparts who had committed similar crimes. In Animal Estate, Ritvo writes,

The Merchant of Venice included a reference to a “wolf, hanged for human slaughter” sufficiently cursory to suggest that Shakespeare’s audience recognized animals as appropriate participants in formal judicial proceedings […] In the absence of human witnesses to a burglary, dogs, cats, and cocks were permitted, under the same code, to testify in court – or at least their presence in court was considered to strengthen the aggrieved householder’s complaint. (Ritvo, 1)

This alternate history of animal treatment despite the fundamental social scenario going through a fluxin the period concerned points toward an initiation of the idea of the existing incorporation of the non-humans (referring to animals here in particular) in the broader frame of the anthropocentric social structure. But gradually with the advent of the nineteenth century, this form of treatment was stopped by the British administrative authorities, a significant phenomenon which was even celebrated by Edward Payson Evans as an evidence of the modern humanitarian conception of ideal justice appropriated by man which further re-established man’s claims to superiority, this time on emotional or moral grounds.

Animals in nineteenth century were merely viewed as properties owned by their respective humans (for the domestic ones) and to man at large (considering the wild animals) which was further supported by legal doctrines. They were treated as functioning commodities, only of a little more importance than non-living resources. However, it proved to be a little beneficial for the animals for due to the newly emerged and appropriated conventions, they were not morally accountable for any of their actions and thus they were saved from being accused. Instead, it was their owners who were answerable for their activities. This transformation further gave rise to certain other changes in the human-animal relationship such as an overt practice of thorough domination of the non-human species by the human kinds which projected the animals as mere commodities to be used for human benefit. While on one hand, domesticating animals as pets was in vogue, it was in this period that certain new activities such as stockbreeding and veterinary science became popular.  Truly noticed as it was, once nature was stopped being perceived as a strong opposition or antagonist, it was much easier to consider it in the light of affection, love, yearning and nostalgia. As Ritvo articulates,

…sentimental attachment to both individual pets and the lower creation in general – a stock attribute of the Victorians – became widespread in the first half of the nineteenth century. These developments were echoed in literature and art, where a highly ordered aesthetic was replaced by one that valued irregularity and lack of restraint. Wildness became attractive rather than ugly, wild animals, like the peasants and exotic foreigners with whom they were increasingly classed, might evoke sympathy other than scorn. (Ritvo, 3)

It was the complex interplay of several things ranging from psychology, peer pressure, class demands, social norms and conventions that shaped the interrelationship between the humans and the non-humans in such a hierarchical way that it bore with it a sinister essence of horrendous degradation of the ecological balance from its very onset which advocated for the equal treatment of every creature on earth, acknowledging their intrinsic value irrespective of their visibility, usefulness and economic value. While it should be remembered that from the early days of man’s existence on earth, the animals had been naturally accepted as a part of their natural habitat, but at the same time it should be realised that such immense possibilities of peaceful and ecologically conscious existence had been destroyed by none other than man due to their basic nature of celebrating taxonomy and thus positing himself at the pinnacle of the power hierarchy, reaffirming his world position. This entire process which was on its way to greater courses of successes signifying material achievementin its attempt to subjugate nature brutallyjeopardized the entire ecological spirit much essential for a truly fruitful individual and social existence.

Victorian social relationships, very interestingly due to their zeal for categorization and ordered perfection, often intermingled terms or words used in reference to servants as well as animals. This gradually gave birth to a clear distinction between good and bad animals based on their natural or normal acceptance of human superiority and vice versa emphasizing on a brutal disobedience in the form of untamable wildness. As Harriet Ritvo asserts,

Described in terms that suggested human servants, domestic animals provided the standard by which other animals were to be judged. But some domestic animals offered better models of the relationships between human superiors and inferiors than others. For this reason, the most appreciated domestic animals were not the sheep, “the most useful of the smaller quadrupeds,”, or even the ox (the term used generically for cattle)” whose services to mankind are greater than those of sheep…for they are employed as beasts of draught and burden. (Ritvo, 18)

The animals were mostly assessed in terms of their value, which can be physical labour, watchfulness, loyalty or even the pleasure of mere company. But even other than their visible values (read as natural traits at times) and their inclination to human superiority (a thought much visibly nurtured by human beings) the animals had to undergo certain orders of transformation in their physical attributes. However, their mental capacity which lacked reason (man’s most cherished possession) could not always cope up to the changes which included steel hoofs, blinkers, harness and even cutting short of their tales, merely for the advantage of human use and also beautification. It was against these behaviours that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty can be read as a protest text. But again, given the gender of the author concerned and the society in which she was born, such a protest had to come in the guise of a children’s book of fiction harping on the characteristics of anthropomorphism which involves animals attributed with human traits, such as talking, reflecting over certain emotions and even displaying qualities like honesty, irritability, love, affection, friendship and even revenge. Horses as animals had mostly remained close to human existence because of their endurance and capacity to work in order to support human existence. It was also because swift animals which unquestioningly accepted and acknowledged human authority and superior positions were seen as the more refined models for ‘human subordinates’, as claims Ritvo who also writes:

Britons of all ranks were known for the love of horses. The affluent kept hig-spirited thouroughbreds; those who followed the plow preferred horses to other draft animals, no matter how strong or cheap to maintain. Popular natural history writers routinely characterized the horse as ‘noble’ and sometimes as nobles than the class of humans generally charged with its care. (19)

It was thus not regarded as an immoral or unethical act to use horses in order to gratify human needs for of course animals were there to serve mankind and it was authorized by God as well as science, a new stroke in the game of man’s domination of the natural world. In Animal Estate, Ritvo chronologically attempts to project how erudite naturalists and zoologists accredited and supported human domination over animals.  According to Philip Hammerton, the only thing that was morally and ethically clear and simply visible was that, “…man had the authentic right to require reasonable service from the horse” (20).

A stalwart in the field of early zoology, Thomas Pennant had openly claimed that the horse as an animal was bestowed with certain qualities that make him just perfect for human subservience. Such concepts due to their prolonged circulation in the academic, scientific, literary and the social world at large made such claims of legally and morally sanctioned oppression valid, guaranteeing basically nothing for the benefit and welfare of the animals.

Anna Sewell however from her very childhood was drawn towards horses. It was partly so because she had been partially crippled since her early childhood and in order to successfully and comfortably travel from one place to another, she had no other means but to depend on the horses for support. It was the intensely intimate bonding that shaped her life long relationship with the mute animals. She was so moved by the plight of the horses in her contemporary times, that she decided to frame the narrative of Black Beauty in the form of an autobiography for if not the horse in reality could speak for himself, then the creation of an imaginary setting or construct was much essential for the purpose. In the story, the pony develops into a beautiful horse passing through various masters, some kind and some awfully cruel and grows old gradually. But the journey of a horse in his own life was charismatically a new revelation to the Victorian society because before the publication of Black Beauty in the year of 1877, not many people did spare a second look to consider the life of a horse. Sewell’s much acclaimed work of fiction created not only a sensation in the society, but also generated certain significant transformations in respect to the horses. Motivated by the spirit as well as the narrative of the author, people of the contemporary British society were moved to improve the living conditions of the horses and treat them with sincere and genuine kindness. For the first time, there were even discussions about animal rights which pondered upon issues such as protection, health, living conditions and well being. It was not that the entire scenario had changed after the publication of the book, but indeed it was the first blow to the human myth of domination and the socially accepted conditions.Black Beauty has been time and again subjected to critical studies of animal oppression. Even today it remains an important text to be critically addressed for it is one of the earliest works of literature which raised the issue of Animal welfare even if in the guise of children’s fiction. Robert Dingley in “A Horse of a Different Color: Black Beauty and the Pressure of Indebtedness” observes Sewell’s Black Beauty as a text which emphasizes the portrayal of Victorian perception of the indebtedness involved in the master-servant relation.  Dingley writes:

Sewell of course had a range of objectives in Black Beauty, but the bearing-rein is certainly the most prominent of her targets for reform and the book was written very largely with the specific purpose of furthering its elimination. Nor was Sewell alone in her campaign. As early as the 1840s an author signing himself “Philippos” had produced a pamphlet entitled Horse-emancipation; or, The Abolition of the Bearing-rein, but the controversy became acute in the 1870s when, for example, Angela Burdett Coutts denounced bearing-reins in a speech at Torquay and Edward Fordham Flower, a Stratford Brewer and indefatigable writer of letters to newspapers, became a passionate champion of the downtrodden horse, exclaiming in a frequently reprinted leaflet: “ I shall persevere, and though I am old I do not despair of living long enough to have it engraved on my tombstone, “He was one of the men who caused the bearing-rein to be abolished.” (Dingley, 248-249)

What appears to be fundamentally striking in Robert Dingley’s observations about the generic as well as social status of Black Beauty as a work of literature is that he successfully presents the discursive tradition of literary outputs, both fiction and non-fiction in respect to the welfare of animals, dedicated solely towards the betterment of their living conditions and ensuring the value of their respective lives not just as commodities to be used by humans but as living beings who have equal share of claims on nature as human beings. But such a chronological affirmation of the validity of texts written about animals also brings to our notice the rising consciousness about the animal world, not just in terms of their usability but in reference to their individual existence and ethology. Dingley also observes that,

In 1890, a philanthropist named George Angell, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, of the Band of Mercy, and of the magazine Our Dumb Animals, published the first edition of Black Beauty: his Grooms and Companions. By A. Sewell. The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Horse, and Angell himself explained that he had been urging American writers for many years to do for horses what Mrs. Stowe had done for slaves. (250)

Such an articulation points at two things primarily. One is that Black Beauty within thirteen years of its publication transcended the borders of Britain and achieved a wider recognition, and secondly it was openly compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a classic anti-slavery novel. But the politics working behind such a stark comparison is that even in America, not just slaves were equivalent to the animals but the order of the day ran vice versa as well. So, while it was crucial to emancipate the slaves, it was also important to uplift the conditions of the animals if not let them loose into emancipated wilderness. However, it is of great importance to locate the initiation of such a comparison between animals and slaves, for the history of slavery assures that even at times the animals received better treatments as compared to the slaves. The history of human oppression in the name of class, creed, race, species etc is so prolonged that it brings to question humanity itself. On the other hand, it has always been very difficult to negate and defy such oppressions because all of them had been socially as well as politically, if not always legally approved. It was as if nothing but human interests (not all humans, but only those who qualified to be humans by having the primary traits of white skin colour and reason) mattered and the rest of the living world (includes slaves, women, animals, tress and other less important things) could be exploited for the benefit of the more powerful and important section of the hu-‘man’. It was this continuing legacy of anthrocentric oppression that gave rise to the necessity of texts like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Sewell’s Black Beauty. An awareness of such height probably signifies the presence of a critical alternate history of the Victorian period which did not celebrate anthrocentrism as an instrument of cruelty on animals, but viewed it as a matter of much responsibility for as man was the only animal with the capacity of reason, it was important for him to be more just and appropriate towards his actions for they involved and affected other creatures. It was because of the existence of such alternate histories that human beings still retain their claims of humanness.

Black Beauty has also been categorized under the umbrella term of ‘pony-stories’ which is a part of literature about animals. In “Riders, Readers ,Romance: A Short History of the Pony Story”, Jenny Kendrick points out that Black Beauty is not just a crusade against maltreatment of animals but it also acknowledges the social forces that compel humans into such behaviour.(Kendrick, 183-200).

Ecocriticism from its onset has tried to interpret the relationship between the physical environment and literature. It involves several other schools of thoughts under the umbrella term of ‘ecocriticism’, such as environmentalism, deep ecology, Marxist ecocriticism, ecofeminism etc. While Greg Garrard in his critical text named Ecocriticsm classified these respective schools, he made sure to convey the potential overlapping of the schools at times because despite their differences in approaches or beliefs or even operative measures, their primary loyalty to the concern about the nature and the environment as a whole unit is common to all. Multiple erudite disciplines have their continuing contributions in the field of ecocriticism. An attempt to locate in the literary forms and structures, a stable connection with the forms of nature has been accomplished, keeping an account of their relation with human perception of balance and beauty.  Interestingly, contemporary ecocritisim tends to analyze literary characters as typical or atypical human or non-human representatives and their behavioral patterns accordingly. The human tendency to visualize nature as per their cultural ideas also gives rise to certain conflict as well as crisis in the field of ecocriticism. It is however a little different when Joseph Meeker’s theory of literary ecology comes into the front. The significance of the proposition was that Meeker in his book The Comedy of Survival asserted that it is true to claim that human activities affect literature and we find a reflection of such activities in various forms, but at the same time it is also a plausible fact that literature in turn affects human lives and shapes their attitudes and behaviour which on a broader and wider sphere affects the individual and collective survival and development to ensure a viable ecological sustenance. Anna Sewell exactly does that through her book. It is true that there had been other works of non-fiction advocating for the betterment of horses, but one should also think about the larger circle of readers a work of fiction draws. Therefore, Anna Sewell’s work transcended its status of a children’s story book or a pony story to a work of literature that had the strength of compelling its readers towards checking their behaviour towards the horses and also consider the other animals as not just commodities to be used or abused as per one’s own desire and whim. Meeker’s idea of literary ecology can be applied to this text because the work leaves a deep imprint upon the human society and drives it towards goodness and real humanity. Secondly, it celebrates the ecological survival above everything, for it is necessary to survive, grow and develop not just individually but also collectively in order to ensure a better and rich environment around us. Ecocritcism as a still developing theoretical school involving environmental activism, ecological philosophy, scientific pursuits and other interdisciplinary negotiations successfully instills in the human world an awareness of the necessity of checking the dangerous advancements of human civilizations. Thus, not just activist movements or philosophical preaching can do justice to their claims, but they must transform or mould the individuals from within through every possible means. Thus, ecocrticism is still not limited by strict theoretical discourses and is free to explore its potentials towards the possible betterments of both the biotic and abiotic components on earth and develop the dynamic relationship between them, venturing towards a radically green tomorrow.

Works Cited

Dingley, Robert.“A Horse of a Different Color: “Black Beauty” and the Pressures of Indebtedness”. Victorian Literature and Culture 25(1997):241-251. JSTOR. Web. 15 May 2015.

Garrad, Greg. Ecocriticism. Taylor and Francis e-Library: Routledge, 2004. Web.

Kendrick, Jenny.“Riders, Readers, Romance: A Short History of the Pony Story”. Jenesse:Young People, Texts, Culture 1( Winter 2009):183-202.PROJECT MUSE.Web.15 May 2015.

Lundin, Anne. Rev. of Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewells. The Lion and the Unicorn April 2005:280. Web.

Meeker, Joseph.W. The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic. Arizona: U of Arizona P, 1997. Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. Radical Ecology.New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate. Harvard: Harvard UP,1987. Print.

Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey Ltd., 2000. Nineteenth Century Fiction Full- Text Database. Web. 24 April 2015.

Shewry, Teresa. “Animal Cultures.” Rev. of A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everyday Life, by Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong and Deidre Brown. Journal of New Zealand Literature Feb 2015:176. Web.

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