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Nerdy Horse-book Talk

February 12, 2012

I probably spend more time writing about writing my thesis, than actually writing it.

But since I do spend some time actually writing the pesky thing, I figured I’d share a little bit, in case anyone (all three of you who read this on the rare occasion that I update it) wants to see what it’s about.

It’s full of nerd-speak, but it’s nerd-speak on Black Beauty! Here’s the intro, enjoy.

The Victorian era of English history was a time of social reform and ideological revolution; Georgian rationalism gave way to romanticism, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species troubled the  human-animal continuum, the emerging feminist movement championed anti-vivisection and anti-prostitution agendas, and the Industrial Revolution wrought innumerable changes on the social, economic, and cultural fabric of England. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, established hierarchies, once taken for granted, were questioned and new social orders were envisioned. The fin de siècle was a vibrant and tumultuous time of change that engendered a literary aesthetic that problematized institutions of control, negotiated new cultural anxieties, and gave a voice to those subjugated by an oppressive patriarchal regime.

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, published in 1877, emerged from this discourse as a telling social commentary that addressed maligned Victorian values through the lens of her Quaker sentiments. The text explicitly preaches pacifism, unyielding faith, observing the Sabbath, kindness towards animals, and abstinence from alcohol. With its easily palatable moral didacticism, simplistic narrative style, and anthropomorphized equine characters, Black Beauty has long been regarded as a staple of children’s literature. However, it is a disservice to the complicated and nuanced meanings communicated through Sewell’s narrative to reductively categorize Black Beauty as a child’s morality story or simple treatise on animal rights. A critical reading of the story reveals a fierce, gendered polemic that operates as a narrative of victimization to explicate and challenge the institutions of control in patriarchal Victorian England.

The majority of Black Beauty scholarship, however, fixates on how the text negotiates cultural anxieties surrounding race and class concerns, perhaps owing to the deeply embedded allusions to slavery and servitude couched in the narrative’s namesake protagonist, Black Beauty. There are few critical readings that situate Black Beauty as a gendered politic and few scholars have placed the narrative within the discourse of discursive practices and processes that enable and sustain gender stratification, despite the fact that horses have traditionally functioned symbolically as sites of dominion and docility; a charge heavy with implications of gender and sexual politics (Morse 145).

As a result of neglecting this gendered approach, scant attention has been paid to the narrative treatment and function of Ginger, the equine female protagonist, whose exquisite, angry voice subtly undermines Black Beauty’s passivity. Even fewer scholars have placed Ginger in the tradition of her literary forebears; orphans, prostitutes, and other tropes of subversive femininity that have challenged the security of male dominance with their renegade autonomy and sexuality. Functioning uniquely as a female and equine, Ginger is an ideological site that simultaneously contests Victorian institutions of control, flouts conventional feminine behavior, and negotiates the dark waters of Sewell’s spiritual anxiety.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 8:44 pm

    Awesome post.

    I will admit, I never thought with my adult mind (haven’t read BB in some years, but well familiar with the story from many readings) about the symbolism and metaphors presented by Ginger.

    Thanks, now I have to go read it again.

    I was always beyond annoyed at the attempts made by Hollywood to convey Black Beauty in film. I mean, honestly… a kids’ film? If done true to the story (requiring more CGI than live actors, one should imagine), it is closer to a horror genre than kids’ fare. It ticks me off no end to see watered down feel good boy-loves-horse BB. NOT what it was about.

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