Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Autobiography of a Horse - And the Woman Who Loved Him

The horse as litterateur is an obvious and ripe subject for serious inquiry. Space limitations, alas, preclude a full exegesis of the roman à clop, so a brisk lap around the track will have to suffice.

Over the course of equine evolution, horses have had to overcome enormous obstacles to verbal and written communication. Verbal skill first manifest itself during the 1940s with the discovery of a talking mule within the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in the Pacific during World War II who acted as aide-de-camp for a hapless Marine lieutenant. The story was broken in a 1950 documentary:

The mule later died of a broken heart because he was only half horse, the lieutenant had standards, and any further relationship was out of the question. With Frances died the only prospect for conversation with a verbally precocious equine.

But a generation later another verbally-gifted horse would be born, anonymously sired and unrelated to the talking mule, thus exciting contemporary evolutionary thought with the idea that considerable modern pressures were bearing down on the survival of the horse that compelled the fittest to speak their mind.

Equine written skills, on the other hoof, appeared much earlier, in the nineteenth century. The most notable example of equine-as-author is the anonymous stallion known by his nom de plume, Black Beauty, whose eponymous autobiography appeared on November 24, 1877, published by Jarrold & Sons (see Wolff, Nineteenth-century Fiction 6250) in the U.K. A smash best seller, by 1890 it had sold 90,000 copies in the U.K. alone.

This was an “as told to” effort, BB (as his friends knew him) hiring a human to take dictation, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Yes, the horse could talk but it only spoke Horse (the first edition bears the subtitle, “Translated From the Equine”). Moreover, he suffered from hoof-in-quill disease, so penmanship was an issue. But worst and most frustrating of all was that - as would be the case with Mr. Ed eighty some-odd years later - he only talked when he felt like it, and he only felt like talking to Anna Sewell.

"Anna Sewell (1820–1878), author, was born on 30 March 1820... her ‘life of constant frustration’ (Mrs Bayly, 71) began when, aged about fourteen, she slipped and fell... injuring both her ankles [that led to] a lameness which, although varying in its severity, was permanent and meant that at times she could not walk outside or stand for very long. She also suffered from a debilitating invalidism which varied in its intensity but remained with her for life characterized at times by pains in her chest, loss of strength in her back, and a ‘weakness’ in her head leading to periods of ‘enforced idleness’ (Mrs Bayly, 245)...

"...Sewell never married or had children and, apart from periods at spas or visiting relatives on a family farm in Norfolk, she always lived with her parents. It was in Norfolk that she learned to ride and drive the horses upon which her lameness made her reliant” (Oxford DNB Onliine).

She couldn’t walk, the Dictaphone had yet to be invented, he couldn’t write. They were the prefect couple.

What was startling about BB’s autobiography was that, while earlier animal first-person narratives had appeared, it was the first to provide social commentary, BB providing criticism of his various owners. In fact, the entire book is about social justice, BB as civil rights activist; this horse had a lot on his mind and a lot to say. It was a book he had to write.

BB’s story is simple: That of a well bred steed from early childhood in a pastoral eden, through numerous owners - some kind and some far from it - until kismet brings him back home. It is also profound.

"Beauty's color is no accident (Sewell's book is clearly modeled on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852), and the most poignant moments in the narrative occur when Beauty, while recognizing the inevitability of servitude, nevertheless longs wistfully for freedom" (Robert Dingley, in Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers, p. 354). The book's relationship to Uncle Tom's Cabin did not escape notice by its publishers.

Moreover, Black Beauty's continual and lasting value stands as one of the first - and certainly most influential - arguments for the humane treatment of animals. Indeed, the first American edition was published by the president of the American Humane Education Society, George T. Angell, who, at the rear to the first state of this edition, provided diagrammed instruction for the humane killing of horses and dogs that would seem horribly and insensitively out of place were it not for the cruel and usual alternatives then utilized. Black Beauty became a mobilizing force for change.

Curiously, and to the frustration of scientists throughout the world, the verbally adept hoss has disappeared, apparently extinct, the few known examples evidently evolutionary anomalies. Yes, there are horse whisperers but the horses ain’t whispering back. Evolutionary biologists theorize that
1) the small population of talking horses developed terminal laryngitis, or 2) they gave up trying to inculcate a modicum of "horse sense" into humans. Either way, they talked themselves horse and scratched from the evolutionary derby.

"...Sewell's only publication was Black Beauty, written intermittently from 1871 to 1877 at a time when her health further declined, and she was confined to the house and her sofa….The novel was sold to...Jarrold & Sons, for an outright payment of £40 and published…when Anna was fifty-seven. Now a children's classic, the novel was originally written for those who worked with horses, ‘its special aim’, Sewell wrote, ‘being to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’ (Mrs Bayly, 272). It has been seen as instrumental in leading to the abolition of the bearing-rein.

"Anna Sewell has been neglected by history. In ironic contrast, her only book has achieved phenomenal success. Pirated in America in 1890, its sales broke publishing records. It is said to be ‘the sixth best seller in the English language’ (Chitty, in Wells and Grimshaw, The Annotated Black Beauty, p. x).* Sewell lived just long enough to know of her novel's early success. She died…of hepatitis or phthisis on 25 April 1878 just five months after its publication" (Oxford DNB Online).

The first edition, first printing of Black Beauty is exceedingly scarce in the marketplace; it was read to pieces by kids and few copies have survived.

Points to the first American edition, first state:

SEWELL, Anna. Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions. The "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of the Horse. Boston: George T. Angell, 1890.

•Printed boards with price "12 cents" at top. (Later issued in wrappers, then cloth).
•Preface dated February 12, 1890.
•Front ads dated March 1, 1890.
•One black and white illustration; head- tailpieces; initials.

Image courtesy of David Brass.

*Wikipedia has an amazing, extremely well researched list of the best selling books of all time. At a mere 50 million copies sold, Black Beauty does not even make the top ten bestselling books in the English language – but is tied for the #11 spot with Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946).

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