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  • Plain Speaking:Black Beauty as a Quaker Text
  • Peter Hollindale (bio)

In Part 4 of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, "A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms," Lemuel Gulliver describes the customary methods of treating horses in his own country, England, to the highly intelligent and rational horse who is now his master. He does so with his usual complacency and injudicious frankness: "I owned, that the Houyhnhnms among us, whom we called Horses, were the most generous and comely animal we had; that they excelled in strength and swiftness; and when they belonged to persons of quality, employed in traveling, racing, and drawing chariots, they were treated with much kindness and care, till they fell into diseases, or became foundered in the feet; but then they were sold, and used to all kinds of drudgery till they died; after which their skins were stripped and sold for what they were worth, and their bodies left to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey" (258-59). The noble Houyhnhnm is, not surprisingly, indignant when he hears the story of his species's degradation at the hands of Men, who are the brutish Yahoos in this land of rational equine oligarchy, and he wonders "how we dared to venture upon a Houyhnhnm's back."

I answered, that our horses were trained up from three or four years old to the several uses we intended them for; that if any of them proved intolerably vicious, they were employed for carriages; that they were severely beaten while they were young for any mischievous tricks: that the males, designed for the common use of riding or draught, were generally castrated about two years after their birth, to take down their spirits, and make them more tame and gentle; that they were indeed sensible of rewards and punishments, but his Honour would please to consider, that they had not the least tincture of Reason any more than the Yahoos in this country.


Point by point, Gulliver's account to the Houyhnhnm is in miniature the life story of one of fiction's most famous horses, Black Beauty, the eponymous hero of Anna Sewell's novel, published in 1877. Where the [End Page 95] experiences are not Black Beauty's own, they are those of his friend, the mare Ginger.

Improbable as the parallel may seem between Swift's urbane and waspish eighteenth-century satire and an essentially simple nineteenth-century story written in the cause of animal welfare, there are similarities between the two. Foremost of these is the fictional tactic of admonitory role reversal. Instead of horses as seen by men, we are shown humankind as seen by horses. In each case the effect is to expose the callousness that is inherent in the very concept of ownership—the commodification of the living creature. In Sewell this depends for its avoidance or correction on the personal responsibility and intervention of humane individuals. Swift summarizes an accepted, economically governed process of abuse, and Black Beauty illustrates it through the flesh-and-blood experience of living horses. Swift's strategy is to empower the horse, Sewell's to dramatize its impotence, but the purposed reformative insight is the same. Of course, Swift's object is to puncture human arrogance and presumption, not to improve the lot of horses, but he still provides an analogous and prophetic text for Sewell's enterprise.

In particular, we should note the equivalent status of Reason in both writers. Swift's Houyhnhnms are embodiments of rational life and discourse, and in such company Gulliver is unwise to speak of English horses as having "not the least tincture of Reason." Likewise Black Beauty, whom we think of chiefly as a passive victim of human use and misuse, is also constituted by Sewell as the humble, unassuming voice of practical Reason, whose very simplicity gives the powerful quality of self-evidentness to his intuitions of rightness and justice in both equine and human affairs.

In its unlikely correspondence with Swift we can find some guidance to the status of Black Beauty as one of the world's best-selling novels and perhaps the most influential of all animal stories. The book's lasting...


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pp. 95-111
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