Saturday, January 24, 2009

Horsing around: a stall that needs mucking

I've been enjoying the Guardian's 1000 novels everyone must read series, but John Sutherland's depiction of Anna Sewell's Black Beauty is worth taking the time to correct here in the unedited backwaters of the internet (catch the conflation of Gulliver's Travels and Sophie's Choice under the William Styron entry for yourself).

The most famous animal story of the 19th century. The novelty of the work is that it is narrated by a horse (apparently sexless), which is miraculously able to talk like a well-brought-up Victorian servant. Black Beauty tells his life story from foal to colt to broken-in mount and fi nally to broken-down hack. The work is strongly marked by Sewell's passionate hatred of cruelty to animals and her campaign against the use of the "bearing reign". The most good natured of quadrupeds, Black Beauty off ers a fi nal message: "We horses do not mind hard work if we are treated reasonably."

First, Black Beauty is not apparently sexless. He's a colt, which is a male foal, and the humans call him "boy." Since this is a Victorian novel, it is understandable that our narrator spared us mention of his gelding. Do you know why a male horse might be gelded, John?

And Sewell hated the bearing rein. You know nothing about horses, do you, John? Well, you know they have four legs, and you used a big word to describe that condition (because it's an important concept for readers to grasp, I'm well aware), but really, your summary does not bring about any confidence that you've actually read the book you are reviewing or that you have a grasp of the subject matter it contains.

I'm not calling you a broken-down hack and saying you should be put out to pasture, John, but you foundered on this one.

Where on earth was your editor?


  1. Cheering you on here, Ms pages turned. John Sutherland is very low on my list of admirable academics. He is large on opinions and not necessarily bothered by the facts. As you so admirably prove.

  2. I think he'd definitely bridle at your comments, although of course you're right. It's not like you're randomly nagging...

  3. SFP snorts and whinnies with laughter. . .

  4. You mucked his stall right and proper, Susan!


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.