Tack Lecture examines animal rights

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Morse, an English professor at the College, specializes in Victorian studies, the English novel, the animal in Victorian literature and feminist studies. ANNA BURNS / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, Oct. 23, the College of William and Mary presented its 16th talk of the Tack Faculty Lecture Series, featuring professor Deborah Denenholz Morse. Her presentation, which was entitled “Liberating Black Beauty: A Narrative on Animal Rights, Gender, Race, and Nation,” analyzed Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel “Black Beauty” and examined its sociopolitical nuances. 

 Morse, an English professor at the College, specializes in Victorian studies, the English novel, the animal in Victorian literature and feminist studies.  

 Morse began by reflecting on animal rights issues and devoted the event to animals who are suffering. 

“This lecture is dedicated to all the homeless animals,” Morse said. “May they one day find a home at last, as Black Beauty does.”    

“This lecture is dedicated to all the homeless animals,” Morse said. “May they one day find a home at last, as Black Beauty does.”  

Morse then discussed her interpretation of the novel. In addition to exploring animal rights, gender, race and nationhood, Morse argued “Black Beauty” deals with the concepts of temperance and pacifism. 

“The groom Reuben Smith in ‘Black Beauty’ drunkenly ruins Beauty, damaging his knees, and can be considered as part of a very large, late-Victorian genre of temperance novels, many of which were published by the Religious Tract Society and Scottish Temperance League,” Morse said. “Believe me, I’ve read a lot of them in the Bodleian and the British Library. Black Beauty is also a Quaker anti-war text with its chapters on Captain, a war horse who describes his terrifying experiences during the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, an event made infamous by Tennyson’s poem.” 

According to Morse, Sewell’s personal experiences fostered her love for animals and greatly influenced the thematic notions of “Black Beauty.” Sewell experienced a physical handicap which made her dependent on horses. Additionally, Sewell’s Quaker upbringing encouraged her criticism of warfare and the violent mistreatment of animals. 

After providing background on the author, Morse segued into a discussion of animal consciousness. Morse explained that this concept dates back centuries, when Charles Darwin proved the biological links between humans and animals in 1872. 

Morse said that his research has been expanded upon in the 21st century by academics such as Barbara King and Peter Godfrey-Smith. These scholars, Morse suggested, have made attempts to understand the emotional intelligence of animals and to see them as fellow sentient beings. Morse argued that “Black Beauty” shares a similar perspective with the works of King and Godfrey-Smith. 

“King’s and Godfrey’s humane impulse was shared by the most famous late 19th-century literary representation of animal consciousness, Englishwoman Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty,’” Morse said. “Sewell’s literary strategies were based upon close observation of her horse Hero as well as upon extraordinary human imagining and empathy, nurtured by Sewell’s devout Quaker background. She was greatly concerned about cruelty enacted against her beloved horses by people of all social classes.” 

Morse described how Sewell was greatly concerned by the popularity of the bearing rein, a device used to constrain horses that was fashionable during the era of “Black Beauty.” It forced horses to hold their heads higher than normal, causing them great discomfort and ultimately shortening their lifespans. 

Sewell wrote “Black Beauty” during the final months of her life while very ill, and Morse said that Sewell’s affliction enhanced her sympathy for animals, encouraging her to write the novel. 

“It is reasonable to suggest that her own suffering infused the suffering she depicts so powerfully in the consciousness of Black Beauty and in the speeches of the many other equines who voice their outrage against human injustice,” Morse said. 

Sewell’s expansive knowledge of horses, Morse said, was unusual for the time period and greatly resisted traditional gender expectations. Morse also said Sewell’s insight as an equestrian gave her a greater understanding of animal consciousness and communication. 

“Certainly, Anna Sewell did try to learn their language in ‘Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions’ — the full title — which Sewell promises is translated from the original equine,” Morse said. “Issues of language, voice and translation are intertwined in this novel purporting to be the autobiography of a horse. The fiction that Beauty tells his own story and his own language to his human auditor and translator — Sewell herself — is partly a reflection of Sewell’s attentiveness to horse expressiveness over her entire life.” 

Morse continued by discussing how the novel challenges Victorian gender constructs. By giving a male horse a female translator, Sewell employed a subversive and innovative strategy in this work. 

According to Morse, “Black Beauty” breaks down the constructs of Victorian masculinity by drawing attention to male violence and antagonism through an equine narrator. 

Morse interpreted the character Ginger as representative of the mistreatment of women and imperial subjects in Victorian Britain. As Morse said, Ginger’s breaking in by her handlers is indicative of gang rape, serving as a commentary on male sexual aggression against women. Morse also said that Ginger’s name is evocative of England’s imperial connection to Ireland and India.  

After the talk, Natalie Spage ’23 shared her thoughts on Morse’s analysis and the gender narratives present within the novel. 

“I was mostly fascinated by Ginger and the kind of parallels with rape, specifically, and kind of the gender presence in both the horses,” Spage said.   

 Jen Dunn ’20 saw Morse’s interpretation as applicable to the resolution of contemporary social issues. 

“I think it’s so interesting to study these novels with the lens of understanding the oppression and situations that the authors are putting into the novels and trying to express frustration or anger or discomfort in their own lives,” Dunn said.

“I think it’s so interesting to study these novels with the lens of understanding the oppression and situations that the authors are putting into the novels and trying to express frustration or anger or discomfort in their own lives,” Dunn said.  

In her closing statements, Morse talked about the value of the novel with respect to the advancement of animal rights. She also drew attention to the innovation of Sewell’s novel, specifically its unique stylistic methods and the pointed commentary it provides. 

“The narrative strategy of trans-species, cross-gender narration in these texts creates a powerful space in which animal minds can exist,” Morse said.