Historic horseplay loses its innocence

May 9, 1997

CLEOPATRA envied the horse which bore the weight of Anthony. Jane Austen's Fanny Price pitied her horse when it was ridden too hard by the sexually energetic Mary Crawford.

Horses have galloped their way through literature since the Greeks, and now Sarah Wintle, senior lecturer in English at University College London, is to tether the subject to a book.

Thinking with Horses in English Literature: The Renaissance to the Present will take a chronological look at changing attitudes to horses from Sidney, Marlowe and Shakespeare to pony stories such as My Friend Flicka.

Mrs Wintle began to work on the subject after experiencing the special culture of the British pony set.

"I was a horsey child and then my two daughters became horsey girls and I used to take them to riding school," she said. "I became fascinated about why it was a female thing. Then it struck me that there was quite a lot about horses in what I was reading."

She soon discovered literature showed a marked switch from male to female-centred involvement with horses.

"Women only started taking over the horse in the 19th century for technical reasons because of the invention of the side saddle," she says. "You could say they only really took it over when men took over the car."

With the Romantics also came a sea-change in attitudes toward animals. It was the start of animal rights movements and the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Depiction of horses began to include a more psychological element, in anticipation of the kind of writing which followed Freud.

"I have found it most difficult to write about the Rennaissance because it is harder to get inside the minds of the authors," says Mrs Wintle. The way they saw animals was totally different.

Changes in the horse's role from essential means of transport, status symbol and sign of masculinity to a mainly female hobby have naturally altered its place in literature.

But Mrs Wintle says the horse has also lent itself to enduring, if shifting, themes. Horses have been used throughout the ages to examine questions of passion and the mind, the body and gender, class and national identity.

From Plato's Phaedra, in which a charioteer struggles to control his well-behaved white steed and its lustful black partner, to Jilly Cooper's Riders, it has symbolised unbridled emotional and sexual passion, while sometimes allowing authors to depict emotions otherwise suppressed.

A character's treatment of his horse, for example, can represent his true feelings towards a fellow character.

Man's mastery of the animal can be used to depict both his physical and mental magnificance and his brutality, while literature has also used horses to stress manliness itself.

This century it has moved to offer a more feminine angle. National Velvet, written in the 1930s, carried a clear feminist message. In the novel, not only did a girl defy the odds to win the Grand National but she did it on a non-thoroughbred horse.

This picks up another aspect of literary horses, says Mrs Wintle - class. When Shakespeare's Richard III crys: "My kingdom for a horse!" he conjures a set of associations of riding with ruling.

While stressing social divides, the horse has also represented national boundaries. At the time of the French Revolution, the English hunt was believed to represent freedom, while French dressage reflected France's totalitarian state.

Mrs Wintle has already written pieces on use of the horse by George Eliot and Jonathan Swift, both of whom were passionate about horses themselves.

Her book, which she hopes will be a literary history of the topic for the general reader, may also examine horses in film and American writing, against a backdrop of cowboys.

The only trouble is, she says, English literature includes so much about horses that it is hard to stop the subject running beyond a book's boundaries.

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