YOU AND YOUR DUMB FRIENDS
HOW AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF ANIMALS AND INANIMATE OBJECTS REVEAL THE HUMAN CAPACITY FOR EMPATHY AND DECENCY.
I am perfectly willing to read celebrity memoirs, but only if they conclude with a crowd of children smashing the author over the head with an iron poker. Then, ideally, he should burst into flames. That, at least, is how one of my favorite Victorian autobiographies ends, and a most satisfying conclusion it is, too. I should also note its singular cover art: in the ivy-wreathed cameo normally set aside for a heroic gold-stamped visage of the book’s subject, there is—absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, except for a pitch-black rectangle. At first I thought a pasted label had been pulled away from the space, and I cursed the long-dead vandal that had done the deed. It was only after many viewings that the book designer’s joke dawned on me. That plain black rectangle is a portrait… of coal.
The Autobiography of a Lump of Coal (1870) commences with a group of English children sitting by a fireplace, blithely insulting their subject—“Addy, do break up that ugly, dark lump of Coal.”—whereupon the coal begins to speak to them. Before you suspect ergot in the scones, bear in mind that this is not a bad thing. A talking lump of coal, as long as it doesn’t instruct you to kill your neighbors, is a fine way to get better acquainted with the science of geology. And so the Autobiography continues with girls in petticoats and ribbons having a lively discourse on mining technology and planes of cleavage—these are the linear cracks along which coal naturally shears away—while they politely listen to a chunk of carbon muse on his doleful life and times.
In a hydrocarbon there is a fallen nobility, even tragedy. Yes, there is pathos in that lump of coal!
I will only just say that my ancient name of my family was WOOD, and that, by degrees, like many another great family we decayed, mouldered away, as it were, and that, under the pressure of circumstances and of forces that we were unable to resist, our fortunes, our modes of life, places of abode, even our very characters, altered and altered again and again, till at last we sank into a sleepy state, and remained, for ages and ages, unknown and uncared for…
After giving them the sad history of his decline, burial, and subsequent excavation, Coal pauses to rest and have a smoke. He then explains that “If I fell on your toes, which I should be very sorry to do, you would, I am afraid, think me heavy; but in reality my specific gravity is only one and one-quarter.”
Conversation continues onward in this vein until a final heroic soliloquy by the dying Coal. Combustion is splitting him along his planes of cleavage, you see, and his little heart is about to break with a mighty crack and sizzle:
In the golden age of our existence, not only did we enjoy the light and heat around us, but we carefully stored away considerable portions. These we now freely render up to you again, thus giving you another proof that nothing is ever really lost—nothing is ever actually destroyed. Dear young friends, farewell.
I have read many dying speeches in Victorian literature, all filled with fine sentiments. But none has ever quite matched this one: that we achieve immortality through the First Law of Thermodynamics.
When the children’s science writer Annie Carey published The Autobiography of a Lump of Coal in 1870, she was improvising on an old theme. The conceit of an inanimate object’s memoir is ancient; the seventh-century poem Dream of the Rood features a tree holding forth on just what it’s like to be cut down, carried out of the forest, and then pounded through with nails to crucify Jesus Christ. I rather prefer the less earnest approach of The Story of My Life, By a Submarine Telegraph (1859). This cable, like most memoirists, spends much time recalling how it got… um, laid. Our rubber-insulated narrator also seems curiously fixated on the ingeniousness of telegraph entrepreneur Charles West, a mystery that does not deepen when you notice that the book is copyrighted to one “C. West.”
More often inanimate narrators are used for no more nefarious a purpose than promoting clever fiction. One of the narrators in Bo Fowler’s Scepticism Inc. is—I am delighted to report—a sentient supermarket shopping cart, while Tibor Fischer’s The Collector Collector is told by a 6,500-year-old Mesopotamian bowl. It exhibits genuine schadenfreude, if ceramics may be said to have ill will; when bullets shatter an ancient Gorgon vase sitting nearby, the bowl narrator snorts: “Kablooied beyond redress of glue and patience… Gotcha.”
But The Autobiography of a Lump of Coal is something different. It is neither satirical nor reverent; it is not a promotional gimmick. If you read past Coal’s death throes, you find it followed by the testimonies of all sorts of inanimate objects. The volume’s complete title is The Autobiography of a Lump of Coal; A Grain of Salt; A Drop of Water; A Bit of Old Iron; and A Piece of Old Flint. Carey repeated her approach a couple years later with her 1872 book Threads of Knowledge, Drawn from a Cambric; A Brussels Carpet; A Print Dress; A Kid Glove; and A Sheet of Paper. Her publisher cannily combined both volumes in 1880 as The Wonders of Common Things. That title might be an apt description for an entire genre, and the sentiment remains apparent in more recent books like Leah Hager Cohen’s Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations in the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things (1997).
If you search the phrase “Autobiography of a” at the British Library, you get a great many things in addition to that lump of coal (see page 13): the autobiography of a vaudeville stooge; of a Manchester cotton manufacturer; of a box-kite pioneer. You don’t find many nonhuman autobiographies, though. And at the time, I don’t suppose many people particularly noticed what Carey was doing. She was just another entry in Cassell’s Eightpenny Story Book series, along with pious titles like The Story of Arthur Hunter and His First Shilling. But Carey was up to something a little subtler than her fellow authors. Like Natural Theology and the Transcendentalism that had appeared in its wake, Carey’s concern was to get us to reflect upon the divinity of all creation, to understand everyday wonders unjustly made contemptible by their familiarity. What better way than by giving voice to the voiceless?
Reviews were slow to appear for Autobiography of a Lump of Coal; a positive notice in the September 9, 1871, issue of Athenaeum magazine was probably the greatest exposure it ever got. Still, who knows what ideas arose in subscriber’s minds as they considered Annie Carey’s clever device? For a couple of months later, this curious entry appears for the first time in the diary of a housebound invalid in Norwich: Nov. 6. I am writing the life of a horse and getting dolls and boxes ready for Christmas.
Anna Sewell was not exactly someone you’d want to sign up for a three-book deal. In 1871 she was already fifty-one years old, a first-time novelist, and she’d never shown any particular inclination for writing before. Lame since childhood, her increasing frailty had turned her into a shut-in; eight months before her hopeful diary entry, a doctor had predicted that Sewell had eighteen months left to live. To begin a book while halfway to her deathbed might have looked pointless indeed, especially when, as Margaret Sewell later recalled, “My aunt could never read or write for more than a short time at a sitting.” Sometimes weakness would so overcome her that days or weeks of enforced rest followed.
And yet her “life of a horse” was not such a strange goal. Her mother Mary was an established Quaker author of children’s verse and fiction, and horses happened to be a subject close to Anna Sewell’s heart; her disability left her dependent on them for getting about. Family members had noticed her intuitive knowledge of how to handle them, as well as her penchant for speaking gently to them as they rode. Having lived unmarried with her mother for her entire life, Anna also had the veritable room of her own, on the second floor of their home at 125 Spixworth Road.
There she convalesced, stared out over the fields, and would sometimes make it across the room to her desk. Writing progressed with agonizing slowness between long bedridden stretches. Her eighteen months came and went. She was still alive, though so close to death that she stopped bothering with doctor’s visits altogether: there was no point. But she lived another eighteen months, and another eighteen, and another still. In August 1877 she made one of the final notes in her diary: My proofs of Black Beauty are come—very nice type.
The completed story recounts the life and times of the well-bred horse of the title, and such stable companions as gentle Merrylegs and the angry and spirited Ginger; echoing throughout the book is the memory of Black Beauty’s mother Duchess, with her admonitions to stay gentle and mannered at all times. Surrounding these horses is a procession of good, bad, and indifferent owners: the well-meaning but inept rookie Joe Green, the drunkard Reuben Smith, the callous and cruel cabdriver Nicholas Skinner. Sewell sold this story, and all its rights, to the publishing house Jarrold & Sons for the staggeringly cheap advance of £20. But she was wise to get her cash up front.
The book was published in November: Anna was dead in April.
Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions; The Autobiography of a Horse, Translated from the Original Equine by Anna Sewell is the most overlooked book in the entire canon of English literature: it is the 800-pound horse in our living room. Why, you’d think the smell alone would make us take notice. Black Beauty is one of the best selling books ever published; a century after its publication, Sewell’s dying work was estimated to have sold approximately thirty million copies. Several decades since have surely added many millions more to that total. Black Beauty has been translated into everything from Swedish to Hindustani, and made and remade many times over in both silent and sound movies, as well as a TV series. It has also generated sheaves of sequels—including Son of Black Beauty, which sounds like a swell idea for a book until you recall that Black Beauty was a gelding. No matter: he is an unstoppable force. Nearly everyone has heard of him, many have read him, and few have any notion whatsoever of his origins.
I cannot find a single academic monograph dedicated to examining Black Beauty. The book’s critical obscurity is matched by that of Anna Sewell herself; the only full-length biography devoted to her, The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty, has been out of print for thirty years, and was more about mother Mary Sewell than about Anna herself. As biographer Susan Chitty readily admitted, Anna was almost impervious to biography: her one surviving diary is a tatty notebook of fourteen pages in length. Compare this to Sewell’s rival in the shut-in spinster-genius sweepstakes, Emily Dickinson: she, at least, left hundreds of letters behind. Of Anna Sewell we have little but what comes, so to speak, straight from the horse’s mouth.
But oh, how he spoke!
I read Black Beauty dozens of times as child. Whenever I was laid up with the flu, out of school on a snow day, or simply wanted to shut out the world for a while, this was the book I’d turn to. I had no idea, when miserably feverish, that I was reading it the way it had been written—in a sickbed. But I would not have dwelt long on this, even had I known: I set aside Black Beauty when I was twelve or so, as the approach of junior high school forced me out of childish things and, in their stead, into foolish things.
It was over a decade before I picked it up again, during a four-month purgatorial stretch of unemployment after finishing college; stuck in my old teenage attic bedroom, I stayed up until four or five a.m. every night reading through my childhood bookshelf. It was still dusty and untouched from the day I’d left for college, and composed solely of those books I had seen unfit to take with me, the castoffs spurned from my new adult existence. Eventually I made my way across the bottom shelf to the old copy of Black Beauty, still pristine in its slipcase, and I read it once again.
It was just as I remembered, even down to the smooth plate illustration of the young colt nursing at his mother’s side. But as I read the book, a curiously different sense of familiarity crept over me: and then, sheer disbelief. I rummaged my college copy of the Norton Anthology out of a duffel bag, flipped about halfway into it, and read it; then I looked back at Sewell’s tale incredulously. Her work, which I had absorbed unblinkingly as a child, looked utterly different now: for the first time I could see what she’d done. She had taken an American slave narrative and replaced the slaves with horses.
Now, why would anyone do that? Necessity, for one thing. A first-time writer on her deathbed, Sewell gravitated to a form she was already deeply familiar with. As a Quaker with relatives active in both abolitionism and antivivisectionism, she’d grown up in a sect that had published slave narratives throughout the nineteenth century. And it starts to make sense when one considers how similar their plights are, for horses and slaves are both thinking and feeling beings turned into things: they are bought and sold by a series of masters; they are beaten; their families are scattered; their labor is taken from them. All along, neither can say a word.
In case you missed the titular metaphor, Black Beauty himself is also called “Darkie” or “Blackie” by his masters—a detail not lost upon the apartheid-era government of South Africa, which banned the book as a seditious text. The narrative arc follows that of thousands of other slave writers: a hazy memory of a brief but naïve childhood when he is still too young to be put to work; then, once his body is valuable enough, the breakup of his family as he is sold to a new owner; the occasional relatively happy day or kindhearted owner; and then a succession of owners who abuse him, steal his feed, and house him in miserable quarters. He makes friends among his fellow horses, but cannot count on any of them to stay near for long, as they die or are sold down the river—the River Thames, granted, but it might as well be the Mississippi.
The primal scene of enslavement comes early, after Black Beauty witnesses a hunt in a nearby field that has gone awry. A horse falls down, killing its rider:
Mr. Bond, the farrier, came to look at the black horse that lay groaning on the grass, he felt him all over, and shook his head; one of his legs was broken. Then someone ran to our master’s house and came back with a gun; presently there was a loud bang and a dreadful shriek, and then all was still; the black horse moved no more. My mother seemed much troubled; she said she had known that horse for years, and that his name was “Rob Roy”; he was a good bold horse, and there was no vice in him. She would never go to that part of the field afterwards.
Later Black Beauty discovers that he has unwittingly witnessed the death of his own brother. It is an appallingly understated realization. Not only has his mother shielded Black Beauty from grieving for this sibling—“We are only horses, and don’t know,” she says meekly as she watches Rob Roy die—but more subtly, we understand that she had never even told him that he had a brother in the first place.
“It seems that horses have no relations,” Black Beauty ponders, “at least, they never know each other after they are sold.”
Not long after Rob Roy’s death, the strapping young narrator is sold for £150; at the end of the book, he narrowly avoids the glue works by being sold for a fiver.
In the intervening pages, Black Beauty has been broken upon the carriage wheel of Victorian London: knees destroyed by drunken and inept riders, lungs pocked by filthy stables, windpipe half-broken by fashionable “bearing-reins,” and his body weakened by cheap feed. By the penultimate chapter, he is given up for dead in a street on Ludgate Hill. That the book then manages a happy ending of sorts is not saying much: every fellow horse that our protagonist has ever known is dead or gone. Black Beauty is quite possibly the most relentless tale of degradation ever entrusted to the embrace of little children. And yet it is also one of the most beloved.
There are at least twenty editions of Black Beauty currently in print. There have been paperbacks and hardcovers, illustrated editions and Braille editions, Black Beauty coloring and pop-up books, and a gleefully malicious Spike Milligan spoof featuring a protagonist with “a lovely body with a huge cock.” There is a Black Beauty quilt pattern. You can also, if you like, listen to Black Beauty on CD, cassette, or as an online audio download.
None of this was exactly what Anna Sewell had in mind. When it was first published, Black Beauty was sold as a fictionalized instruction manual. Still assuming her role as a translator “from the original Equine,” at the end of the book, Sewell includes a note to stable hands: “The Translator would recommend to them to procure an admirable little book, price fourpence, titled The Horse Book.” Sewell was primarily writing for teenagers and adults; more to the point, she was writing for stable hands and cabmen. Like their modern automotive counterparts careening up Sixth Avenue, cabbies were notorious for the rough usage of horses. Sewell explained not long before she died:
I have for six years been confined to the house and to my sofa, and have from time to time, as I was able, been writing what I think will turn out a little book, its special aim being to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses. In thinking of Cab-horses, I have been led to think of Cabmen, and I am anxious, if I can, to present their true conditions, and their great difficulties, in a correct and telling manner.
The book crossed over to children through both luck and design. Sewell’s unadorned Quaker aesthetics, along with very short chapters—which may well have been necessitated by an inability to write for long at one sitting—combined to make a book that was both compelling and easy to read. Sewell was not unaware of this; an edition to be distributed in Sunday Schools was already in the works when she died, and her publisher advertised it as part of a line of moralizing and temperance tales for children.
The early days were not promising, though. Initial orders of Black Beauty by London booksellers totaled all of 100 copies, and for its first decade it received little attention. But it had the potential to turn into something bigger—much bigger. It tapped directly into the outrage and compassion underlying the beginnings of the animal-rights movement; shortly after its publication, one magazine mused that “if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had published the Autobiography of Black Beauty we should have said it had published its best work.”
Unlike most book reviews, this one actually proved to be prophetic. In February 1890, days after receiving a copy of the book from a friend, the American SPCA activist George Angell began raising money to initiate a massive print run; as the editor of the SPCA magazine Our Dumb Animals, he posted this italicized call to action:
I want to print immediately a hundred thousand copies. I want the power to give away thousands of these to drivers of horses. I want to send a copy postpaid to the editors of about thirteen thousand American newspapers and magazines.
Incredibly, this is exactly what he did. Within months the entire printing was given away. Others enthusiastically took up the reins: publishers began selling it, magazines gave it away as a premium, and the Frank Miller Harness Dressing Company put in a bulk order for fifteen tons of customized copies: any blank spaces in the chapters were filled with pictures of horses proudly wearing saddle blankets bearing the company’s name.
By the end of the year, 217,000 copies of Black Beauty had been sold, and sales only accelerated from there. The book now caught fire in its homeland as well, and soon copies sold in Britain were stamped with the endorsement Recommended by the R.S.P.C.A. There was something else new in the book, too. Amid the publishing uproar, Angell had quietly inserted a new subtitle into the Black Beauty title page:
The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Horses.
All this is gone today—the RSPCA endorsement, the Uncle Tom subtitle, the Sewell note recommending The Horse Book. Gone, too, is Angell’s later insertion of an appendix on the heaven and hell of horses. Black Beauty was a far more political work than any typical children’s book, and it almost single-handedly led the successful fight against bearing-reins and other cruel forms of horsemanship. But it is a sweet-tempered Merrylegs of a book now: it does not kick or bite.
Still, I decided I’d buy myself one these denatured, cheap new paperback copies. Another decade had passed since I’d read it, and I wanted a copy that I’d feel okay marking up the margins of. I walked up to my local bookstore counter with a brand new copy of the Signet Classic edition, absent-mindedly slapping it against my palm. And I noticed: this edition did have something new. It had an afterword.
It was by Lucy Grealy.
I stood there agape, not quite knowing what to think. I thought of the moment last year when I had heard Grealy’s death announced on the radio, that sickening feeling of Oh, No. Anyone who had read Autobiography of a Face, Grealy’s account of life after losing half her jaw to childhood cancer, immediately knew or feared what her death meant. When the obituaries came out, the fear was confirmed. Her Times write-up did not explain exactly how Grealy had died at a friend’s house in Manhattan, and it did not need to. “Friends said she had been despondent over operations she underwent two years ago,” it noted.
I examined my cheap paperback again once I got home, and then looked up both Grealy’s and Sewell’s bibliographies. Black Beauty turns out to have a curiously morbid publishing history: not only did Anna Sewell die shortly after it was published, but the publisher who had bought it—Mr. Jarrold himself—died even more quickly, while the book was still going to press. Within a few months of its publication, neither signatory to the Black Beauty contract was alive.
This crisp new Signet mass-market edition was, in its own way, equally unnerving: it was the first and only book Grealy had ever written a commentary for. There was something else curious about its listing: the publication date. December 1, 2002. That sounded familiar. I looked up Grealy’s obituary again. She had committed suicide on December 18, 2002.
Grealy’s afterword to Black Beauty was the last thing she lived to see published. And fittingly enough, the memorial maintained by her family at lucygrealy.com has just one photograph: Lucy as a young girl, happily draped over her beloved horse. Autobiography of a Face begins with the fourteen-year-old Grealy delivering these ponies to children’s parties. She loves everything about the job except for the children and the parties—because, inevitably, their attention turns from the ponies to her missing jaw. “Though I had to suffer through the pony parties, I was willing to do so to spend time alone with the horses,” she explains. “I thought animals were the only beings capable of understanding me.”
In her essay collection As Seen on TV (2000), she offers another glimpse into her life as a young stable hand, where she delights in leaping onto horses that customers have complained are unrideable:
For effect, I held the reins lightly, and the small crowd I was galloping toward would begin to step back in alarm just as I pulled up short in a breath of dust. Dropping the reins across the horse’s neck, I’d nonchalantly throw my leg and jump the long distance down, landing with a thud to make sure everyone watching understood that I did not give a shit about a single thing in this world.
She understands the horses, and they do not. Above all, she does not see them as anything but horses: she hates the Disneyification of other species. Animals have become, she explains, “merely a projection of what we seem to think is our cuter self. The prospect of an actual encounter with the so-called other is excluded, and it’s almost a relief; the cute is a lot easier to deal with and asks nothing of us.”
Black Beauty, on the other hand, asks everything of us. Sewell undertook one of the most radical alterations of narrative in all of nineteenth-century literature—making a horse talk, and making him talk as a horse. Black Beauty’s story is not a fable: he does not flatter us with a cute simulation of humanity. He is neither human nor possesses any desire to be. Black Beauty does not have adventures or romances; nor does he try talking to the stable hands. What he does do is worry about his reins’ being too tight, whether his feed is fresh, and how he can get a sharp stone dislodged from his hoof.
And rather than imitate us, the horses repeatedly demand that we put ourselves in their place, and see how we’d like it. How would we like living in a stall too narrow to turn around in? How would we like a rein pulled so tight that we bleed and foam at the mouth? “Why don’t they cut their own children’s ears into points to make them look sharp?” a horse with a cropped tail snaps. “Why don’t they cut the end off their noses to make them look plucky? One would be just as sensible as another. What right have they to torment and disfigure God’s creatures?”
Memoirs of the famous or powerful have long been with us, and few question their existence—of the memoirs, I mean. But what of memoirs by the ordinary or the powerless? Their rise has exasperated some critics, and it’s the same irritation that the explosion of domestic novels elicited in the nineteenth century: both genres force readers to think about people and matters that they previously felt free to ignore. But ignoring something—ignorance—is the cause of almost all suffering in these memoirs.“Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world next to wickedness?” one character in Black Beauty yells.
In her afterword, Grealy uses this realization to neatly turn our expectations upside down. Sewell’s book is not about taming horses, she explains. It is about taming humans:
It was her particular genius to make the hero of Black Beauty not so much the talking, anthropomorphized stallion of the title, but rather the reader who would give anything to align herself with the gorgeous, melancholic knowledge of horses. The story’s driving force is not so much the narrative of a particular animal’s complicated life, but of the human desire to understand and love—and redeem—such an animal.
To understand and love: it is a tall, almost impossible order to ask of any genre. Art does not owe you anything, after all, and it does not have to improve you in any way. And yet if literature can ever improve us, then the memoir—whether equine or human—might be the form best able to achieve it.
Like Black Beauty, the more you read Grealy, the more you realize that the story you thought you came to hear is not the story she is going to tell you. You want a nice plot? That’s not life—that’s entertainment. And yet we crave the reassurance of entertainment. Grealy later recounted how on her tour for Autobiography of a Face, the fact that she had an identical twin caused audiences to keep asking questions-that-aren’t-really-questions. Have you ever looked at your sister and seen a might-have-been version of yourself? Did you hold back from discussing her in your book because it’s just too painful? Have you felt a strange connection to your identical twin? Did y…
It is a syntax that cloaks a demand for affirmation: You have. You did.
To which Grealy says: I have not. I did not.
I could never, or at least not in the arena of the podium of a crowded bookstore, get across to my inquisitor that the real story is that there is no story, or at least not the one they’re looking for, the simple story of parts that click together and create a pleasing, distinguishable form. I can’t blame them. Who would want such a story?… I don’t want people to think that what my twin sister really represents for me is an alternative version of the person I’d become, or at least have looked like, had I never had cancer. I don’t want this to be part of my story, her story, our story. Partly, this is a denial that something tragic happened to me, but mostly it is my innate knowledge that the story (the story of my having a twin) is really about something very different from what other people think it is about…. I don’t want people to step into this perceived gap and fill it up with their own ideas and theories.
What she is saying, what Black Beauty is saying, what even that lump of coal is saying, is: this is not your story. This is not the story you came in expecting it to be, and it’s not my job to make it that way. “My sister did not mean for me the things other people told me she should,” Grealy says flatly. That is not her problem: it is yours and mine. The memoir demands that we see the world through someone else, someone who does not necessarily meet a single one of our expectations about how they should think or exist.
It is easier to not to have to ponder such things. But such thought is also the first requirement for empathy—and for not being, in short, thoughtlessly cruel and stupid. The rise of the memoir says something about our capacity for decency toward our fellow horses and humans—about whether we pause to stay our whip hands and our stares—and about whether we can treat each other as beings that are at least as rich and complex as any lump of coal, grain of salt, drop of water, bit of old iron, or piece of flint.
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