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“I believe we must have the sort of power over you that we’re said to have over horses”: Virginia Woolf, Feminism, and Horses

About the Author: Jemima Hubberstey

Jemima Hubberstey is in her third year of studying English at the University of Exeter, and is set to graduate in July 2015. Her academic interests include animal studies, the Bloomsbury Group, early modern playwrights, and poetry. She is particularly interested in cultural depictions of horses and women in literature, and has explored the alignment further in early modern theatre for her undergraduate dissertation. Next autumn, she is hoping to begin an MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford, with a view to pursuing a career in research.

By Jemima Hubberstey | General Essays

‘I believe we must have the sort of power over you that we’re said to have over horses. They see us three times as big as we are or they’d never obey us. For that very reason, I’m inclined to doubt that you’ll ever do anything even when you have the vote.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

This quote, from Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, asserts male supremacy and conveniently aligns women with horses. Particular attention to the preposition ‘over’ and the verb ‘obey’ constructs them as submissive subordinates in a male-dominated society. Considering Woolf’s warning to her readers in A Room of One’s Own that the novel’s ‘looking-glass likeness to life’ is filled with ‘distortions and simplifications innumerable’ (76), one should not read this statement from The Voyage Out paradigmatically for the social relations in all of Woolf’s works. Recent critical interest in animal studies provides a useful entry point into examining how far the comparison to animals demarcate social relations within society. While scholars have tended to focus on the canine references in Woolf’s work, little has been uncovered about her references to horses which operate in a different way (Ryan 2; Smith 348). As Tamsin Pickeral identifies, the horse is ‘an integral part of the fabric of man’s life that… has continued to accompany us into the twenty-first century’ (254).  Instead, by dealing thematically with Woolf’s depictions of the horse, it is possible to trace its shifting role in the early twentieth century and the degree to which it becomes entangled in changing social and cultural tensions.

Firstly, early modernist fiction had already begun to problematize the relationship between man and beast. In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Mr Verloc’s failure is signalled with his sensation of an ‘incipient fall’, like ‘your horse suddenly falling dead under you’ (48). Similarly in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Edward Ashburnham’s horsemanship is ridiculed with his concern that intellect ‘might injure his hand… used in connection with horse’s mouths’ (35). Both these novels depict the failing relationship between man and horse as a means of weakening male authority. Through the figures of Jacob in Jacob’s Room and Percival in The Waves, the reader can see a similar destabilising process. Frances Spalding suggests that both these characters return as haunting spectres of Woolf’s deceased brother, Thoby Stephen, since they inspire other characters to idolize them while never having a narrative voice themselves (62). Woolf’s reflections of Thoby and his friends in “Old Bloomsbury” further informs the way in which one interprets these fallen heroes. Woolf refers to one of her brother’s comrades, Clive Bell, as ‘a perfect horseman- a gift which Thoby enormously admired,’ revealing the extent to which horsemanship is aligned with heroism in the imaginations of these bright young men (165). Significantly, Woolf chooses to frustrate their ideal in the figures of Jacob and Percival by drawing attention to their incompatibility with horses. This tension parallels with the paradoxical way that society viewed the horse, in what we might perceive as a dialectic between man and beast. J.M. Taylor’s article in The English Review conveys this discrepancy, suggesting that while it is essential to have ‘sympathy with the dumb beast’, ‘[t]here is no such thing as a safe partnership with a horse; you must be master, or he will be’ (450-1).  By falling from their steeds, Jacob and Percival fail to adhere to the heroic ideal and instead, are disempowered by the very animals that should be their subordinates.

In Jacob’s Room, Woolf constructs the horse as a noble and powerful creature in its own right by internalizing its natural rhythms within the narrative structure. For example, ‘[a] few moments before a horse jumps it slows, sidles, gathers itself together, goes up like a monster wave, and pitches down on the further side.’ (99). Here, the commas could even be seen to denote ‘half-halts’ in equestrian terminology[1]. In conjunction with the lack of rider in this sentence, Woolf implies a degree of autonomy as the horse collects itself in perfect harmony. The fact that the punctuation is perfectly aligned with the acts of motion, suggests its absolute control over its own movements. The comic moment that follows when Jacob ‘galloped over the fields of Essex, flopped in the mud, lost the hunt, and rode by himself eating sandwiches’ is in stark contrast to the earlier depiction of the horse’s controlled and calculated action (91). While the commas relating to the horse harmonize with its movement, there is a notable transition with the introduction of the rider, as the commas denote the incompatibility between man and beast. Moreover, the repetition of plosive consonants ‘galloped’, ‘flopped’, ‘lost’, and ‘hunt’ emphasize the disruptions as Jacob jars against the horse’s natural rhythms.  Jacob’s lack of sympathy with the rhythms of the horse weaken his mastery over the animal and result not only in his fall, but his temporary removal from the social group to which he aspires to belong.

In The Waves, however, Percival’s fall is fatal: ‘“He is dead,” said Neville. “He fell. His horse tripped. He was thrown”’ (84). The reported nature of Percival’s fall reverses the chronology of events, highlighting the shift from Percival as an active subject who ‘is dead’, to his passivity in relation to the horse has ‘tripped’ and ‘thrown’ him. In comparison, the horse possesses dangerous autonomy so that it no longer cooperates with man. While the critic Jane Marcus argues that Percival’s fall parallels with ‘England’s fall from heroic victory,’ her reading fails to account for the way that The Waves explores a perspective that goes beyond a human subjectivity (143). To elaborate, Woolf uses the horse as a figure upon which to shape her imagery of the natural world when she describes how ‘the waves… rippled as the backs of great horses ripple […]. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping’ (83). In this instance, the horse is not simply a domesticated subject, but a wild animal that possesses its own primitive affinity with the environment. Considering Woolf’s statement in “Sketch of the Past” that ‘there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself,’ despite Percival’s death the rhythms of life continue (72). As the critic Derek Ryan points out, Woolf is concerned with ‘world-making, not simply subject-making or word-making’ (2).  By the end of the novel, Bernard searches for something beyond the human: ‘I need a howl, a cry… I have done with phrases’ (Waves 166). Bernard’s charge therefore unites the human with the rhythms of the horse, denoting the way that Bernard becomes a part of the fabric of natural life, charging against the common enemy for any living animal: ‘I strike my spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!’ (167). Although Bernard’s narrative voice dies at the end of the novel, the reader is left with a sense of hope that the natural world will live on. Overall, Woolf uses the rhythms of the horse as a centrifuge away from anthropocentrism, or the belief that man is the central fact of the universe. Thus, by the final sentence ‘The waves broke on the shore’, the human has been rendered insignificant in comparison to the larger fabric of life.

It is important to note that the horse does not simply replace the man as a symbol of power. Woolf’s portrayal of the horse as a mode of transport complicates its place in society and its connection to humankind. In 1926 the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts referred to the motor-car as the ‘mechanical horse’, indicating that the car and the horse compete with each other not only in the same road space, but in the same linguistic space (Paterson 692). In Jacob’s Room, the sanguinary description of the car that ‘throbbed in the courtyard’ is similar to the horse as a living pulsating organism (99). However, it is in The Years that Woolf clearly traces the horse’s gradual displacement. In “1911” the horse’s ‘jog trot’ is described as ‘mechanical,’ anticipating the interchangeability between horse and the car, but more disconcertingly how the horse is disregarded as a living being (169). By “1918” when Kitty looks out of the train window, she observes the ‘fields galloping past’ (238). This is an unusual image, as the verb alludes to an absent horse, in contrast to the train scene in The Waves when Jinny sees a ‘man on a horse’ that ‘plunges as we pass’ (34). That the fields should gallop instead denotes a removal of selfhood that distorts the scene. However, hints of the horse remain embedded in the language, for instance, ‘[t]he car faltered. Cole coaxed her on… as if he were encouraging horses’ (Years 239). Evidently, Kitty’s reliance on the horse in order to naturalize and accept the motor vehicle suggests her uncertainty about modernity. Caught in between tradition and modernity, Woolf uses the horse to emphasize the tensions and inherent insecurities in a society on the cusp of change.

At this point, it is useful to consider how Woolf associates the horse with tradition and the extent to which her work destabilizes its connection with the male-elite. After lunching with the cabinet minister, Herbert Fisher, Woolf remarks in her diary how youthful she feels in comparison, after Fisher had praised the works of Alfred Munnings and showed no understanding of modern art (Diary 2 113). Munnings’s iconic paintings often depict horses as servants of the aristocracy, whose impressive presence denotes the power and prestige of their riders on the hunting field. In comparison, the wild horses depicted in the modern work of Bloomsbury artist, Duncan Grant, suggest that the horse is not a beast to be tamed by man. Grant’s A Prancing Horse (c.1920) is much more hostile as it rears at the viewer. The fierce brushstrokes give the painting a spontaneous energy as though the artist is depicting an instinctive understanding of the horse. It is this image that Woolf takes forward into her works. In fact, her preference for Grant’s work perhaps suggests why her horses struggle to be contained within a domestic framework. Munnings emphasizes the horse’s traditional role as a signifier of elite privilege and domestication, whereas Grant’s depiction of the untamed horse is much more in line with Woolf’s thinking. For both Grant and Woolf, the horse is a wild animal. In the same way that Woolf deconstructs the horse as an elite symbol in order to render it a part of the natural world in The Waves, the next part of this essay will explore how Three Guineas and Between the Acts subvert traditional frameworks in order to destabilize the horse as a symbol of elite power.

In her polemical essay Three Guineas, Woolf attributes war to male-dominated institutions and argues the irrelevance of “patriotism” to the ‘educated man’s sister’ (18). Asserting that ‘scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us’ (14), Woolf supports her claim with the Duke of Portland’s memoirs Men, Women, and Things. Consequently, this warrants closer investigation. Woolf is highly critical of the ‘number of animals killed in England for sport’, but while she provides an exact page reference for the number of animals killed by the Duke and his friends on an average days shooting, her comment about women on the hunting field is dismissed with the generalization that ‘[i]t is highly probable that there was… some connection between sport and unchastity in women’ (265). In any case, the Duke’s shooting parties were not exclusively male, and women were equally capable of killing beasts and birds alongside men. Although the critic Erica Munkwitz has demonstrated the way in which women’s increased participation in hunting over the course of the nineteenth century in fact acted as a social equalizer that levelled out both class and gender (85), Woolf does not sympathise with women who demonstrate the same primitive instincts as men. The question emerges therefore, why Woolf should disregard hunting as man’s habit alone, especially considering that in a letter to Violet Dickinson twenty years earlier, she should ask whether her friend knew of a ‘hunting peeress’ who ‘would part with a thoroughbred on condition that we loved him?’ (Letters 2 23).  The answer perhaps lies in her diary comment that “Horses rule England” (Diary 4 218). With her statement in Three Guineas that for a woman, her ‘country is the whole world,’ Woolf aligns the horse with chauvinistic male power and therefore dissociates it from her female ideal (197).

In Between the Acts, Woolf extends this further by associating the horse with military abuse. Both Stuart N. Clarke and Christine Froula acknowledge that Woolf directly references a real instance of gang rape from The Times in the scene where Isa, the mistress of the house, encounters this story herself in the paper (3; 293). Through Isa, it is possible to see how far women cannot question male authority until it is too late. She reads how a girl is tricked by “troopers [who] told her the horse had a green tail; but she found it was just an ordinary horse. And they dragged her up to the barrack room where she was thrown upon a bed’ (27). Although the reader expects the story to end with the ordinary horse, by following the sentence with the conjunction ‘And’, Woolf adds an unexpected addition to the story, as though to reflect the unnecessary excess of male desire. Given the way that the novel deals with scraps of quotations and literary allusions, the horse with the ‘green tail’ could be an ironic reference to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Fernald 56). In this chivalric romance, the Green Knight rides to King Arthur’s court on a green steed and challenges a knight to cut off his head if that same knight will take a return blow within a year and a day. Sir Gawain accepts this task and demonstrates his loyalty until Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight’s castle, endangers Gawain’s honour by assuring him that he is ‘welcome to my body’ (1237). Here, Gawain’s weakness is at least justified because it is the lady who tempts him. In Between the Acts, the rape implies a complete moral regression. Etymologically, the words ‘cavalry’ and ‘chivalry’ both evolve from the French term for horse, ‘cheval,’ suggesting that the horse was once considered a noble beast that would assist man in his honourable pursuits (chivalry” Def. 1). In contrast with the chivalric ideal, in Between the Acts the ‘green’ horse is exploited by corrupt men to serve their own excessive pursuits.

Elsewhere in Between the Acts, Woolf’s use of ekphrasis, or her literary description of a visual artwork, frames the ways in which men have traditionally appropriated the horse to form a coerced union. Woolf literally explores between the canvases, describing ‘Two pictures [that] hung opposite the window. In real life they had never met, the long lady and the man holding his horse by the rein’ (46). The idea of the pictures coming alive is both imaginative and ludicrous, effectively distorting the stability that one might expect from an old house steeped in tradition. Here Woolf reveals how the patrilineal structure of Pointz Hall, based upon generations of men and their horses, fails to represent the whole family or provide them with a lasting identity. The ancestor is satirized, for the indefinite article ‘a name’ disregards his aristocratic status and significance as his name fails to survive to posterity. In stark contrast, Woolf takes delight in describing the animal’s names, ‘there was only room for Buster… a damned shame to leave out Colin’ (46). In a comic reversal, the animals are given more prominence than the ancestor. In her essay “On a Faithful Friend”, Woolf remarks that ‘there is some impertinence as well as some foolhardiness in the way in which we buy animals for so much silver and gold and call them ours’ (10). Woolf suggests that ownership of an animal is a human construction of power, and playfully explores the possibility that pets might have more importance than their owners. Given Woolf’s remark in A Room of One’s Own that ‘biography is too much about great men,’ we might read her emphasis on naming and including ‘Buster’ and ‘Colin’ in comparison to the ancestor’s anonymity as a reflection that humans only make up a very small part of the natural world (104).

Considering that Between the Acts exposes the way in which male-dominated history has tried to structure society, it seems ironic that Louis Kronenberger should have initially reviewed Woolf’s last novel as preoccupied with the ‘harness of tradition,’ suggesting that Woolf, like a horse herself, is still contained within the very framework that she tries to escape (344).  Certainly, Julia Briggs has made the case that Woolf found it difficult to ‘reconcile the counter-currents of her socialism and, even more, of feminism and modernism with her love of that patriarchal myth of “England”’, and that Woolf’s ‘private vision’ of the country house ‘gathered power from being suppressed’ (202-3). Nevertheless, if we take Woolf’s portrayal of the horse and rider as an archetype for the different tensions at work in her novels, then these readings suggest that, like Taylor’s view of the horse, one must dominate or become dominated. However, Woolf uses the horse to destabilize institutional power and suggest the limitations of human control. Writing in her diary, she employs the horse as a motif for the overriding passions, explaining that ‘galloping horses got wild in my heart last Thursday night’, and ‘I lay in bed reasoning that I could not smash. Death I defy you, &c. But it was a terrific effort, holding onto the reins’ (Diary 4 129). This description resonates both with Bernard’s final charge in The Waves, but also with the passage in Jacob’s Room when the eponymous character is overcome by his primitive nature, realising that ‘there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately… to have- positively- a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over’ (141). The acceptance of the animal passions in itself demonstrates how far civilisation bridles the individual into reason and domestication. This moment of awareness demarcates the extent to which there is a dialectic between man and beast. While one has the potential to exert control over the ‘other’, the horse is not simply a symbol of subjugation. Indeed, Woolf suggests that if mankind cannot fully master the horse, then all we can try to achieve is sympathy with the other components of life.

In considering the significance of the horse in Woolf’s novels, it becomes apparent that there is no singular way of understanding the horse. Indeed, to attribute the horse with a particular meaning would be to limit it within a structure and undermine the very way in which Woolf uses it to destabilize human certainty. By breaking down the rhythms between horse and rider in the figures of Jacob and Percival, Woolf destabilizes the horse as a symbol of elite male power. In contrast, the harmony between Bernard and the horse suggests the possibility of sympathy between man and nature when the power invested in the human is disregarded. While the horse’s position in society is certainly problematized with the arrival of the motor car, the fact that it remains even as a point of comparison reveals a human reliance on the animal to support their own notions of power. As a result, we can perhaps understand why Woolf discredits the connection between women and horses as a means of matching men’s dominance. For Woolf, the issue is not simply replacing patriarchal dominance with a matriarchy, but about being in sympathy with life’s creations. Woolf’s horses undermine and delimit human superiority by reminding the reader that animals are not bound to serve man, but rather possess the potential to return to their primitive natures and break free.


[1] According to Modern Horsemanship: Three Schools of Riding: an Original Method of Teaching the Art by Means of Pictures from the Life (1889), the “half-halt” is defined as ‘uniting the forces so closely that the animal comes to a momentary halt’ (117).

Works Cited

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---        Between the Acts. London: The Hogarth Press, 1941. Print.

---        Jacob’s Room. London: Harper Press, 2013. Print.

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---        “On a Faithful Friend”. Books and Portraits. Ed. Mary Lyon. London: The Hogarth Press, 1977. Print.

---        “Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1976. 61-138. Print.

---        The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2 1920-24. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981. Print.

---        The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 4 1931-35. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. Print.

---        The Waves. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000. Print.

---        The Years. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

---        The Question of Things Happening: the Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume II: 1912-1922. Ed. Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann. London: The Hogarth Press, 1972. Print.

---        Three Guineas. London: The Hogarth Press, 1947. Print.

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