It was Valentine’s Day a few days ago, so Danielle Sanchez, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Historifans, thought it was the perfect opportunity to sit down with Dr. Jennifer Golightly, Digital Liberal Arts Specialist and British literature aficionado at Colorado College, to chat about gender, romance, and horses in popular culture and literature.
Danielle Sanchez: Why are horses so synonymous with Georgian-era England in pop culture?
Jennifer Golightly: My suspicion is that they’re relatively easy symbols for things that we in the 21st century associate with Britain in that period, especially wealth and the landed aristocracy. Horses can also be a shorthand in pop culture for distant historical periods, whether it’s people riding horses or using them to pull carriages. Thus it’s not uncommon to find representations of eighteenth-century subjects in pop culture coupled with horses and horseback riding. Plus, as we’ve seen most recently in the second season of Bridgerton, these associations of horses and wealth are often coupled with suggestions of sex: Kate Sharma (played by Simone Ashley) and Anthony Bridgerton (played by Jonathan Bailey) first meet as she gallops before dawn on horseback—riding astride and even jumping hedgerows, all of which combines with other visual cues such as her loose curls, her exposed ankle and leg, and the open field and forest they’re riding through to signal to us that Kate is unconventional, that she is passionate, sexual, and ungovernable. Downton Abbey plays on this theme a bit as well with Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery). She is the only one of the Crawley sisters who we see riding and participating in the hunt with the men in the first season of the show, and though all of the Crawley sisters are unconventional and even unconventionally sexual, Mary is, especially in the first season, the most assertive of the three, and her horseback riding underscores this aspect of her character in addition to connecting her to Downton and to her family’s history as scions of the Yorkshire landed aristocracy.
DS: Does all of this tie into the idea that if a woman doesn’t ride sidesaddle, she is not a virtuous woman?
JG: Riding astride (in theory at least) meant that you couldn’t wear a dress or a skirt and thus wore breeches like a man, so that’s already potentially evidence of a lack of virtue. When you couple that with the suggestions of sex that come with a woman straddling a horse, it’s easy to see how assumptions about questionable chastity might follow women who rode astride rather than sidesaddle. This became a huge issue, actually, during Marie Antoinette’s period as dauphine of France, in the first several years after her marriage to Louis XVI. According to Caroline Weber in Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, Marie Antoinette was a fairly avid horse rider after her arrival in France, but her riding and the riding costume she increasingly preferred–riding astride in breeches–spurred gossip about power dynamics in her marriage and was connected with her apparent inability to conceive a child.
DS: I never thought I would say these words, but… could you please tell me more about Marie Antoinette’s breeches?
JG: Weber writes that Marie Antoinette used her riding and her preference for riding in breeches as a way of communicating her independence from and even disregard for the extremely ceremonial forms of dress that were de rigueur at Versailles in the reign of Louis XV. Marie Antoinette was also the origin of the redingote, a highly fashionable style of women’s dress based on a military-inspired riding costume—there are many portraits of high society British women dressed in redingotes, including Seymour, Lady Worsley, whose infidelity and subsequent abandonment of her husband and marriage resulted in one of the most notorious criminal conversation trials in the late eighteenth century in Britain.
DS: I’m fascinated by the distinction between lived experiences in the Georgian era and how it is represented in literature. If we just look at horseback riding and women, what are some of the key differences you see between literature and daily life in the 18th and early 19th century?
JG: It was not uncommon for women of a certain social class to ride horses in the historical period, but it’s less common to find depictions of women in art and literature riding them. When these depictions do exist, it often signals a kind of subversion of heteronormative gender roles. For example, most references to horse riding in Jane Austen’s novels pertain to the male characters while the female characters who ride are relatively few. In Sense & Sensibility, Willoughby presents Marianne with a mare for her to ride, and Marianne promises Elinor she can gallop the horse, too, but we never see this happen. Jane Bennet rides a horse to Netherfield from Longbourn in the rain and gets sick in Pride & Prejudice, and much is made of the little horse that Edmund Bertram reserves for Fanny’s use at Mansfield Park to improve her delicate health. In other novels of the period, horse riding can mark women as what were termed “Amazons,” with the suggestion of lesbianism, as in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, where Harriet Freke often dresses in men’s clothing, particularly riding clothes, and challenges (female) foes to duels. In other novels, such as Frances Burney’s Cecilia or Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, horse-riding signals that the female character doing it is flighty and thus potentially morally lax.
DS: How are depictions of women riding horses in 18th century literature different from contemporary pop culture representations of this time period?
JG: I think a primary difference is their relative frequency—depictions of women riding horses in literature of the 18th century, especially the late 18th century, are fairly infrequent, though they are there. In pop culture, depictions of eighteenth-century women riding horses are more frequent. Both literary representations from the period and contemporary pop culture representations are sometimes used to indicate sexuality. In literature of the period, depictions of women riding horses are more often tied to a kind of culturally specific suggestion about masculinized women, whereas contemporary representations in pop culture seem to suggest an exaggerated and passionate heterosexuality.
DS: Why should we care about horses when we are thinking about gender?
JG: Horse-riding has always been associated with danger, excitement, masculinity—there are a lot of depictions of men in art and literature looking very masculine on horseback—and, for women, with unconventionality and often heightened sexuality. Whether you’re reading eighteenth-century texts, looking at visual art, or watching depictions of the period in pop culture, seeing horses is a kind of cue to certain associations in our minds. The literature of the period used depictions of horses to signal to viewers or readers the type of femininity or masculinity being portrayed—and I think there was a range of types portrayed, so this wasn’t binary or simplistic. Austen’s Fanny Price rides horses to improve her strength and health, and this is in part a nod to ideas about the importance of physical “exertion” for women made popular by Wollstonecraft in the 1790s. At the same time, Harriet Freke’s striding about in men’s riding breeches is clearly meant to indicate that Harriet is masculine, potentially lesbian, and that her character is problematic. In popular culture today, horses contribute to a portrayal of rugged, virile heterosexuality when there are men riding horses (such as the horse-riding male protagonists of Austen films) and often increased sexuality and sexual availability for heterosexual women (think Kate Sharma in Bridgerton).
DS: Finally, what is your favorite horse in pop culture and/or literature?
JG: It has to be Don Quixote’s Rosinante. I always loved him, poor boy, because though Don Quixote imagines him as a blazing steed, he is in reality a sway-backed, older horse without much muscle tone or stamina. But he’s a good horse, and he tries hard for Don Quixote, as so many horses do for their riders even when they can’t or shouldn’t. I also love George Stubbs’s paintings. His horses have so much life and character, even now.
Jennifer Golightly has a PhD in eighteenth-century British literature. Her publications include The Family, Marriage, and Radicalism in British Women’s Novels of the 1790s: Public Affection and Private Affliction (Bucknell UP, 2012), “Reproduction in the Novels of the 1790s,” in The Secrets of Generation: Reproduction in the Long Eighteenth Century (U of Toronto P, 2015), and, most recently, “Gender Performance and the Spectacle of Female Suffering in Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Emma Corbett” in Female Transatlantic Travelers 1688-1843. She has taught classes on writing, research, the novel, early eighteenth-century prose fiction by women, Restoration drama, and material culture since 2001, is a fan of period films and miniseries–The Favourite and Bridgerton are some recent favorites–and just began riding six months ago after spending years watching her daughter do it.