In recent criticism, arguments about whether domesticity in The Wide, Wide World (1850) empowered or disempowered women, and whether it was embraced or critiqued by Warner and her contemporaries, have been founded upon, or at least buttressed by, readings of horses and horsemanship. The interpretation of Ellen Montgomery's riding lessons as a metaphor for her disempowerment, and the ubiquitous denunciation of John Humphreys as "brutal horse-beater," however, have little grounding in the nineteenth-century horsemanship on which Warner drew. While for centuries horses in Western culture had been associated with human passions and horsemanship with their forcible domination, a combination of new methods for disciplining equines and new forms of recreational riding rendered the equine body, in the nineteenth century, discursively situated to communicate the internalized discipline and self-regulation that was necessary to make a human body middle class. Through horseback riding and other lessons, Ellen attains the particular mental and bodily development necessary for her to become a proper, sentimental, middle-class woman who is inserted into a network of power relations-a network in which Ellen attains power over other kinds of women who fail to meet the standards that she does. Historical contextualization also reveals that John's horsemanship accords quite well with nineteenth-century standards and would not have been seen as abusive by his contemporaries. As nearly all arguments about The Wide, Wide World's resistance to domestic ideology have been predicated upon John's propensity for horse-beating, this essay calls for a reexamination of what has become a principal claim of Warner criticism.
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