Our Horses in Egypt


In my reading of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the tale of WWI widow Griselda Romney's search through Egypt and Palestine for her once-requisitioned horse, there were three phases. During Phase One, which lasted a good eighty or so pages, I had a hard time making headway with Belben's extremely clipped, sparse prose, which reads at times like an upper-class British short-hand complete with in-jokes only marginally comprehensible to a middle-class American like myself. The combination of class-bound obliqueness, horse-specific terminology, and military diction, with some boating lingo and Arabic and Egyptian terms thrown in, makes for an oddly fragmented storytelling medium. Of my partner David, who rode horses as a boy, I kept demanding assistance: "what the hell's a surcingle?" I asked. "And what's a syce, and a snaffle?" "That's ridiculous," he answered, and I pulled a face.

Over time, though, as I relaxed into the prickly language, it began making inroads into my mind. Entering Phase Two, I found myself thinking in the cadences of Belben's prose, narrating my everyday life. The fragmentary style began to seem fitting for a narration of the Great War and its aftermath, evocative of TS Eliot's famous "heap of broken images." I started to connect, a bit bemusedly, with both human and equine protagonists, and to appreciate the bits of humor and social commentary that occasionally leaped out at me from the text. Griselda and her party, for example, are at one point ejected from shipboard for fraternizing with the crew:

       He said, "And on deck! No better than the ship's whore."
       The Purser squinted at Mrs Romney. She appeared to be staggered.
       "Oh," she said, with a dangerous glint, "do you have a ship's whore?"
       The Commander uttered a blustery noice that might have been "yes" and might have been "no."
       He considered that he hadn't responded.
       "Only one?" asked the lady.

Indeed, it was this social commentary, and the questions raised by the contrasting human and animal protagonists, that finally enabled me to enter Phase Three of my Horses in Egypt reading: around the two-thirds mark, I suddenly found myself no longer bemused but passionately engaged with the text. It's a book profoundly concerned with questions of hierarchy, of the thresholds of respect and compassion that allow creatures to see one another as subjective selves, rather than simply useful tools or possessions. It also asks, given the subjectivity of all creatures, when we have the moral right or obligation to prioritize one conscious being over another.

Throughout Griselda's tenure on board ship, for example, her fellow passengers unfailingly question her priorities in uprooting her daughter and Nanny to go look for her former horse, who in all likelihood is not even alive. Before she even leaves, her mother-in-law calls Griselda's behavior "affectation" and an affront to the memory of her husband and brother-in-law, who were killed in the war, to speak of horses in the same breath. Griselda, on the other hand, feels she has a responsibility to a fellow-creature, and that in any case, her husband and brother-in-law definitively "aren't alive, are not living"—what can she do for them now? Griselda's loyalties are to "her own"; so rather than devoting herself to succoring wounded or shell-shocked human war veterans, or those humans left in poverty by the ravages of war, she turns to the horses to whom she committed in a former life:

       "Responsibility," said Griselda. "We can't exercise it for every animal on earth. I don't say that. Do you? For our own, we can!"

This insular, take-care-of-our-own philosophy also means that Griselda seems to accord more "humanity" to her former horses than to people of other classes, ages, or races. At one painful moment she believes she is complimenting a pair of Arab youths by comparing them to horses:

       "I realize," Mrs Romney said, on impulse, "what it is, why you feel such an affinity to your own horses, why you...I'll bet you do!...sit so well and look so natural on horseback: you are like horses yourselves!"
       The triumph of this was dashed, for horror crossed their faces. "But, Mrs Romney," said the one called Mohammed, "that is an insult."

One can see the progression here: for Griselda, her conversation with the brown-skinned boys is increasing her ability to relate to them, just as she can relate to her horses. She tries very awkwardly to communicate this emotion which she feels is understanding or respect. For the boys themselves, obviously, being likened to beasts of burden is insulting. Later in the novel, Griselda's Egyptian guide expresses his horror that she pays buys bread to feed a dying horse: "'People very poor,' said Imran." Even Griselda's attitude toward her own Nanny and daughter seem less compassionate and respectful than her feelings for her lost horse.

Griselda often comes off as naive, overly class-bound, or unfeeling, and yet the very structure of the novel supports her loyalty to the horse Philomena: we get just as much narrative from Philomena's point of view as we do from Griselda's, and the horse suffers the same kinds of war traumas as the soldiers around her: terror, boredom, nightmares, thirst, hunger, physical wounds with a lack of medical attention. She absorbs the prevalent mood, be it exhilaration at a successful rout of the enemy, or exhaustion and depression after a long, futile march. Over the course of the war her ability to form attachments to her riders erodes: by the time she is assigned to young Sage, and despite his assiduous attentions to her, she fails to reward his care with affection, or miss him when he dies in action. These are all the same kinds of symptoms that characterize shell-shock (now PTSD) in human veterans. Philomena has consciousness, intelligence and a sense of self. Not only that, but she shares several specific character traits with her former owner, including sometimes-ridiculous levels of pride, a preference for males over females, and a persistent curiosity. (Of Philomena: "To an animal that was interested (incurably) in all about her, there was much to bewilder her." Of Griselda: "She was so frightfully interested. She'd catch her breath and think, Philomena was here!") Given all this, does it really show poor priorities for Griselda to recognize Philomena's experience, Philomena's claim on her? Are the sufferings of people Griselda has never met more deserving by default, than the suffering of an animal she has known?

Because one must, at some point, choose. As Griselda discovers when she arrives in Cairo and begins to look for Philomena, even an exclusive focus on horse-kind quickly becomes completely overwhelming. There are so many horses living in squalid, abusive conditions, and as her heart begins to expand toward them she finds herself "stricken" by her inability to help them all, or even a significant number of them. At the same time, her failure to compassionate the plight of the Egyptian people, who are in the midst of the 1919 uprisings against the British and many of whom are certainly living in equally poor conditions to their horses, continues to raise questions for the reader. Add to all of this, that the men around Griselda tend to treat her with the same kind of objectifying assumptions she makes toward those of other races and classes, and the overall picture becomes an interlocking box of privilege, compassion and judgment. It is cruel to refuse humane-ness and respect to other conscious, feeling beings; but at the same time, Belben suggests, it is near-impossible to avoid screening someone out—in any set of priorities, someone is at the bottom. To reject priorities completely, to fully assimilate every detail of suffering around one, suggests madness, or at least social transgression (is there always a difference?):

Nevertheless, it wasn't natural to "see." This whipping round at every sound of hoofs, casting one's eyes hungrily, for it was impossible to take everything in at a glance, and she felt more like Amabel, who took ages to drink in every snake or monkey...and being attentive always...It wasn't normal behavior.

So, although Our Horses in Egypt was not always the most welcoming text, I'm glad I stuck with it. There's a lot to unpack here, especially being, myself, a person who often relates more readily to animals than to other humans. Belben has me asking myself whether this means I am soft-hearted, hard-hearted, or just...differently-hearted.


Our Horses in Egypt was the February selection for the Wolves reading group. Apologies that other commitments led to a delay in our posting schedule! Please do join us for Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral; discussion begins Friday, March 25.


  • Your patience was rewarded, Emily. I wish that I had persisted beyond Phase One. The portrayal of Griselda Romney, the cadences of her upper-class diction, was far, far too heavy-handed for me.

    • Anthony, there was a point toward the beginning when I probably would have cast the book aside had it not been my suggestion for the Wolves group, but I'm really glad I persevered. I know what you're saying about the style but once I got past it I did indeed feel the book had a lot to offer.

  • I'm glad you persevered as well, because what you have to say is fascinating. There is, I think, something wonderful about a book in which the writing has the capacity to have you thinking in the cadence of the writer's voice. 'Jane Eyre' always does that for me. I speak and write like Charlotte Bronte for days afterwards. (Well, on the surface at least. I am NOT claiming to be another Bronte:)) And how can you not love a woman who comes out with that remark about the ship's whore. I can also appreciate the dilemma about where the sympathies of the reader should lie. I can imagine the heated debate this would raise if I were to suggest it to my own reading group. There's a lot here to think about. Thank you.

    • Annie, my absolute FAVORITE books all have that quality - getting the authorial voice "stuck in my head" so to speak. It's definitely a good sign when I find it happening with something I'm reading. Woolf's voice is a great example. And yes, despite Griselda often being annoying there are also moments like the ones with the ship's whore conversation where I was heartily on her side. Belben's ability to create a character that careened so wildly between sympathetic and unsympathetic was pretty impressive to me.

  • I do not know what any of those words in the first paragraph mean either, apart from "syce", which I learned from a 1970s Disney film with David Niven. Good times. :p

    • Haha, what DON'T we learn from Disney. "Syce" was also the easiest to gather from context here. I eventually did look up snaffle and surcingle on Wikipedia, and remember just enough to know that they're part of a horse's bridle/saddle assembly.

  • I found Griselda a lot more annoying than you apparently did, Emily--at least, till near the very end of the novel. I loved Belben's experiments with POV, though, as well as her ability to capture Philomena's "perspective" equally as vividly as a human's. The questions you raise about our ability to feel for "our animals" more than other kinds of "human suffering" is another strong suit of the novel, I think. Good stuff for the most part, but I totally understand what Anthony complains about in his comment. That was a very off-putting distraction for me as well.

    • I actually also spend MUCH of the novel feeling annoyed at the humans, Griselda included. I think that didn't come across as much here because the ending was clearest in my mind when I went to write my post, and as you point out she becomes most sympathetic in the final few chapters. Still, there were quite a few moments when I suddenly found myself in sympathy with her. I totally get why Anthony (and Dorothy from Of Books & Bikes, if I recall) would put it aside, but glad I kept reading for all the reasons mentioned here & in your post!

  • Check, check, check! Sounds like we had a very similar reading experience with this one, although I would say that compared to you and Richard, I found Griselda the least annoying. We'll see what Frances and EL Fay feel about her! I love how you pointed out the similarities between Griselda and Philomena - it's hard to get a sense of how much Griselda really cared about Philomena before the war, but I imagine they had an 'understanding'. Thanks again for picking this, and I'm glad you stuck it out. I really enjoyed it.

    • I'm glad you enjoyed this so much despite initial reservations, Sarah. I have never been a "horse person" and was initially wary of a horse protagonist as well, but then became intrigued with the war-time setting and the experimental prose. And I bet Griselda & Philomena had an understanding, as well...I wonder if they had a rocky start given that both of them prefer males?

  • Amazon is having non-delivery issues. But I promise I will get this book posted on as soon as possible. I love both your and Richard's post and want very much to read this.

  • I found the heavy-handedness that Anthony mentions to be my main difficulty with the novel too and not just for the classism it represents but because I thought that Belben forced the moral distinctions, the intentions between humans and animals in a most unnatural way at times. I stuck with it and was more pleased with the read by the end but still felt that the occasional lack of subtlety was odd when found sleeping right next to some simple, elegant prose. A big "Hmmm" for me.

    • Aw, sorry it didn't work as well for you, Frances. I'm really intrigued by where you saw Belben unnaturally forcing those moral distinctions - my experience was one of see-sawing back and forth between sympathy and annoyance with the human characters, so I suppose I didn't see as much one-sidedness or heavy-handedness as you seem to have done. Whether or not Belben was "on Griselda's side" about the whole thing remained an open question for me until the very end; I didn't think she had an easy answer to whether people are or are not more important than animals. Anyway, hopefully March will prove a better month for you after two lackluster Wolves picks! :-P

      • Oh, I liked it well enough. It may have just been my mood which admittedly has not been great lately amidst the piles of work. I suppose I found the forced elements resulted from the people being less than sympathetic and the animals absolutely so. A setup from the beginning.

        • Ah yes, that did actually occur to me while reading as well - although I think it had something to do, as well, with the reader's expectations about humans versus animals. Still, the only time I really disliked one of the horses was when Philomena never rewarded Sage for all his kind attentions.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Our Horses in Egypt, thanks to The Wolves for choosing it. I struggled in the beginning, had to look up many words, then finally gave up and just dove in.

    • Ha, that was my eventual strategy too, Gavin - diving in and trusting things would sort themselves out. So glad you liked this one, and sorry again to be late to the party with our posting schedule. :-)

  • I needed a book group to get me through this one; I can't remember how far along I was when I ditched it, but it probably wasn't far past the first phase you describe here. I'd heard from others that if you can stick with it, it becomes a powerful book, and it's interesting that you make the same claim. It makes me wish I had tried a little harder! But it was feeling like a slog, and I need to stop sticking with slogs.

    • I totally get the need to give up on slogs! I was (eventually) glad I had the peer pressure motivating me to finish it, because indeed it does get powerful toward the end, but it was honestly a pretty long haul for me - 2/3 of the way through a 300-page book.

  • Good to know that should I pick this one up to stick with it and it will improve after the first part. I can completely understand the need to go searching for one's requisitioned horse after the war. I suspect I would have done the same in a similar situation. It sounds like the book raises some interesting moral questions.

    • Stefanie, I would totally be that person too. I have to admit that during Hurricane Katrina I gave money to animal-rescue charities but not human ones. :-P I recommend this book if the beginning doesn't drive you too crazy!

  • You do write such fascinating reviews, Emily. I have all kinds of trouble with language that obscures the narrative and draws too much attention to itself. And having read that criticism in other readings of this book, I have avoided it. Which is a shame as its other concern with sympathy and compassion is hugely interesting to me and I would like to read that part. Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that reading other people's reviews is perhaps the very best way to enjoy this novel...

    • Aw, thanks Litlove! You are in for a treat with your vicarious enjoyment of odd stylists because I'll be writing about Gertrude Stein at the end of the month. :-) Seriously, I actually tend to love books that experiment with style, that do things with language I hadn't experienced before. Still, Belben's wasn't the most natural for me personally, though it did eventually pay off.

  • Interesting conversation. I haven't a copy yet and am pushing through with the TBR Dare so am very sorry that I haven't picked up any Wolves reading in so many months. This has me intrigued. How does a heavy-handed, prickly-prosed book convince you to realize its power in the end?

    • No worries on the TBR Dare front, Claire - we all admire your chutzpah, I'm sure! :-) Will be very curious on your thoughts when/if you get around to Belben. Personally I'm not totally sure I agree with "heavy-handed" as a descriptor, but prickly prose, definitely. Prickly doesn't necessarily equal bad, though.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography