In honour of Anna Sewell‘s birthday today I am reviewing the only book she wrote: Black Beauty. Sewell began writing in 1871 aged 51 but as she grew more ill she was painfully writing notes that her mother typed up, or she was dictating to get her story finished. It is always a little bit wonderful when you read about authors who are still trying to get their story out as they are ill, dying, or incapacitated; it means that they want their story out in the world so much that they will keep going until the end, not give up and leave it unfinished in a pile because it became too hard while they were sick.
Black Beauty is handsome and spirited, with a sweet temper. When he is four years old he is sold to a new owner who gently breaks him in. He is no longer free to gallop around the fields yet there is happiness and adventure among the hardship as his station changes from being a carriage horse on a country estate to a cab horse in town. At the same time he is aware that his well-being and future depend very much on the kindness or cruelty of his various masters.
Black Beauty‘s original title was Black Beauty: The Autobiography a Horse, translated from the original equine. I love this, and Sewell’s approach of using the animal autobiography genre is apparently considered the first of its type. Written over several years, Black Beauty was finally published in 1877. This creates a great setting for the history not only of the use of horses, but the society as well. The way people talk about horses, and using horse driven cabs is a wonderful image to have as the story progresses.
Black Beauty’s story is a gripping yet simple, complex, touching and achingly sad all at once. This is the story of a horse who goes through life working for many people, doing and seeing many things, and understanding the life, hardships, and joys of being a horse. It is a beautiful story, nothing is hidden and everything is laid bare, and that is why it is amazing.
I liked the way that Sewell did not shy away from the facts about life and about horses; facts are facts and the era of writing does play a role, but Sewell also set out to write a story directed at all those who worked with horses. I read that her intention was to promote the humane treatment of horses, and apparently Black Beauty is credited with having the greatest effect on the treatment of animals of any publication in history, resulting in changing the public attitude, as well as creating legislation to protect horses. That’s pretty amazing for her only book, and she didn’t even live to see the full impact it had.
People often get upset and mention how horrified they were about certain parts in this book, and I won’t lie, there are some bad moments where horse mistreatment is shown to various levels. However, as shocking and blunt these sometimes can be, they are not an ongoing focus. There is a lot of talk about cruelty, but there are equal amounts that show kindness and compassion. The sentiments mentioned in this story may seem cruel, but this book was also written in a time when this was the way of the world; and Sewell spends just as much time telling us that if horses were treated better than these situations would not be called for.
And while there is abuse, there is also a strong sense of justice for that cruelty that is more important. Throughout Black Beauty people are being reprimanded for whipping too much, jailed for mistreatment of horses, and people on the street have no issue pulling up riders or drivers who are being cruel. That is why this book is powerful, it shows the cruelty but also the consequences.
Black Beauty begins his story in a loving home where he is taught the ways of the world by his mother. She tells him to be “gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with good will.” Throughout this book he uses this advice to be the best horse he can be no matter what his situations and what he is required to do. As he changes home and he experiences new things he keeps this in mind, always trying his best.
What I found very interesting is that Black Beauty is given many names through this book, he begins his life as Darkie, and as he grows older and sold he is renamed Black Beauty, as well as Jack, Black Auster and others. But there is a reason the book is called Black Beauty, I never could figure out why but when I finished it this time I realised and understood, and that made it so much more wonderful.
What I also found heartbreaking but terribly sweet was when he was being sold once more at a horse fair. Being an older horse with injury and having recently come from a hard life, it was moving but beautiful as he says that his new owners “made as much of me as if I had been the ‘Black Beauty’ of olden time.” There is so much said in those words. He never lets his spirits down and he remains as good a horse as his mother wished through all he has been through, yet he knows why he is not as glamourous as he was. It is a true testament that he keeps his head high and makes the best of it all, but in the flickering moment he remembered his past with the meadow, his friends, and the love and affection he received from his master. Sewell manages to mean so much by saying so little, it is beautifully touching some of the things in this book.
Sewell is also very good a segues, Beauty’s voice is telling us his story and Sewell paces it right and places everything where it needs to be to make the story flow smoothly. Nothing is interrupted, yet nothing is left out either. She captures all parts of life, other horse experiences and their own stories. Through a horse’s eyes a person is judged in many ways in terms of their character. Beauty often gives people a well assessed judgement and we are shown why that judgement stands. Even in short paragraphs and a few lines Sewell can make it seem like we’ve gotten all we need to know about a person based on how a horse sees them.
The details in this story are also amazing, whether it is in the narrative or listening to another horse tell their story. Horses notice everything, the feeling of the human touch, kindness and pain. Sewell captures these beautifully and demonstrates that horses base their opinions on people not by who they are so much, but by how well they treat their horse. Through this technique you also see the horses reactions to war, ill-treatment, old age, and illness.
Other people have kept writing the Black Beauty story, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to read these other adventures, or read extended version about what occurred in the book, leaving the beautiful story as it is is enough for me, there is so much heart in the original that by adding to it will spoil it. There have also been multiple movie and television versions of Black Beauty, and I have never seen a film version I didn’t like, and only a handful I’ve seen have made minor changes to the plot as far as I could tell. I think with a story like this either reading it or watching it can be hard. It is really up to the individual, but when it is done well, it can be equally as wonderful as the book.
Happy Birthday Anna Sewell, it is sad you did not live long enough to see the effect your book had on the world, but I thank you for writing it.