Full spoilers for the entire book below. Proceed with caution.
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Title: Black Beauty
Author: Anna Sewell
Publication Date: November 24, 1877 (novel), 2008 (audio)
Publisher: Jarrold & Sons (novel) BBC Audiobooks, Ltd. (audio)
Narrated By: Nathaniel Parker
Recording time: 5 hrs and 21 mins
The story is narrated in the first person as an autobiographical memoir told by the titular horse named Black Beauty—beginning with his carefree days as a foal on an English farm with his mother, to his difficult life pulling cabs in London, to his happy retirement in the country. Along the way, he meets with many hardships and recounts many tales of cruelty and kindness. Each short chapter recounts an incident in Black Beauty’s life containing a lesson or moral typically related to the kindness, sympathy, and understanding treatment of horses, with Sewell’s detailed observations and extensive descriptions of horse behavior lending the novel a good deal of verisimilitude.
The book describes conditions among London horse-drawn cab drivers, including the financial hardship caused to them by high license fees and low, legally fixed fares. A page footnote in some editions says that soon after the book was published, the difference between 6-day cab licenses (not allowed to trade on Sundays) and 7-day cab licenses (allowed to trade on Sundays) was abolished and the cab license fee was much reduced.
Black Beauty is commonly thought of as a children’s book, however, the well-constructed prose and the novel’s deep moral message makes it an excellent and satisfying read for anyone, of any age. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.
I listened to the audiobook performance of Nathaniel Parker and thought that it was consistently great. His voice is clear, intelligible, and the range of voices he used, for the various characters, were pleasantly distinctive.
The first thing you notice while listening to Black Beauty narrate his autobiography is the effective way that Sewell communicates a denunciation of horse cruelty through the anthropomorphism of the novel’s narrator. However, as the novel continues, you realize that the focus is not limited to how men treat horses. Sewell’s book is also an admonition for human beings to treat each other better, also.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book, Black Beauty runs into a horse, Ginger, that he had known in his youth. She has been so badly mistreated in the intervening years that she tells him when they see each other again she longs for death. He later sees a dead horse that resembles her and says that he hopes it was her. This is deep and dark stuff for a children’s novel, but the message is delivered in a way that I think older children can digest it.
After reading the story, I read up on the novel’s reception and learned that it is now considered one of the most effective and influential arguments against animal cruelty ever made. From wiki:
Upon publication of the book, many readers related to the pain of the victimized horses, sympathized and ultimately wanted to see the introduction of reforms that would improve the well-being of horses. Two years after the release of the novel, one million copies of Black Beauty were in circulation in the United States. In addition, animal rights activists would habitually distribute copies of the novel to horse drivers and to people in stables. The depiction of the “bearing rein” in Black Beauty spurred so much outrage and empathy from readers that its use was not only abolished in Victorian England, but public interest in anti-cruelty legislation in the United States also grew significantly. The arguably detrimental social practices concerning the use of horses in Black Beauty inspired the development of legislation in various states that would condemn such abusive behaviors towards animals. The impact of the novel is still very much recognized today. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Bernard Unti calls Black Beauty “the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time”. Comparisons have also been made between Black Beauty and the most important social protest novel in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, on account of the strong degree of outrage and protest action that both novels triggered in society.
In addition to its commentary concerning animal cruelty, the novel also provides a significant amount of sermonizing regarding the way that people treat each other, focusing in particular on the evils of alcoholism and ignorance, and the need for good men and women to boldly intervene when one sees a wrong being done. Sewell seems to have been particularly focused on the last point as it happens multiple times throughout the story and is applauded each time.
Some of my favorite quotes from the story, to those points, are below:
“There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham – all a sham, James, and it won’t stand when things come to be turned inside out and put down for what they.”
“Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?… It is because people think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrong-doers to light… My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”
“My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”
“If we could act a little more according to common sense, and a good deal less according to fashion, we should find many things work easier.”
“Only ignorance! only ignorance! how can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? — and which does the most mischief heaven only knows. If people can say, ‘Oh! I did not know, I did not mean any harm,’ they think it is all right.”
“He said cruelty was the devil’s own trade-mark, and if we saw any one who took pleasure in cruelty we might know who he belonged to, for the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and a tormentor to the end. On the other hand, where we saw people who loved their neighbors, and were kind to man and beast, we might know that was God’s mark.”
The thing that makes Black Beauty so effective as a commentary on animal cruelty and human behavior is that it shows its message, rather than merely preaching. The first person narration, from a horse, was not silly, nor was it over-wrought. The depictions of its life felt quite authentic. The different types of people that Beauty meets along the way also ring completely true, and ranging from young to old and wise to cruel. The overall arc was also well-constructed. Beauty begins life in an ideal home, meets a harsh and sometimes cruel world, and then miraculously finds himself back in an ideal home again as he meets old age. The emotional impact of this restoration hits hard and it leaves the reader, at the story’s end, wanting to fix the world that made the middle portions of Beauty’s life so difficult.
If you haven’t read Black Beauty, or if you haven’t read it since grade school, I recommend picking it up again.