Black Beauty's Appeal and Flaws

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      Anna Sewell wrote just one novel in her life, most of it composed as she suffered the effects of a debilitating disease. There is a passion evident in her writing, more than likely created by her sense of urgency in communicating a lesson she felt compelled to deliver to the world before dying. In her earnest attempt to appeal to all horse owners to treat their animals in a more humane manner, much of the prose in Sewell’s book is recorded in a didactic tone. Messages against animal cruelty are paramount, of course, but there is also other subtle moralizing going on here, making some of the reading, in contemporary times, a little hard to swallow. The author’s emphasis on teaching specific lessons has also resulted in characters who fit all too comfortably into stereotypical forms. The good characters, for instance, are very, very good, and the few others who do not match this mold are totally and mercilessly corrupt. But despite the novel’s shortcomings, this story has a very specific quality that has allowed it to continue to inspire the very young at heart for more than one hundred years after it was written. So what then is the appeal? Why does this story still engage its modern audience far removed from the times and social issues that plagued the world of the nineteenth century?

      The sole purpose of Sewell’s novel was to make people take better care of their horses. And one way that Sewell attempts to do this is to make the animals in her story appear more human. She wanted her audience to look at animals as creatures who had thoughts and feelings; rather than seeing them as if they were machines, created to do the work that humans were incapable of doing on their own. As seen through Sewell’s eyes, horses were often treated as slaves in her time. Little or no thought was rendered by horse owners as to the effect that their cruelty was having on the physical and mental attitude of their animals. Sewell’s hope was that she might change all that.

      Another thing that Sewell does in order to open the hearts of her readers is to tell her story through the eyes of a beautiful and sensitive horse. In reading this novel, audiences experience every joyful and every sorrowful moment of Black Beauty’s life as if they were living through the same situations of the protagonist. The horse, although he is never made into a cartoon character who talks, does, however, speak his mind in this story. He does so through what might be called his intended thoughts, which he is able to share with other animals. In this way, Sewell makes Black Beauty appear human in his reactions and emotions. This is not a talking-horse gimmick, however, because Black Beauty never exposes his thoughts to the human characters in the novel, except through his gestures, which any horse might make—a nudging with his nose, a neigh, a tossing of his head. Sewell does not, in other words, remove Black Beauty from his “horseness.” Rather, she situates him in a very definite horse world but then imbues him with a soul, a spirit that is related to that of every living creature on earth. In this way, Sewell arouses more sympathy or empathy for her protagonist; and this is seen most evidently in children who hear or read the story of Black Beauty.

      Not only does Sewell provide an avenue into the mind and heart of her protagonist through his thoughts, she also gives her readers quite an extensive biography of Black Beauty. Readers are introduced to him shortly after he is born. There is even mention of his lineage, supplied not just to give readers an account of his pedigree, but to place Black Beauty in a family—to connect him to a mother and father. This provides a subtle reference for young readers. Black Beauty does not just appear out of nowhere. He is not just a horse, he is also a son and a grandson. His mother was, at one time, pregnant with him, just as children have been told that their mothers once carried them. And like their mothers, Black Beauty’s mother carried him, gave birth to him, and nursed him. This also provides Black Beauty with a history, which adds more depth to his character. Beginning a story in this way especially grabs the imagination of children, who are still very much attached to their parents. Then, as the story progresses, young readers relate to Black Beauty’s youth. For example, they associate with the feelings of Black Beauty as he plays in the field as a young colt. And Sewell masterfully intensifies these feelings when she provides a playground setting (for horses, that is) and even includes a neighborhood bully who throws stones at the young colts. Young readers, once again, are pulled into the story through these details. Every schoolyard has a bully, so every child can connect with the young colt as he faces this challenge. And when the “master” comes to the rescue of Black Beauty and the other young horses by banishing the bully from the fields where the young horses play, children cheer the strength and power of the good master and protector. This master represents a sense of security for children reading this book. They would like to believe that at every moment that they are challenged by a bully, they too would be protected by some powerful master.

      Black Beauty’s mother hits another nerve for young readers. She is represented as a loving and gentle counsel for the young horse. She provides instructions about life that Black Beauty never forgets. In the very beginning of the story, Black Beauty’s mother tells him: “I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play.” Ignoring the mention of “lifting your feet up,” most children reading this story will reflect on similar advice that their mothers have provided them. And as youngsters continue to read the story, they have many opportunities to remember these words of Black Beauty’s mother’s counsel. Just as children are often heard speaking to their dolls, repeating advice that their parents have given to them, they might also find themselves silently reminding Black Beauty (as the story progresses) that he must always be good no matter what circumstances he finds himself in. And in this way, they, like the master who chases away the bully, take on the role of Black Beauty’s protector. So now young readers are relating to the story on two levels: they personally identify with Black Beauty’s need to find love, friendship, and a safe home; and on a second level, they take on the responsibility of guiding Black Beauty in the right direction. When Black Beauty gets into trouble or in a tough situation, children have an urge to tell him to always be good and never to bite or kick. So as the story develops, so does the emotional grasp on children’s attention, as their feelings deepen and become more complex.

      With these two caps on, the first one relating on a personal level with Black Beauty and the second one playing out the role of Black Beauty’s protector, young readers are set for the journey that Black Beauty will now take. The next challenge that the horse must face is that of discipline—Black Beauty must be “tamed.” The descriptions of this process are reminiscent, in general, of lessons that all children must learn. Black Beauty’s training includes wearing things that do not seem natural to him, such as a rein and a saddle. Children can relate to this in a different way, such as perhaps when they are forced to put on raincoats and boots before going outside in a warm summer rain. Black Beauty also has to learn to “go just the way they (adults who ride him) wish and to go quietly.” What child has not heard these admonishments? So again, children anticipate what Black Beauty is feeling. They understand how much they are torn when presented with a chance to do something their way but must take into consideration their parents’ needs. They know how difficult it can be when they do not obey their parents and other adults around them; and they also know how thorny the consequences might be if they do not behave according to adults’ wishes. This is a process of growing up and learning the rules of society. And even though children might not fully understand all the implications of the discipline they are taught, they know exactly how it feels to go through the “taming.”

      Black Beauty’s next challenge is also one that children know about. That is the act (and fear) of leaving home. Whether, for children, it is going to a babysitter or going to school, leaving home is a trip into the unknown. So when Black Beauty moves away from his mother and is taken to Birtwick Park to his new owners, young readers fully empathize with him again. They completely understand the empty feeling that Black Beauty might be experiencing, as he has to say farewell to the people and the animals that he has known all his young life. And when he arrives at his new destination, as any child would do, Black Beauty assesses his new environment; judges the comfort level of his surroundings and the quality of the food and care; and then searches for friendship. And it is through one of Black Beauty’s new friends, especially Ginger, that children experience a new revelation. Ginger gives them a chance to reflect on some of their own behavior patterns. For here, in Ginger, is an explanation that children can handle concerning their own bouts of anger and lashing out that might temporarily corrupt their ordinarily good behavior. While Black Beauty represents the always-be-good aspect of their personalities, Ginger clarifies some of children’s other more destructive emotions.

      No matter how much he or she is loved or how well she or he is trained, no child is good all the time. Grumpiness or moodiness can invade a child’s more pleasant nature from time to time. Seldom do young children fully understand where these moods come from or why they have clouded their minds, but they definitely recognize them. And Ginger provides young readers with a prime example of “naughtiness.” Ginger has not been raised well; and so she is not very trusting of the humans or the animals around her. She is known to bite and act unruly. Ginger arouses a lot of questions in children. They want to know why she is acting that way. Why is she not as good as Black Beauty? When adults provide answers such as the fact that someone has not been nice to Ginger, children immediate get it. They understand what it feels like to have someone do something unkind and how that can generate ill feelings in themselves. And as the friendship develops between Ginger and Black Beauty, and Ginger becomes more accepting of her surroundings and thus behaves better, children often nod their heads, comprehending how powerful a good friendship can be. They might not fully understand how good emotions can banish, or at least minimize, bad ones, but they can feel it.

      And thus, young readers are introduced to the characters of this story. By the end of the first part of this novel, they are totally entrenched in the life of Black Beauty. On a simple level, their interest is sparked. And on a more complex level, they have fallen in love with the beautiful protagonist. They eagerly want to follow Black Beauty through all his adventures. They want to console him when he falls and hurts his knees or when he must once again say good-bye to friends. They are very cognizant of both of these painful experiences. They feel sorry for him when he must pull heavy weights, stand outside all night, and bear the chill of a winter’s harsh storm. Sewell has carefully crafted a story that has pulled them in and will not let them go. The author, through her careful and affectionate rendering of a sad story with a somewhat happy ending, knew how to tug at her readers’ hearts. One can only surmise that she was capable of doing this because her own heart ached for the animals that she had learned to love. And although her style of writing may have some flaws, her ability to convey her love of Black Beauty to her audience, especially to a group of readers as sensitive as young children, is a well honed skill.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Black Beauty, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

The Moral Lessons in Black Beauty

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Lois Kerschen

Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, Kerschen discusses the moral lessons, particularly about temperance, that Sewell incorporates into Black Beauty.

      In the first chapter of Black Beauty, Anna Sewell provides her hero with a wise admonition from his mother: “I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will.” This advice may have come from an equine mother, but it is the kind of moral instruction that humans could use as well. It was Sewell’s stated intent to write a book that would “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.” That is, the subject was not horses, but the treatment of horses, and therefore the book was a set of instructions for humans. In the process, Sewell set forth not only the proper care of horses, but the proper behavior of humans in other areas as well.

      Considering Sewell’s intent for the novel, it is reasonable to believe that an appropriate audience would be the adults, particularly men, who worked with and cared for horses. However, the book is traditionally classified as a juvenile novel and was actually used for moral instruction in schools. As Lucy Grealy noted in her “Afterword” to a recent edition of Black Beauty, the Education Act of 1870, which legally established public education in England, “meant that a huge amount of educational material was needed, and Black Beauty, viewed as a morally correct book, was eventually being sold by the box rather than the volume.” After all, the book contains lessons such as the following from Chapter Three: “She told me the better I behaved, the better I should be treated, and that it was wisest always to do my best.” This kind of instruction is wise counsel for school children as well as colts, and the schools hoped their pupils would perceive the application to their own lives. It is also helpful to warn children as well as young horses that

There are a great many kinds of men; there are good, thoughtful men . . . ; but there are bad, cruel men. . .; there are a great many foolish men, vain, ignorant and careless, who never trouble themselves to think; but still I say, do your best, wherever it is, and keep up your good name.

      While much of the book is devoted to exposing the various types of cruelty imposed on animals, Sewell expands the point about animal abuse in Chapter 13 to connect it to a general moral deficiency. The chapter is titled “The Devil’s Trade Mark” because the schoolmaster who punishes a boy for torturing flies equates hurting the weak and helpless to the hard-heartedness and cowardliness that is the devil’s trademark in a person. The teacher says that “the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and a tormentor to the end.” In contrast, God’s mark is love. When John Manly hears about the incident from James he agrees that people can talk all they want about religion but: “There is no religion without love . . . if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.” James later asks John if he holds with the saying that a man should look after himself only and “take care of number one.” John replies that such thinking is selfish and heathenish.

      Sewell created the character of Jerry Barker to supply most of her lessons on honesty and integrity. In scene after scene, Jerry makes decisions based on his strong moral convictions with statements including: “Every man must look after his own soul; you can’t lay it at another man’s door like a foundling, and expect him to take care of it”; “If a thing is right, it can be done, and if it is wrong, it can be done without; and a good man will find a way.” He will not take extra fare for extra effort because he finds sufficient reward in a job well done. Jerry also will not work on Sundays, not only because he believes the day is for church and family, but also because he is sensible enough to know the he and the horses must have a day of rest to stay healthy and work well the rest of the week. When he is criticized by his fellow drivers for turning down a good job just because it is on Sunday, Sewell uses Jerry to voice further lessons: “Real religion is the best and truest thing in the world; and the only thing that can make a man really happy, or make the world better.”

      Jerry once broke his Sunday rule to drive a friend to her dying mother’s bedside. Sewell makes certain that this good deed is rewarded with a refreshing day in the country for Jerry and Beauty. Another good deed with fortunate consequences is that of driving a mother with her sick child to the hospital for no fee. This charitable act results in a chance encounter with Mrs. Fowler, his wife’s former employer, that reinforces their relationship and will later tie into the rescue provided by Mrs. Fowler when Jerry becomes too ill to continue work as a cab driver.

      Knowing that Black Beauty would be her only book, Sewell apparently wanted to include as much as she could on various subjects. Therefore, to express her opinion about the importance of elections, there is a chapter on the heightened activity for cab drivers on election day, and Sewell uses Jerry to teach that: “An election is a very serious thing; at least it ought to be, and every man ought to vote according to his conscience, and let his neighbour do the same.”

      Sewell inserts other good people into the book to deliver lessons. Jerry’s customer who stops an inebriated driver from whipping his horses brutally tells Jerry:

People think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrong-doer to light. I never see a wicked thing. . . without doing what I can. . . . 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.

      One of the strongest themes in Black Beauty is that of temperance. A major turning point in the story occurs when Beauty’s knees are ruined in an accident caused by a drunken groom. To build up the tragedy of the accident, Sewell describes the groom Reuben Smith in glowing terms concerning his abilities and personality but notes that “he had one great fault, and that was the love of drink.” Smith could be fine for weeks at a time, but then go on a binge and “be a disgrace to himself, a terror to this wife, and a nuisance to all that had to do with him.” Smith had already been dismissed from another position because of a drunken incident, and it caused his family to have to move out of a nice cottage. York had hired him out of pity when Smith promised never to take another drink. However, Sewell’s depiction of the incident with Smith shows how alcoholism causes broken promises and broken lives.

      Sewell drops other negatives images of alcohol consumption throughout Black Beauty. Sometimes her mention is slight, as when Beauty is explaining that one problem with getting sufficient water is that “[s]ome grooms will go home to their beer and leave us for hours with our dry hay and oats and nothing to moisten them.” In the scene in which Joe Green witnesses a man beating his horse, the abuser was described as being in “a towering passion, and the worse for drink.” When one of Jerry’s customers sees a horse being abused and intervenes, the driver is described as someone “who had clearly been drinking.” It was a drayman who “proved to be very drunk” who was responsible for the accident that so injured Captain that he had to be put down.

      In her description of Governor Grant, Sewell says that he is “generally a good-humored, sensible man.” She adds, however, that when he drinks too much, he becomes short-tempered and combative. Sewell has Grant ask Jerry how he overcame the habit of drinking so that she can provide a prescription for a cure. Jerry says that when he realized that he was no longer his own master “I saw that one of us must knock under—the drink devil, or Jerry Barker.” He admits that it was a struggle, but with Polly’s help and the knowledge that he might lose her and his soul to drink if he did not stop, he succeeded.

      A review of Black Beauty in Children’s Books and Their Creators mentions that “[s]ome critics have felt that Sewell’s preaching fatally flaws her narrative.” Perhaps Sewell anticipated this criticism because she uses a somewhat indirect method to deliver her moral messages. The sermonizing about good conduct is not made as a direct plea but comes as opinions expressed by human characters that the horses overhear. Thus, the horses appear to be objective observers of the human scene and are merely reporting the conversations they have heard.

      Even if Sewell was a little obvious in her intent to preach right conduct, one cannot argue with the positive results, not only for horses but for the cab drivers’ situation that she highlighted as well. The sympathy that was evoked resulted in the building of shelters for the drivers where they could find respite and instruction in religion and temperance. By adding the element of a human plight in a book about the harsh treatment of horses, Sewell provided a balance to the message of the novel and enriched it with a portrayal of the complexity of the relationship between humans and animals.

      Grealy studied a number of introductions that have appeared in various publications of Black Beauty. As time passed and literary fashion changed, the conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the novel also changed. Grealy found that critics began to focus “not so much on the human failings depicted in the book as they did on the high morals of Beauty himself.” Beauty’s virtues are designed not only to persuade people that animals deserve to be treated well, but are intended to be applied to humans, too, concerning “how we ourselves must value honest and hard work under disagreeable circumstances.” Therefore, the early response to the book to use it as moral instruction in schools was an understandable and valid reaction. All literature is intended to help the reader to learn and grow, and there are enough lessons about animals and people, about the challenges of life, to give Black Beauty timeless value.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Black Beauty, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

The Horse's Point of View

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      The author who decides to tell a story from the point of view of an animal has some tricky challenges. Somehow, the author must use this point of view so that it enhances, rather than detracts from, the story that the author puts on the page. But having an animal as a story’s main point of view character also lends advantages. Because of an animal’s assumed innocence (in comparison to humans, in this case), the author might more easily make points in the story that could appear preachy or dogmatic if these points were made through a human character. In Black Beauty, Sewell uses circumstance and Black Beauty’s point of view to effectively make statements about morality, animal treatment, and class division. Sewell uses the horse’s point of view to her advantage, and as a result, none of the book’s statements about these issues sound overly dogmatic. These issues would run the risk of sounding too much like the author’s opinion, if they were voiced through a human character.

      Almost immediately, the reader is made aware of the importance of class in the setting of this story. Even among horses, class and breeding are quite important. Black Beauty’s mother tells him that he is “well-bred and well-born,” and she warns him not to bite or kick in play, as the cart horses (who have not learned manners) do.

      In Black Beauty, some members of the upper classes will go to any length to appear fashionable. These people are not above making their horses suffer, for the appearance of an upturned neck. Such people force their horses to walk unnaturally all for the sake of appearance. Sewell’s detail makes these examples all the more effective, as in the case of Ginger. Ginger is driven with the painful check rein.

Fancy . . . if you tossed your head up high, and were obliged to hold it there, and that for hours together, not able to move it at all except with a jerk still higher, your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it. It was worse when we had to stand by the hour, waiting for our mistress at some grand party or entertainment.

      Sewell’s detail helps the reader imagine just how painful it could be for a horse to hold its head up continuously, even though the same reader may previously have been ignorant of check reining, and may have imagined that the horse simply looked good with its head forced upright. For additional contrast, the horse is forced to suffer to support the mistress’s upper class lifestyle and entertainment. Cruel humans can be male or female in Sewell’s world, and women who mistreat horses in Black Beauty do so for the sake of fashion and appearance.

      Fashion, and its effect on horses, shows up in many variations in Black Beauty. An old horse has his tail painfully docked, and is outraged that it was done “for fashion!” The horse notes that this is done on dogs’ ears and tails, causing the animals great pain. And with the subtle irony that Sewell occasionally slips into this story, the old horse mentions that none of the puppies were drowned, “for they were a valuable kind.” Animals that have some value, or are perceived as fashionable, are kept by humans, though they are subjected to the pain of docked tails and ears. Animals that are not valuable, or fashionable, are easily expendable. The old horse sums it up by saying that “fashion is one of the wickedest things in the world.” And reasonably—and it does seem reasonable from Sewell’s well-portrayed animal point of view—the old horse wonders why humans do not dock their own noses for the sake of fashion or to look “plucky.”

      Sewell makes it apparent to the reader, via situations that the horses observe or are involved in, that the world includes people who are mean to animals, as well as people who care about animal welfare. In the first chapter, Beauty mentions a ploughboy who purposefully throws sticks and stones at the colts to make them gallop. Sewell contrasts the ploughboy’s behavior with his master’s. The master admonishes the boy and fires him. Sewell does two things here to effectively convey a message about the treatment of animals; she contrasts the boy’s bad behavior with a boss who is willing to fire the boy, and she presents the whole event through the eyes of Black Beauty. If Sewell had made a blunt statement directly to the reader about humans’ cruelty to animals, it is likely that the reader would feel preached at. Readers do not appreciate being given a sermon by the author. The event may have seemed preachy if it had been told to the reader through the point of view of the farmer, for example. But because the reader assumes that a horse is naturally more innocent, and less judgmental and cynical than a human, the same event through the eyes of a horse is more effective. The horse is simply observing. Sewell uses this technique throughout the book to show the reader instances of friction among the classes, the importance of appearance, and ethical and moral attributes of other people in the story.

      Early on, Black Beauty’s mother prepares the young horse for the world of humans. She tells him that there are “good, thoughtful men” and “bad, cruel men.” Beauty will soon learn this for himself, since Sewell peppers the book with both good and bad people. Throughout this story, Sewell constantly reminds the reader that humans consider themselves superior to the “dumb” animals that live around them. In the hunt that occurs early in the book, Black Beauty and his mother see a horse and a man die. If this incident were told through the point of view of a human, the reader would not find it unusual for more emphasis to be placed on the human’s death (rather than the horse’s death). But because the event is seen and experienced through the eyes of the horses, the reader realizes that the horses are just as upset (and possibly more upset) about the horse’s death. This forces the reader to realize that in a human mindset, man (in this case) is considered more important than horse. The reader also cannot fail to miss the irony that the man is attended much more quickly than the horse is. The horse is left groaning in the field, until the farrier comes to look at the injured animal. Again, because the reader sees this event through the eyes of horses, the reader starts to think from that animal’s viewpoint. The reader begins to realize that in this world, humans have power over animals, and humans act as if they are superior to animals.

      The reader cannot fail to notice the irony when Black Beauty realizes that the horse killed in the hunt was his brother. Black Beauty says:

So poor Rob Roy who was killed at that hunt was my brother! I did not wonder that my mother was so troubled. It seems that horses have no relations; at least they never know each other after they are sold.

      Obviously, as shown by this excerpt, Sewell is pointing out that these horses do care about their relations, just as humans do. But she also makes the point that horse families and relations are routinely split by humans, when humans separate horses and sell them at will.

      Even though humans in Black Beauty often consider themselves superior to “dumb” animals, Sewell also gives the reader instances where animals clearly understand more than humans. When Black Beauty refuses to cross a bridge because he knows something is wrong, Beauty recalls the words of his kind master, one human in this story who does understand the nuances of animals.

Master said God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves; but He had given animals knowledge, which did not depend on reason, and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they often saved the lives of men.

      Sewell, through the words of a horse and an enlightened master, makes the point that animals often stand between life and death for a human. Humans lack the ability to sense and read situations as an animal can.

      There are many instances in Black Beauty when humans intentionally mistreat horses, and there are also many instances when humans are oblivious of their actions and the effects on the horses. These instances of obliviousness are no less cruel—they still cause pain for the horses. Because they are presented from the horses’ points of view, the reader feels the greater impact of these events. If Sewell, for example, worked through the point of view of a human, she could mention that this human pulled the horse about, or tugged on the reins to get the horse to turn a certain way. A reader would probably think nothing of these actions through the eyes of the human character. But Sewell’s detail and knowledge of horsemanship, along with her sympathetic horse characters, give an entirely different slant on the same situation.

If people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keep a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not check and drag and pull at the rein as they often do. Our mouths are so tender . . . and we know in an instant what is required of us.

      Although Black Beauty has its share of eye opening situations that effectively illustrate cruelty and obliviousness regarding animals, several of the people in this book demonstrate outstanding moral character. Again, this is a way that Sewell avoids preachiness. The author’s message would have seemed too forced and false if all the humans in the story had been bad (or oblivious, or apathetic) people. On the contrary, several characters demonstrate real strength in the defense of their morals. John takes time to tell boys that cruelty is hard-hearted and cowardly. An old man speaks up against the hunt, saying that “a man’s life and a horse’s life are worth more than a fox’s tail.” When Joe accidentally makes Black Beauty sick by giving the horse cold water, John is quick to point out that ignorance is “the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness.” And Jerry demonstrates many acts of kindness—taking a woman with a sick baby to the hospital and refusing payment; getting a young man to the train on time and refusing payment; and treating his animals in the best way possible.

      Through Black Beauty’s eyes, the reader is given an effective look at a myriad of social issues of the time; including the treatment of animals, fashion, and the influence of the class system. Black Beauty will always be a classic because all of these issues are portrayed effectively, and uniquely, through the mind of an animal.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Black Beauty, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

The Social and Historical Relevance of Sewell's Story

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Laura Carter

Carter is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter considers the social and historical relevance of Sewell’s document as a treatise on animal rights.

      Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty served in her time not only as a treatise on animal rights, it is an account closely relevant to the author’s personal life, as well as her advocacy for horses in a time where females were not a presence in the equine community, their voices more often than not discounted in a male-dominated society. Examples are sprinkled throughout the novel, in the words and actions of the characters, both animal and female, which demonstrate their ability to provoke responses that expose the very underpinnings of a male-dominated Victorian society.

      Strikingly different for a Victorian woman, Sewell knew a great deal about an industry long dominated by men. The novel’s cast of characters, from stable boys to groomsmen to proprietors—all are men. It is primarily men who openly speak for Sewell in her quest for animal rights. In one scene, for example, one of the novel’s main characters goes out of his way to tip off a neighbor of the abuses a pony is suffering as his son needlessly whips, kicks and knocks a “good little pony about shamefully because he would not leap a gate that was too high for him.” In another instance, Joe admonishes a carter for flogging or beating a team of horses for failing to pull a load of bricks that is too heavy for them to manage. When the carter tells him to mind his own business, Joe is compelled to knock on the door of the master brick maker to tell him of the trouble. It is Joe’s testimony in front of a magistrate that ultimately leads to the carter’s undoing. In these and other examples, Sewell uses the male voice to succinctly or clearly drive home her thesis or call to action with respect to animal cruelty, asserting that “with cruelty and oppression it is everyone’s business to interfere when they see it.”

      However, a few of Sewell’s female characters are also a leveling presence in the novel, often interceding in equine matters when abuse of an animal is involved. In one such instance, the daughter of one traveler sees the poor condition Black Beauty is in and offers her opinion, telling her father that she is confident that “this poor horse cannot take us and our luggage so far, he is very weak and worn out.” Although the young woman implores or begs her father to consider a second cab to accommodate their luggage, her pleas are dismissed. “Nonsense, Grace, get in at once,” her father orders, telling her not to make so much of a “fuss.” He chastises her for expecting a “man of business to examine every cab horse before he hired it,” insistent that the driver knows his business, “of course.” Sewell’s words do put into context the true nature of women’s roles in nineteenth century England. The daughter is openly criticized for questioning, to the point of harassment, a man who, it is implied by her father, a position of unquestionable authority when it comes to the business of cab horses. This scene also puts into stark perspective the colorless victory Grace realizes when Black Beauty tragically collapses under the extreme weight of the overloaded carriage hired by her father.

      In yet another scene, however, the frivolity or thoughtlessness of one woman leads to yet another tragic injury for Black Beauty. When Black Beauty is sold to a new owner, John, his former groom warns the new owner of the dangers of using a bearing rein. Although both the former groom and new coachman reach an understanding, the coachman shares that “my lady” is partial to a certain style, requiring carriage horses to be reined up tight, mindful of fashion rather than the horse’s well being. And later, when the horses are reined up to satisfy the lady’s request, Ginger rebels, then returns to the barn injured. The coachman responds, “I thought we should have some mischief soon—master will be sorely vexed, but there—if a woman’s husband can’t rule her, of course a servant can’t.” First, this passage suggests that it is offensive a woman could be so easily swayed by style that she forgets any concern for the horses in her husband’s care. Second, it is clear to the coachman that she has too much to say in household affairs, that her behavior is to be dictated by her husband in order to be deemed acceptable, that she must be managed.

      Sewell’s life seemingly shifts between two worlds, as aptly demonstrated by the text, that of the perfect Victorian lady and outspoken animal activist. In the forward to Black Beauty, Carol Fenner calls Sewell’s only novel “surprising,” also noting that “it was an unusual thing for a Victorian woman to know so much about horses.” Also unusual is the seemingly unanimous opinion of many critics, including Fenner, who aptly remarked that the novel made “a deep impression on men and women alike.” What her novel did so skillfully, that none had considered before, was to go into the psyche of the horse, to portray the noble animal from a different point of view. Black Beauty had feelings and shared insights in such a way as to garner or earn sympathy and also implicate the actions of abusive drivers, in a period during which England was known for its abuse of horses. According to Fenner, most horses “suffered badly in the hands of their human keepers.” She adds, “The were underfed, they grew lame and sore, and they worked with overloaded carts in burning heat or freezing cold-over ice and mud.” They were also beaten to inspire them to work, and often died in the harness. And, there were abuses in the name of fashion including tail cropping and use of the bearing rein.

      According to Professor Waller Hastings, in his summary of Sewell’s life, her book garnered or gained sympathy from animal anticruelty groups, and “was widely used as propaganda by groups seeking more humane treatment of horses.” The book was passed out freely among horse handlers and drivers, and was seen as the strongest form of propaganda used to curb the abuse of their animals. Part of what makes the book such an effective tool in the Sewell crusade, according to some scholars, are veiled references to slavery. Hastings mentions that in the work of at least one critic, through the use of slave language, the horses of the novel are portrayed as slaves rather than servants. For example, Black Beauty relates himself to his handler in the tradition of the servant/master relationship, and is called “Darkie.” And, it has been pointed out that the pattern of the narrative itself closely imitates one familiar to slave narratives. The contrast between Black Beauty’s acceptance of equine servitude juxtaposed or compared with Ginger’s resistance, says Hastings, “reveals the uneasiness with which author and society view overt rebellion, while at the same time revealing the causes of rebellion.”

      The author introduces readers to a world through the eyes of a horse. And it is from this perspective that Sewell makes a case for the animal, speaking for a horse that cannot advocate or speak for himself. The reader finds in Black Beauty a perfect specimen flawed only by the shortcomings of men who choose to take advantage of his good nature and willingness to work in favor of their own short-sighted, often times brutal agendas. Sewell’s passion for the horse, it has been suggested, has perhaps come from deep personal experience with an ankle injury that rendered her an invalid throughout most of her adult life. How closely, too, did the novel manage to parallel Victorian life for women, unintentional or otherwise, with regard to the prevailing notion of her time that women should be seen and not heard. All of the animals in the novel are silenced. They cannot speak up to defend themselves, nor can they possibly fight back given the existing dynamic between animal and handler. It is evident this was a frustration that Sewell herself felt, expressed in the dialogue of her characters. Ironically, it is Ginger who admits to Black Beauty that she has ceased or stopped standing up for herself when she has been ill-used. She tells him,

I did once, but it’s no use; men are strongest, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing that we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end.

      Certainly, Sewell, and her mother, for that matter, had their convictions about the abuse of horses in nineteenth century England. Fenner in fact notes in the novel’s introduction that Sewell was a devoted activist, brazen or bold enough to stand up to abusive drivers, even in the face of a horsewhipping. Her novel, while it is not the reason for English reform, has been identified as one of the most prominent literary works of its type, influenced by Horace Bushnell’s “Essay on Animals,” or perhaps, it has been suggested, George MacDonald’s fantasy “At the Back of the North Wind.” According to Hastings, other environmental influences that shaped Sewell’s book included knowledge the author gleaned from her brother Philip and from conversations with various drivers. The novel is also strongly influenced by many Christian, moral messages along with Quaker beliefs supporting Sewell’s life-long support of the ethical treatment of animals.

      To view Anna Sewell’s first and only novel, Black Beauty, as little more than a charming tale about the trials and tribulations of a gentle-natured animal is a grave oversight. The novel was not written as young adult fiction, but as a treatise on animal rights. What resonates with adult audiences today is its value as a historical document. Asserts Hastings: “Black Beauty’s life is a microcosm of Victorian horse experience, with every kind of rider, driver, and event occurring at some point in his life.” It also mirrors social conditions during a time in history where women had little autonomy or voice outside of the domestic sphere, despite inroads made in the educational system. Although the author wrote the novel with the fate of the cab horse in mind, it is the horse that somehow advocates for Sewell, revealing her impressions and frustrations with a society long defined by male values.

Source: Laura Carter, Critical Essay on Black Beauty, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

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Critical Overview