Historical Context

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Victorian Life

The values of the Victorians were largely shaped by the Evangelical movement that emphasized salvation and the Utilitarian movement that emphasized efficiency. Both promoted self-control and self-denial. Victorians believed that one should be in total control of oneself at all times. Thrift and usefulness were highly regarded virtues, so people were expected to spend their time and money reasonably and with good purpose. Hard work was the key to success, so laziness and drunkenness were seen as the road to perdition. Self-help was another honored virtue. Even though class structure was rigid in Victorian England, members of the lower classes were expected to make an attempt to better themselves through education, personal development, and temperance. There was little sympathy for those who did not succeed in bettering their lot because failure was assumed to be a result of lack of effort. Other social forces were not given much consideration for the plight of the poor. This attitude was further reflected in the temperance movement that was aimed at the working class, ignoring any problems with alcohol in the other classes, because what was most important was getting the labor force to work in a sober condition for better productivity, which increased the wealth of the middle and upper classes. Victorian England was a society of great poverty existing alongside a still enormously wealthy aristocracy and a growing middle class. This middle class consisted of people whose improved economic status allowed them to afford their own horses, but an improved lifestyle did not necessarily mean that they learned how to take care of horses. Consequently, the abuse of horses became the serious problem addressed in Black Beauty. The Industrial Revolution also provided many new jobs and opportunities for rural people, but it led them into urban slums. Naturally, the working class resented the hypocritical effort of the Temperance Movement that diverted attention away from the problems of sanitation, overcrowded housing, poor working conditions, and other social abuses.

The Temperance Movement in Victorian England

A major social reform effort in Victorian England was the temperance movement. In effect, the temperance movement was also a class conflict because it was led by the middle-class but aimed at the working class. Specifically, the reform target was working-class men, because they drank in public and women usually did not. Drinking practices in the home were of some concern to the feminist movement in later years because of the link to domestic violence, but the original intent of the temperance movement was to affect a wasteful behavior that was contrary to the Victorian ideals of self-control and self-denial. Drunkenness caused one to lose control; therefore, it was logical that the consumption of alcohol was destructive. Besides, spending money on liquor was a wasteful form of entertainment; rather, one should save one’s money and avoid useless times spent in self-indulgent leisure.

Morality was not the only driving force behind this movement. Industrialization demanded a reliable work force for the factories. At first, the intent of the movement was not to outlaw drinking, but to control it. Nor was there an attempt to “cure” drunks, who were seen as lost causes. Instead, the movement aimed to curb social drinking. Eventually, however, control was enforced through various forms of legislation. In addition, some temperance organizations took the step of requiring members to abstain entirely from alcohol consumption, but this “teetotalism” was a passing phase of the movement, as were attempts at the total prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages. Another tactic was to appeal to workers to refrain from drinking liquor because it was unhealthy...

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and could lead to death.

The Church of England Temperance Society was formed in 1862 and became heavily involved by claiming there were two forms of life: church life and pub life. Its Sunday School Movement was an effort to encourage working-class children to attend church and learn about temperance. Eventually, though, a conflict over the appropriateness of sacramental wine led to the waning of church temperance efforts as well. Temperance stories for children began appearing in the late eighteenth century in Britain, and by the mid-nineteenth century temperance periodicals became common in both Britain and the United States. Other Victorian stories, such as Black Beauty, added a temperance moral into the plot. Although the Temperance Movement eventually died out as an organized cause, it did have the effect of creating a culture in Victorian England that no longer tolerated public drunkenness and saw alcohol abuse as dysfunctional, not recreational.

Horses in Victorian Society

Horses played a vital role in nineteenth century life. They provided not only the main means of transportation, but also the labor force for a variety of jobs. They pulled carts, cabs, wagons, and barges on the roads and on city streets, worked as pit ponies in the coal mines, and helped plough rural fields. Writing for Horsepower, Margaret Bennett reports that “During the 1890s, there were over 11,000 hansom cabs (the taxis of their day) alone on the streets of London, needing twice that number of horses to operate.” Despite their importance, horses were treated miserably. Bennett adds that horses “often died in harness due to overwork and lack of care.” As brute labor, they were taken for granted, beaten, and, as Ginger said in the book, simply “used up.” Those that pulled carriages were subject to whims of fashion that dictated docking tails or forcing horses to hold their heads up higher than was comfortable or practical. Without a long tail, a horse cannot rid itself of flies. With a head held in a painfully unnatural position by a bearing or check rein, a horse cannot use its full strength for pulling, breathe properly, or move its head from side to side to look about. It was abusive practices such as these that Sewell attacked in Black Beauty.


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Written during a major period of growth in the movement for humane treatment of animals, Black Beauty became the work that represented the movement. Humane societies across the United States bought and distributed thousands of copies of the book, espousing animal rights.

Black Beauty takes place in the same period in which Sewell lived: mid- to late-nineteenth-century England. Showing the range of uses for horses during this period, Black Beauty works as a saddle and carriage horse on a wealthy country estate, is rented as a beast of burden from a livery stable, pulls a cab, and draws a cart through the crowded London streets. The frequent changes in setting provide a good overview of British life during this era.

The first week of my life as a cab horse was very trying. Horses were not only the primary mode of transportation during Sewell's lifetime, they were also becoming popular among the middle class for recreation and exercise, and as status symbols. The need for new riders to learn about good horse care and the increasing popularity of the harmful bearing rein, which often damaged the horses by forcing them to hold their heads too high, inspired Sewell to write Black Beauty. She decided that a creative format would be the most effective means of voicing her concerns because it would appeal to a large audience.

Literary Style

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Animal Autobiography

Black Beauty requires the reader to accept the fact that a horse is the first-person narrator. This point of view quickly becomes believable because Sewell so effectively entered the mind of a horse that everything in the text is skillfully presented in terms of the animal’s perceptions and observations. Sewell’s triumph with this novel is the artful way she gets reader to feel that they are actually getting the story “straight from the horse’s mouth.” The reader is able to imagine what it is like to be a horse, how a bit feels in the mouth, how humans appear to animals, and so on. Stating on the cover page that the text was translated from the original equine is a clever way to set up the suspension of disbelief. Knowing that the story is a translation somehow gets readers past the problem that horses do not speak “English” and do not appear to talk at all.

The Use of the Novel Structure

Since the message of Sewell’s book would have been suitable for a didactic series of essays, and since her mother wrote moral tales and verse for children, it is somewhat surprising that Sewell chose the form of the novel for her book. However, it is likely that Sewell had a repressed artistic talent that needed the freedom and space of a novel for best expression. In a novel she could explore many more areas of the written word than the structure of an essay would have allowed.

Also, Sewell loved the poetry of the Romantics, and it shows in the descriptive background she gives to her story. The opening paragraph is often quoted in references to the novel because it is this entrancing picture of the “pleasant meadow” at Farmer Grey’s that captures the reading audience. Sewell makes the meadow a charming place by including details about “a pond of clear water,” surrounded by shady trees, rushes, and waterlilies. The reader is also helped to envision a ploughed field, a plantation of fir trees, and “a running brook overhung by a steep bank.” Later in the story, when Beauty stands severely injured next to the body of Ruben Smith, his anxiety and pain are comforted by the “calm, sweet April night” that includes a nightingale’s song, “white clouds near the moon and a brown owl that flitted over the hedge.”

The advice that Duchess gives to Black Beauty in the third chapter of the book establishes the plan for the novel. The introduction of the main character having been accomplished, Beauty’s mother tells him that there are “many kinds of men” and describes the different types that a horse might encounter in his work. Of course, Beauty goes on through the course of the book to meet all these different types of men. The plot is built around these various encounters, their circumstances, and the results.

Literary Qualities

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Black Beauty's literary qualities are best understood in the light of the tradition from which the novel came: the tradition of the nineteenth-century improving book. Black Beauty is very much in the tradition of the moralistic ballads and books of its time, especially those that present self-improvement and social justice lessons in a story written in simple language to suit the reading levels of their intended audiences—children and working class adults with limited education. Sewell's mother, Mary, wrote several popular improving books, which Sewell read and helped to edit. Of Mary Sewell's works, Black Beauty most closely resembles Patience Hart's First Experience in Service.

Mary and Anna Sewell both use the literary device of giving some characters names that comment on their personalities. The main character in Mary's book on housemaids is Patience Hart, who is a girl with a patient heart. Similarly, in Black Beauty, Filcher the groom steals Black Beauty's oats to feed to his rabbits, Alfred Smirk is a lazy and conceited humbug, and Seedy Sam is a down-on-his-luck cab driver who works his horses cruelly hard.

The conflicts and character development provide the book with a circular structure. Raised in the country, Black Beauty undergoes a series of adventures with different masters and companions, ending up back in the country. During the nineteenth century, circular plots were thought to give a sense of completeness and to be the best device to show how characters changed in the course of a book.

Social Sensitivity

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Aside from the obvious stance on the humane treatment of animals. Black Beauty addresses several other social issues. The character Reuben Smith kills himself, injures Black Beauty, and drives his family into poverty with his alcoholism, illustrating a problem that continues to confront society. The antiwar sentiments expressed by Captain echo the philosophy of nonviolence, particularly as defined by Quakerism.

Less relevant to modern times but of interest to a discussion of nineteenth-century British life, Sewell addresses the problems of the seven-day work week. While no one argues about the necessity of a day of rest anymore, the issue provides an interesting contrast between the quality of life during Sewell's day and during modern times. Similarly, the traditional female roles as mother, helpmate, and lady of the manor offer no role models for young women of today, but they can serve to illustrate the progress women have effected in the past century.

Compare and Contrast

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1870s: The Temperance Movement is in full swing in Britain and other countries. In 1874, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement is founded in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1883 becomes an international organization.

Today: The temperance movement, per se, is no longer viable, but Alcoholics Anonymous is a well-known organization for those with alcohol-related disorders, and rehabilitation centers abound to assist those with drinking and other drug addictions, while multiple laws exist to deal with issues such as public intoxication and driving under the influence.

1870s: Few women have careers other than that of homemakers, and Anna Sewell spends her entire life in her parents’ home, though her mother is a bestselling author of children’s morality tales.

Today: Women in the workforce are commonplace in Britain and other developed countries and have a firm place as authors in the world of literature, although there are still fewer female than male Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners in literature.

1870s: Bedford Park, outside London, is developing as the first modern suburb.

Today: Suburbs are the largest portions of cities and often cause the demise of downtown and inner-city businesses and lifestyles.

1870s: The phonograph is invented, shortly after the introduction of the telephone and telegraph.

Today: The phonograph has been replaced by music tapes, compact disks, and digital music formats; fiber optics, wireless devices, and satellites rather than the telegraph are used for communicating over long distances.

Related Titles / Adaptations

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Twentieth Century Fox produced the best known movie version of Black Beauty in 1946, directed by Max Nosseck and starring Mona Freeman. This version is rather loosely based on Sewell's original work, including a young female character not in the book and recasting Merrylegs as a successor to Black Beauty instead of a companion to him. Several lesser known film adaptations have been produced as well. The ninth and most elaborate film production was a 1978 television miniseries, directed by Daniel Haller and starring Glynnis O'Connor, Eileen Brennan, William Devane, and Edward Albert.

Media Adaptations

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A 1994 film version of Black Beauty, produced by Warner Brothers, is now available in both DVD and VHS formats. It is 88 minutes long and was produced by Robert Shapiro and Peter MacGregor Scott with Caroline Thompson as director and writer.

Black Beauty has been adapted for radio and issued as an audio book on records, cassettes, and CDs. One source is the unabridged Classics for Children of All Ages audio book (2003).

For Further Reference

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Baker, Margaret J. Anna Sewell and "Black Beauty." London: George G. Harrap, 1956. A biographical novel for audiences up to fourteen years of age. Short and easy to read, the book points out some possible autobiographical sources for events in the novel. Presents some speculations as if they were facts.

Bayly, Elizabeth Boyd. "Black Beauty and Its Author." In Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation. Edited by Vincent Starrett. Chicago: Covici- McGee, 1923. A succinct and useful biography of Anna and history of Black Beauty written for junior high school students. The book contains essays on authors whose lives and works Starrett felt were undeservedly neglected.

Bayly, Mrs. M. The Life and Letters of Mrs. Sewell. 2d ed. London: James Nisbet, 1889. This biography of Mary Sewell, written by one of her friends, contains a chapter about Anna Sewell, "My Nannie" ("Nannie" was Mary's pet name for Anna). Although difficult to find, this book is interesting as one of the main early sources on which most later biographies draw.

Chitty, Susan. The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty: A Life of Anna Sewell. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971. The most thorough and well-illustrated biography of Sewell and history of Black Beauty. Written for young adult readers, the book includes as much information on Sewell's mother as on Sewell. Chitty explains that "the lives of the two women were so closely quilted together that it is impossible to tell the story of one without including that of the other."

Stibbs, Andrew. "BlackBeauty: Tales My Mother Told Me." Children's Literature in Education 22 (Autumn 1976): 128- 134. This article criticizes Black Beauty for being boring and for metaphorically encouraging young adults toward passivity and an unhealthy degree of obedience.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bennett, Margaret, “Who Was Black Beauty?,” in Horsepower, August/September 1999.

Chitty, Susan, The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty: A Life of Anna Sewell, Hodder & Stoughton, 1971.

Grealy, Lucy, “Afterword,” in Black Beauty, Signet Classics, 2002, pp. 217–23.

Hastings, Waller, Northern State University online, April 12, 2005, www.northern.edu/hastingw/sewell.htm.

Review of Black Beauty, in the Critic, Vol. XIII, No. 338, June 21, 1890, pp. 305–06.

Sayers, Frances Clarke, “Books That Enchant: What Makes a Classic?,” in Summoned by Books, edited by Marjeanne Jensen Blinn, Viking, 1965, pp. 152–61.

Sewell, Anna, Black Beauty, Aladdin Paperbacks, 2001.

Silvey, Anita, Children’s Books and Their Creators, Houghton, 1995, pp. 593–94.

Starrett, Vincent, “Black Beauty and Its Author,” in Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation, Washington Book, 1923.

Further Reading

Altick, Richard Daniel, The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel, Ohio State University Press, 1991.

This informative companion to British novels of the mid-nineteenth century provides historical context by discussing the people, events, or places of everyday Victorian life and explaining references that Victorians understood but the modern reader may not.

Baker, Margaret J., Anna Sewell and Black Beauty, George Harrap, 1956.

Written for children, this biography of Sewell also describes the times in which she lived.

Barrows, Susanna, and Robin Room, eds., Drinking: Behavior and Belief in Modern History, University of California Press, 1991.

This book is a collection of social science conference papers illuminating drinking practices and societal responses to the effects of drinking—including the Temperance Movement—at various points in history around the world.

Chitty, Susan, The Woman Who Wrote “Black Beauty,” Hoder & Stoughton, 1971.

A full-length biography on Sewell, this book includes a family tree with descriptions of Sewell’s family, as well as illustrations, and remains a standard reference on Sewell.

Gavin, Adrienne E., Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell, Sutton Publishing, 2004.

Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell is a well-researched biography of Sewell that reviewers repeatedly describe as fascinating and an easy read.

Moss, Arthur W., The Valiant Crusade: The History of the R.S.P.C.A., Cassells, 1961.

Black Beauty heavily influenced efforts for the humane treatment of animals and is given credit for its impact in this history of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.




Critical Essays