Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

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...

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Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


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,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

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,...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How does the treatment animals receive affect their behavior? What examples from the story support your answer? Have you personally witnessed evidence that supports this claim?

2. Black Beauty's mother ponders why people choose to hunt on horses for animals they could easily trap, track on foot, or buy on the open market without risking injury or the loss of property. Does the joy of hunting outweigh these considerations? Is hunting a morally acceptable pursuit? Why or why not?

3. Should people bear the responsibility for stopping animal abuse when they see it? In today's society, what measures can people take?

4. Does the episode about Reuben Smith realistically portray the potential hazards...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Describe the practical lessons on horse care provided in Black Beauty. Which of these teachings still apply? What techniques have been developed since Sewell's time to improve horse care?

2. Captain served in the cavalry in the Crimean War, and his first owner may well have been killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Write a report on this war or this battle, or write a story about one of them from Captain's perspective.

3. An early reviewer said that if the movement for humane treatment of animals had produced its own work against cruelty to animals, it could not have written anything more useful than Black Beauty. Find several passages from the book that argue for the humane treatment...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Anna Sewell’s mother was the author of a number of morally instructive children’s books and verse. Research Mary Sewell, describing the content and intent of her works and how they fit into Victorian times.

Female novelists were scarce during the Victorian period. Research other notable women writers and their works during the nineteenth century in Britain and the United States, and discuss what they did (or did not) have in common.

The Victorian Age is named after Queen Victoria, who ruled Great Britain longer than any other monarch. Write a summary of the life and reign of Victoria, discussing her impact on the royal families of Europe through the marriages of her children and grandchildren.


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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

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).

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

National Velvet (1935), by Enid Bagnold, was made famous by the 1944 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. It is a story about a fourteen-year-old girl named Velvet Brown who trains a horse for the top steeplechase competition, the Grand National, and wins against all odds.

A favorite American horse story is My Friend Flicka (1941), by Mary O’Hara. It is about a Wyoming boy, his special relationship with a filly, and the complex marriage of his parents. The book was so popular that it was made into a television series in the 1950s.

The original story of Bambi (1926), by Felix Salten, gives a serious message about the cycle of life and nature’s law as told through the viewpoint of the...

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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....

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