The long-popular Black Beauty is an engaging story told from the perspective of a horse. Black Beauty's experiences lead him through a diverse series of encounters and bring him into contact with many characters, including other horses with stories of their own to tell.
Sewell uses Black Beauty's story to explore her theme of cruelty to animals. She shows the positive results of kind treatment, while attacking the animal abuse common in her times. Sewell believed that animal cruelty was a societal problem that could not be ignored, a problem that was often caused by ignorance and fashion, as well as intentional abuse.
The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, and this fable is intended to leave the reader with a strong moral lesson that it is better to be a good person than an evil one. The horses are mistreated through no fault of their own by uncaring or insensitive people. In Sewell's story the world is cruel because it is inhabited by corrupted people, who have the power to reform, if they wish.
Black Beauty opens with its main character describing his first memory as that of a “pleasant meadow.” The reader is told about his life as a colt, his mother’s advice on how to behave as a well-bred horse, and his master’s kind care. When Black Beauty is two, he witnesses the brutality of a hunt for a hare and the tragedy of one of the riders being killed in a fall from his horse. At age four, Black Beauty is broken in to the use of the saddle, bridle, and carriage harness. He describes how bad the bit feels as well as getting his first shoes. Then he is sent to a neighbor’s pasture near a railroad to get used to the sounds he might hear when out on the road and is thus prepared to start work. He is sold to Squire Gordon and is named by Mrs. Gordon. Birtwick Hall becomes his pleasant home for more than three years. Here he meets the horses Merrylegs, Ginger, and Sir Oliver, and the grooms James Howard and John Manly. He learns that Ginger got her ill-tempered nature from a hard life with previous owners, and that Sir Oliver got a shortened tail when a thoughtless fashion dictated that it be cut. Sir Oliver also reveals the painful practices of bobbing tails and ears on dogs. Merrylegs, a pony, is a trusted playmate of the Gordon and Blomefield children. Squire Gordon and John Manly are both known to take issue with those who mistreat horses. Stable hand James gets an opportunity for a better position elsewhere and leaves Birtwick, but before he goes, he drives the Gordons on a trip to see friends. At a stop on the way, the stable catches on fire, but James calmly and valiantly manages to save Beauty and Ginger. Little Joe Green replaces James. Joe does not know how to properly put up the hot and tired Beauty after an emergency run to get the doctor for Mrs. Gordon, and as a result, Beauty becomes very sick. Joe grieves over his mistake and thereafter devotes himself to learning horse care. He even testifies against a man he sees flogging two horses. Life changes, though, when the Gordons must move to a warmer climate for Mrs. Gordon’s health. Joe and Merrylegs go to the Vicar Blomefield’s, and Beauty and Ginger are sold to Earlshall Park.
The mistress at Earlshall insists on using the bearing rein, which is very painful for the horses, but the stable manager, Mr. York cannot object. One day Ginger rebels and goes wild. She is then used as a hunter. When the Earl and some of the family go to London, the Lady Anne takes to riding Beauty, calling him Black Auster. When she tries another horse on one ride and is thrown, Beauty races for help and is much praised. He thinks he has settled into a good home, but then the stable hand Reuben Smith gets drunk and takes Beauty on a dangerous ride that results in Smith’s death and ruined knees for Beauty. Ginger is also ruined by hard riding, but is given a chance to recover. Beauty, however, is sold to a livery stable. As a job horse, Beauty is subjected to being...
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