Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Black Beauty: The Autobiography Of A Horse

Seeing as I just gave a presentation on Anna Sewell's novel Black Beauty (published in 1877) for a Children's Literature course and the said book is one of my favourite books in the world, I thought it would be a really good idea to spare a post for Black Beauty.

The book doesn't seem to be very widely known these days, so I'll give a brief plot description: The story is narrated by a black horse who describes his life as he changes owners and experiences all kinds of different social settings through these owners. Numerous concerns about horses' and, occasionally peoples' well-being are addressed throughout the book.

Black Beauty's owners include:

  • Squire Gordon of Birtwick Park, the ideal home where the horses are treated with respect and are provided with good quality of everything. It is in this home that the narrator is named Black Beauty, and his name changes many times in the course of his life.
  • Lord and Lady of Earlshall who are of the highest social class, and especially the Lady thinks that the stylishness of the carriage she rides is more important than the horses' well-being. This results in Black Beauty being introduced to the bearing rein, a cruel device which forces the horse's head up and, in the long run, causes pain and difficulty in breathing.
  • Jerry Barker, a London cab driver who, together with his family, is one of the most ideal people imaginable – kind and considerate of the horses he works with, content with his life despite poverty and often hard working conditions.
  • Nicholas Skinner's livery stables, where the master is brutally hard on both the horses and their drivers, his aim being to have them work hard and earn as much money as possible until they are too worn out to go on.
I read this book for the first time when I was about ten years old, and I've been reading it over and over again ever since. Black Beauty is one of the cases where it wasn't originally written with child readers in mind – in fact, Anna Sewell herself stated her aim in writing was "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses". Her dedication to raise this awareness was probably heightened by the fact that an accident in her teenage years left her unable to walk, thus being entirely dependent on horse-drawn transportation. Sewell's book did hit the goal it was aiming for, bringing up much discussion about the treatment of horses in Victorian England. The bearing rein, which was one of Sewell's main concerns, was eventually abolished, and it is thought that Black Beauty did a great deal for that change to happen.

The reason why Black Beauty is nowadays found in the children's section in bookstores and libraries is that the publishers decided to market it as a children's book, perhaps because of the simple, child-friendly language it is written in, or because it was felt that Black Beauty and the other anthropomorphic horse characters would be most plausible to children. However, I feel that I've gotten more and more out of the book as I've grown up. Black Beauty deals with some pretty heavy themes and even though they didn't seem too difficult for me to deal with as a child, I think it really requires an adult understanding of the historical events of the time and the idea of social classes to get the most out of this book.

Black Beauty's readership seems to consist of mainly "horse girls", which I am as well, but I think it would make a fairly interesting read to others than horse enthusiasts as well – especially for readers who are interested in the Victorian period, the effects of industrialism and/or social classes. If you feel at all interested in any aspect of the book that I've mentioned here, it'll be really worth your time to read it – and as it's quite a short book with easy language, it won't even take much of your time!

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