Black Beauty is written by Anna Sewell. It was first published in 1877 (!!); the copy I read was Scholastic, 2005.
Although Anna Sewell’s classic paints a clear picture of turn-of-the-century London, its message is universal and timeless: animals will serve humans well if they are treated with consideration and kindness. Black Beauty tells the story of the horse’s own long and varied life, from a well-born colt in a pleasant meadow to an elegant carriage horse for a gentleman to a painfully overworked cab horse.
What I Liked:
Nobody I’ve read can get into an animal’s head in a realistic world as well as Anna Sewell in Black Beauty. Gail Carson Levine, who wrote the Introduction to the version I read, puts it quite simply: “I was a horse!” It makes you wonder if Sewell is like this world’s version of Eliza Thornberry, because the reader’s ability to empathize with Black Beauty, to become Black Beauty, is all because of her. I love horses, always have since I was little, and Black Beauty is a beloved book of my childhood. When I was younger, I read it because of the horses, but now that I’m older I can more appreciate what Sewell was trying to do.
This book is quite good historically, showing things like the non-work on Sundays, the fashions of the time, and other little cultural and farm-related things, as well as just how important horses were to the economy in general. I find it interesting how Merrylegs, and Black Beauty at the end, are given to someone on the condition that they are not sold. I suppose if horses were such a big commodity, ensuring that your horse is in a good home and won’t be sold away from it is a good bargain to make.
While I think Sewell got a bit heavy-handed and repetitive with her “don’t mistreat animals!” message at times, most of the time she was just rock solid and spot-on. I absolutely loved John Manly’s speech on ignorance (quoted below) and I also loved how, after chapters of depicting everyone who mistreats animals as scoundrels/drunkards/harsh people, she had the one chapter where the driver basically explained that he couldn’t help the state of his horse because of the nature of his job (directly related to a scoundrel, but still). I also like what Sewell was implying by linking mistreatment directly with some sort of flaw or vice in a person (pride, drunkenness, laziness, etc.). Bad thoughts, behavior, and feelings feed directly into one’s treatment of other people and animals.
I also liked what Sewell had to say about religion, and I liked how many (all?) of her “good guys” were religious. Jerry’s chapters, especially, stand out to me. This is why the late-1800s are my favorite time period.
What I Didn’t Like:
I think the animal mistreatment ran away from Sewell a bit at times, and I feel that she credits horses with more intelligence than they actually have (but what do I know? Plus, that’s sort of the point of an anthropomorphic book like this one), but that’s it.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Warnings: Mistreatment of animals, death of animals.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Realistic, Children’s
“Well, my dear,” she said, “how do you like him?”
“He is exactly what John said,” he replied. “A pleasanter creature I never wish to mount. What should we call him?”
“Would you like Ebony?” said she. “He is as black as ebony.”
“No, not Ebony.”
“Will you call him Blackbird, like your uncle’s old horse?”
“No, he is far handsomer than old Blackbird ever was.”
“Yes,” she said, “he is really quite a beauty, and he has such a sweet, good-tempered face and such a fine, intelligent eye—what do you say to calling him Black Beauty?”
“Only ignorance! Only ignorance! How can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?—and which does the most mischief heaven only knows. If people can say, ‘Oh, I did not know, I did not mean any harm,’ they think it is all right. I suppose Martha Mulwash did not mean to kill that baby when she dosed it with Dalby and soothing syrups but she did kill it, and was tried for manslaughter.”
“And served her right, too,” said Tom. “A woman should not undertake to nurse a tender little child without knowing what is good and what is bad for it.”
“You were a good deal cut up yourself, Tom, two weeks ago, when those young ladies left your hothouse door open, with a frosty east wind blowing right in; you said it killed a good many of your plants.”
“A good many!” said Tom…. “I was nearly mad when I came in and saw what was done.”
“And yet,” said John, “I am sure the young ladies did not mean it! It was only ignorance!”