Foreword by: Jane Smiley
“I hope you will fall into good hands; but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us, but still I say, do your best, wherever it is, and keep up your good name” (p. 13).
Few writers make the kind of lasting mark that Anna Sewell achieved when she published Black Beauty in 1877. Although the first-time author died shortly after its publication, she lived long enough to see it become an immediate sensation. The novel sold a staggering five million copies and permanently altered both the laws and public consciousness regarding the ethical treatment of horses.
Written in autobiographical form, Black Beauty begins with a yet-to-be-named young colt sharing his earliest memories of life. “Whilst I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass” (p. 3). The colt’s early years are quiet and idyllic. However, the reader bears witness to the colt’s dawning awareness of the greater world and its troubling complexities.
During this time, a peaceful morning is shattered by the sounds of dogs and galloping horses. In his ignorance, the colt is captivated by the excitement of the passing hunt until two horses stumble and the sport takes a brutal and tragic turn for animal and human alike.
Tranquility returns to the meadow, but our narrator’s days within it are numbered. At four years old, he is now ready to be broken in and trained for a working life.
His master is a kind man who gradually introduces the young horse to the steel bit he must wear in his mouth, the iron shoes that will be nailed onto his feet, and the saddle and harness he will need to ferry humans. Though it all feels strange and uncomfortable at first, he recollects how “in time I got used to everything” (p. 12).
No sooner is he trained than the young horse is taken to Birtwick Park, the estate of his new master, Squire Gordon. Life is good there, and he is named Black Beauty for his coloring and handsome looks. The coachman, John Manly, is kind to his equine charges, including Ginger, a wary and high-spirited mare who warms to the newcomer. As the two become friends, Ginger tells Black Beauty how early ill treatment caused her to regard men as her “natural enemies” (p. 30).
Both Black Beauty and Ginger thrive at Birtwick, but the tides of fortune are about to change. When Squire Gordon’s wife is ordered abroad for her health, the household and stables are broken up and Black Beauty must again embark on a new life alone.
As his circumstances and name change over the ensuing years, Black Beauty journeys from the country to the city and back again, encountering the full range of human evils—foolishness, cruelty, drunkenness, and greed—as well as havens of goodness.
Today, Black Beauty is often relegated to young readers’ shelves, but its lessons are still universal. In relating the story of his life, Black Beauty illuminates how we are all—man and beast—at the whim of circumstance, yet “if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt” (p. 156).
ABOUT ANNA SEWELL
Anna Mary Sewell (1820 – 1878) was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. At age fourteen, she slipped while walking home from school and severely injured both of her ankles. Sewell remained disabled for the rest of her life, most likely due to mistreatment of her injuries, and could not walk or stand without a crutch. Her need for horse-drawn carriages and her constant close proximity to horses led to her increased awareness and concern for their humane treatment. She wrote Black Beauty from 1871 to 1877 amid declining health and died five months after her only novel’s publication.
- Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty hoping to improve the treatment of horses in England. Would its openly sentimental style be as effective today as it was in 1877? Why or why not?
- Why doesn’t Black Beauty’s mother tell him that Rob Roy—the horse lamed and subsequently killed in the hunt—is his brother and her son? How does his later discovery of their relationship make her silence more poignant?
- Ginger’s bad temper is her downfall, and at Birtwick Park she tells Black Beauty, “if I had had your bringing up I might have been of as good a temper as you are, but now I don’t believe I ever shall” (p. 23). Do you think that personality and temperament are established by childhood experiences and fixed forever after?
- Sir Oliver, an older horse, had his tail cut short when he was just a young colt because “docked” tails were the fashion at the time. Railing against man’s injustice to animals, Sir Oliver asks, “Why don’t they cut their own children’s ears into points to make them look sharp? Why don’t they cut the end off their noses to make them look plucky” (p. 37)? How—if at all—have attitudes toward fashion in animals and humans changed since then?
- “Master said, God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves, but He had given animals knowledge which did not depend on reason, and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way” (p. 47). Religious beliefs aside, for what reasons do you agree or disagree with this statement?
- While Black Beauty did a great deal to improve the treatment of horses in England, hunting for sport continued to flourish despite Sewell’s moving description of two unnecessary deaths that occurred “all for one little hare” (p. 9). Why do you think she was unsuccessful in this area?
- Today, horse-drawn carriages are sometimes used to carry tourists through busy metropolitan thoroughfares. Do you think that the horses have become accustomed to cars the same way that Black Beauty “began to disregard [trains]” (p. 13)? Or is it cruel to put them in such close proximity?
- Part of the novel’s power comes from the fact that its lessons in kindness are as relevant to humans as horses. How has reading Black Beauty made you rethink some aspect of your own life?
- Vis-à-vis one slender novel, Sewell challenged the status quo regarding fashion, politics, and class in her era. What are some other books that so effectively do the same?
- Is there a social injustice or other widespread ill that you would like to shed light on? If so, what is it, and how might you frame it as a novel?