Classic novel about horses and animal welfare
Content warning: animal cruelty
Recently, I was thrilled to be involved in reading an extract from a book for Read Tasmania’s Lockdown Reading Group. Enjoying the experience so much, I was inspired to do a reading on the Tinted Edges Facebook page. I chose this book because it is a very beloved favourite, but also because it is relatively short, out of copyright, and I really wanted to enjoy this edition which came as part of a collection of children’s classics. This one has powder blue tinted edges, and is just lovely. If you want to watch all the readings, you can check them out here.
“Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell is a novel about a young black colt who grows up free and happy with his mother on a farm in rural England. A good-natured horse, he is very gently broken in and then sold to a Squire’s estate called Birtwick Park. There, Beauty befriends some other horses, and begins to learn a little about the wider world. As the book progresses, circumstances outside his control mean that Beauty is sold, and sold again. Although brought up with kindness, Beauty experiences all sides of humanity and through his eyes the reader learns the true impact of our actions on horses.
When I was young, I had three favourite books: “White Fang“, “Watership Down” and this one. Sometimes when you grow up, you find that your favourite books haven’t necessarily withstood the passage of time. However, this one is as relevant as ever and it was an absolute delight to revisit. In fact, considering this was Sewell’s only published novel, it is incredible how good it is and how well it has held up today. It was also the first English novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, and has been though to have inspired the genre of pony fiction.
Rereading it as an adult, I can see how this is really an extended fable, designed to teach the readers about the folly and cruelty of the many different ways in which horses were (and, to be honest, often still are) treated. Sewell expertly connects these moral lessons with Black Beauty’s own story, sometimes having him experience them first hand and sometimes having him witness them or hear about them from his friends. Seeing the way horses are treated with whips, spurs, violence and equipment such as bearing reins is absolutely heartrending, and it is little wonder that this book had such a strong social impact.
This is a very emotional story, and it was amazing how much the characters such as Merrylegs, Ginger and Jerry had stayed with me over the years and how much you connect with them while reading. I had forgotten how much action was in this book, and how Sewell keeps the reader on their toes with dramatic near misses as well as tragedies. Another thing I realised reading this as an adult was that I think Sewell perhaps wrote herself into the story as a benevolent lady who intervenes on Beauty’s behalf towards the end of the story, which I thoroughly support.
I enjoyed rereading this book immensely, and if you haven’t read it yet, you won’t be disappointed.