Tag Archives: Classics

Black Beauty

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.

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“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.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

Orlando

For those of you who listen to my book podcast Lost the Plot, you may be aware that I have a Patreon page where listeners can sign up for different reward tiers to help keep Lost the Plot on air. There are lots of different awards, and quite frequent giveaways. However, the top tier reward is The Bookworm where you, the listener, get the singular ability to choose a book for me to review. I currently have one patron on The Bookworm tier, her name is Kendall, and she nominated this book for me.

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“Orlando” by Virgina Woolf, is a book that really cannot be boxed neatly into a genre. Part love letter, part historical fiction, part magic realism, part gender exposé – none of these categories on their own quite do the novel justice. The story is about a young man called Orlando who grows up in a wealthy family in Elizabethan England. Both energetic and whimsical, Orlando has a number of love affairs and secretly longs to be a poet. However, after his heart is broken by a Russian princess, and a number of other social setbacks, Orlando flees England to work as Ambassador to Turkey. However, once there, Orlando undergoes a mysterious change and his – or her – life is never the same.

My first thought upon reading this book was how intricate and complex it is. This book is steeped with so much meaning, that it has pages upon pages of footnotes at the back to explain the personal significance of each of Woolf’s references. I’m not sure if it’s a testimony to the kinds of books I’ve been reading recently or a symptom of modern writing, but it has been a long time since I have read a book that felt like every single word was a deliberate choice. The writing really is spectacular and if you’re looking for inspiration for beautiful writing, you really can look no further than Woolf.

My second thought is that this is a deeply intimate book. There’s something almost voyeuristic about reading this book, because it makes the reader examine in minute detail the character of Orlando, who is modelled on Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. This makes it, thematically, a fascinating story about sexuality and gender. The introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert sheds further light on this by explaining that distinctions between being a lesbian and being transgender in the 1920s were much blurrier than they are today.

However, although it is an intricate and compelling book, it is not a perfect book and there were a few things that grated on me. First of all, you can tell it nearly 100 years old because the opening sentences include flippantly racist violence. Woolf describes a decapitated ‘Moor‘ and uses far, far worse terms at certain points throughout the novel and it was a pretty appalling way to start a book.

Another issue for me was less about inappropriate content and more about plot and pace. I think perhaps because this book is so closely modeled on the life and family history of Woolf’s lover, there was some sacrificing when it came to the book’s plot. The story meanders through the ages, more a comment on the societies of Vita’s various ancestors than a cohesive story. In fact, because there were so many footnotes in my edition explaining each reference to something in Woolf’s or Vita’s life, it took me quite a while to get through this book because I kept flipping back to read each note.

Ultimately though, this is a beautifully-written, intimate and insightful novel that says a lot about society then and now. What it lacks in story arc, it makes up for with language.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics