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Classic of the Month: Black Beauty

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

As you probably recall, last month I started a new monthly series that will highlight a new "classic" every month. This month's classic is Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Again I am very loosely basing my idea of classic's on this "A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written." Due to the widely different views on what a classic is, these books may be considered classics by me but your opinion may be different.


So What is Black Beauty?

Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse is an 1877 novel by English author Anna Sewell. It was composed in the last years of her life, during which she remained in her house as an invalid. The novel became an immediate best-seller, with Sewell dying just five months after its publication, but having lived long enough to see her only novel become a success. With fifty million copies sold, Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time.

While forthrightly teaching animal welfare, it also teaches how to treat people with kindness, sympathy, and respect. Although Black Beauty is looked at as a children's novel, Sewell did not write the novel for children. She said that her purpose in writing the novel was "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses"—an influence she attributed to an essay on animals she read earlier by Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) entitled "Essay on Animals". Her sympathetic portrayal of the plight of working animals led to a vast outpouring of concern for animal welfare and is said to have been instrumental in the abolition of the cruel practice of using the checkrein (or "bearing rein", a strap used to keep horses' heads high, fashionable in Victorian England but painful and damaging to a horse's neck). Black Beauty also mentions the use of blinkers on horses, concluding that this use is likely to cause accidents at night due to interference with "the full use of" a horse's ability to "see much better in the dark than men can."


Plot Overview (Detailed)

Black Beauty starts at the beginning, with Beauty's birth. Beauty's story is set in Victorian England, a time when horses were crucial since they were the main mode of transportation for humans. Raised by his mother, Duchess, under the kind care of Farmer Grey, Beauty learns from a young age that humans can be either a horse's greatest ally or their worst enemy. Beauty spends the early part of his life with thoughtful, caring people who know how to keep horses healthy and happy, but he is always aware that other horses aren't so lucky. After an idyllic childhood with Farmer Grey, Beauty is sent to Squire Gordon at Birtwick Park, where he spends the happiest years of his life. There he's cared for by John Manly, a wise and perceptive groom, and makes friends with the other Birtwick horses, including spunky and feisty Ginger, who learns to chill out under John's care, and sweet Merrylegs, a pony who adores the young children on the estate.

But Beauty's life isn't all rainbows and sunshine, since he often encounters other horses that have been mistreated by their masters. At one point, Beauty's caught in a stable fire, and on one very memorable night he rides to fetch a doctor and saves the life of Squire Gordon's ailing wife. Sadly, it's Mrs. Gordon's illness that closes the chapter on Beauty's happy time at Birtwick. Ordered by the doctor to move to a warmer climate, Squire Gordon and his family leave their estate in England and sell their horses. From this point onward, Beauty's story becomes a struggle as he falls victim to ignorant treatment and negligence from a series of new owners. One night, a drunk groom causes Beauty to fall, a mishap that kills the groom and permanently scars Beauty, turning him from a fashionable carriage horse to a horse-for-hire, thus moving him down the ranks of the horse hierarchy.

When Beauty is finally sold to London cab driver Jerry Barker, it looks like maybe he'll be okay. Jerry is basically the Horse Whisperer of London cabbies, and Beauty adores him. Even though the work is hard, Beauty grows to love his life with Jerry and the Barker family. But illness once again changes Beauty's fate, and after a near-deadly round of bronchitis, Jerry gives up his London cab and moves to the country with his family. After that, Beauty suffers at the hands of brutal owners who work him until he literally drops. Along the way, he encounters his old friend Ginger, who's been treated so cruelly that Beauty eventually sees her carted away, dead. Although Beauty's nearly dead himself from overwork and injury, he's saved by a perceptive horse doctor who thinks he can still be fixed up and sold. Beauty is bought by a kind farmer and his grandson, who rehabilitate him. They sell him at last to a family who recognizes him as Squire Gordon's beloved Black Beauty, and give him the happy ending he deserves.


What genre is this book?

Black Beauty is considered to be one of the first fictional animal autobiographies. Originally meant to be informative literature read by adults on the norms of horse cruelty and preventions of these unjust acts, Black Beauty is now seen as a children's book.


Was this book ever banned?

This touching story of a horse's adventures in 19th century England was banned by South Africa's apartheid regime at one point simply because it had the words "black" and "beauty" in the title.


Why is it a Classic?

Black Beauty is considered a classic simply because of its lasting effects on society.

Upon publication of the book, many readers related to the pain of the victimized horses, sympathized and ultimately wanted to see the introduction of reforms that would improve the well-being of horses. Two years after the release of the novel, one million copies of Black Beauty were in circulation in the United States. In addition, animal rights activists would habitually distribute copies of the novel to horse drivers and to people in stables. The depiction of the "bearing rein" in Black Beauty spurred so much outrage and empathy from readers that its use was not only abolished in Victorian England, but public interest in anti-cruelty legislation in the United States also grew significantly. The arguably detrimental social practices concerning the use of horses in Black Beauty inspired the development of legislation in various states that would condemn such abusive behaviors towards animals. The impact of the novel is still very much recognized today. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Bernard Unti calls Black Beauty "the most influential anti cruelty novel of all time". Comparisons have also been made between Black Beauty and the most important social protest novel in the United States, Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, on account of the strong degree of outrage and protest action that both novels triggered in society.


Film Adaptations

The book has been adapted into film and television several times, including:

  • Your Obedient Servant (1917), directed by Edward H. Griffith

  • Black Beauty (1921), directed by Edward H. Griffith

  • Black Beauty (1946), directed by Max Nosseck

  • Black Beauty (1971), directed by James Hill

  • The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-4), a TV series produced by London Weekend Television and shown by ITV

  • Black Beauty (1978) by Hanna-Barbera

  • Black Beauty (1978), a TV mini-series

  • Black Beauty (1987) by Burbank Films Australia

  • Black Beauty (1994), a film starring Docs Keepin Time

  • Black Beauty (2020) by Constantin Film and distributed by Disney+ starring Kate Winslet



I hope you enjoyed today's post. See you next time :)


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