RogerBW's Blog

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell 10 October 2021

1877 polemic, the autobiography of a horse.

When I was growing up this was described as a book for children (I have very dim recollections of the existence of the 1972-1974 TV series), but that's not the author's intention. There is a story here of sorts, in that the horse passes between a variety of masters, some good and some bad, ending up with a good one; but each short chapter is there less to add to the narrative, and more to make a particular point – usually about the welfare of horses, though the welfare of people is also a consideration. A particular thing is good, or bad, and then it's on to the next matter.

The book had a substantial influence in the simple matters: the checkrein or bearing rein, for instance, seems to have been abolished as a direct result of its excoriation here. It had rather less on the treatment of humans, though it does point out the basic problem of rentiers who can charge what they like for a day's hire of a cab and horse, and leave it up to the cabman to try to earn enough to pay it back (with fixed taxi fares).

Also Drink is always and everywhere Bad; every time it's mentioned it's in the context of drinking to excess.

So far so manipulative, albeit in a reasonably good cause. Where the implications become unfortunate, in attributing something like full human consciousness to horses, is the creation of a race that's intelligent enough to understand human language but entirely happy to serve unquestioningly for their entire lives as long as they're reasonably well-treated. (1877. Adult readers would remember chattel slavery in the USA/CSA.) I'm sure that wasn't Sewell's intention, but it's an inescapable conclusion if you actually follow the logic of the book rather than just accepting the horses' consciousness as a convenient element to support the plot.

That's a problem that spreads, too; these horses have individual personalities, and people who've worked with horses will certainly agree that they have different temperaments, but because everything must be in support of the polemic those personalities arise entirely and simply from the experiences they've had: if this one is skittish it will inevitably turn out to be because she was badly-treated when young. Which again is fine if they're fairly smart animals, but not if they are fully thinking beings.

Still, ignore the obvious problems, and what's left is still worth reading, now also giving an interesting view of town and country life thirty years after London Labour and the London Poor.

Freely available from Standard Ebooks and Project Gutenberg.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:58pm on 10 October 2021

    I read this as a horse-mad child. My Mum gave me the copy that she'd been given as a child. I didn't notice the polemic about drink and had no clue it was set at a time when slavery was still a thing - the same way I didn't notice the Christian allegory in the Narnia books. Also I read dozens of books where animals were written with full human consciousness so I just accepted that as a style thing. And to be honest, it makes for a more satisfying kid's adventure if the animal protagonists can talk about plot stuff. The Silver Brumby books without dialogue are not nearly as good as the ones with it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:39pm on 10 October 2021

    Yes, and of course I'm being unfair - as you say, for Sewell to make it a good story, she needs some sort of continuing narration from the animal who is after all the only character who lasts more than a few chapters. As a modern reader of SF and fantasy I'm used to working through the implications of things, and those implications in this case are a bit unfortunate, but I don't think Sewell would even have noticed that she was in effect talking about slavery of thinking beings.

  3. Posted by John P at 06:54pm on 10 October 2021

    This is something that has bothered me ever since school, when my English teachers would analyse a book and expound on what the author was actually saying. In the absence of any opinion from the author themselves, I feel that we are in no position to say whether a book is trying to express something or is simply an attempt at a commercially viable product because the author needed some money.

    Especially when it is something that has been written in an era of which we have no experience. What are you doing today that seems perfectly reasonable, but which someone in 150 years time will think is totally unreasonable?

  4. Posted by Chris Bell at 08:12pm on 10 October 2021

    I think what Sewell was hoping to do was to stop the treatment of animals from being inhumane, rather than to question slavery as it existed in the USA at the time.

    Although she was originally a Quaker and thus probably predisposed to object strongly to slavery, she was also English, and slavery had been illegal in England since the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. I'm fairly sure that her intention in writing Black Beauty was to draw attention to the treatment of horses in England; she is supposed to have remarked that "a special aim was to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses". I think I will take her at her word.

    She lived with her parents, died four months after the book was sold, and was dying when she completed it, so I shouldn't think money was her objective.

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