1 October 2020 Susannah

Black Beauty

Black horse

Two hundred years ago this year a woman was born in Norfolk who would bring about an interesting change in fiction. Her name was Anna Sewell and her novel Black Beauty (first published in 1877) was groundbreaking in that the story was told from the point of view of the horse (something successfully used by Michael Morpurgo in War Horse).

Anna Sewell captures the beauties of the Norfolk countryside in her book. She hated cities and disliked the growing industrialisation of her age, but she especially hated cruelty to horses in the cities. Although Black Beauty is today in the world’s top ten bestselling novels for children, it was actually written for adults. Sewell wanted to encourage sympathy for horses that were used as tools and ill-treated by cruel owners. Her call for action was successful – animal welfare began to improve and the book did bring a greater public awareness that kindness to animals was something to be aimed for.

As a result of an accident in childhood, Anna Sewell struggled to walk and suffered terrible health problems. She died only five months after her only book was published, and was buried in a Quaker graveyard which has since been bulldozed. There’s a memorial to her in Norwich and a memorial horse trough in her name in the USA.

I only know of one biography of Sewell – Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell by Adrienne E. Gavin (2004).

I must admit that as a child I found Black Beauty almost too painful to read. The treatment of poor Ginger was just too awful. Was it one of your favourites? It’s interesting to think about other novels told from the point of view of an animal – parts of White Fang, Watership Down, Orwell’s Animal Farm – what other animal stories, told from the point of view of the animal, can you think of? Let me know by leaving a comment.

And another interesting anniversary this year is the 100th birthday of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published novel and of course the book which first introduced the world to the memorable Hercule Poirot.

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Featured image credit- Black horse, https://pixnio.com/fauna-animals/horses/stallion-black-horse-cavalry-grass-animal-equine
Body image credit- Anna Sewell, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2968871

Comments (16)

  1. Jenny Falkiner

    I loved Black Beauty and so did my children, but of course it made me cry, and so glad if it did improve the animal welfare scene. So many animal books are very poignant, I guess because the animals don’t have our choices!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I think we especially feel that cruelty to animals because there is so little they can do to prevent it. I still feel like weeping just thinking about those poor horses and all they endured in ‘Black Beauty’.

  2. Kath Draper

    The childhood book that made me cry was Storm Boy, I can never watch the film adaptations knowing what happens to Mr Percival.

  3. Jill McArthur

    Jennie by Paul Gallico. I vividly remember devouring this book as a young reader. The idea that you could be transformed into an animal seemed so audacious to a newbee reader.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I so loved his book The Snow Goose, but I’ve never read Jennie. What sort of animal was Jennie?? It was obviously a memorable reading experience for you.

  4. Margi Abraham

    I read this novel again quite recently; for the first time since childhood. What struck me was that it is a series of vignettes which suited childhood reading rather than for adults. Tears also struck me again when Ginger died. It is one of few books that can reduce me to tears. Black Beauty is probably the reason I put any book down when animals are cruelly hurt. But even tears did not stop me reading All Quiet on the Western Front or Birdsong to the end.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You are brave, Margi. I don’t know that I could bring myself to read Black Beauty again as it upset me so much when I was young. But interesting to hear your ‘adult’s point of view’ on it. I always cry over Matthew in Anne of Green Gables, Beth in Little Women, and Bobs the horse in Mates at Billabong.

      • Vasudha

        I agree this is a beautiful but heartbreaking book. I reread Black Beauty as an adult and was struck by the carelessness and cruelty towards the horses.
        I love stories told from the animal’s point of view – I loved Enzo’s voice in ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’!

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I have never heard of The Art of Racing in the Rain – thanks for the recommendation. Yes, the cruelty in Black Beauty is just too devastating.

        • Pam Allen

          I was going to suggest this book; you beat me to it, Vasudha. I really enjoyed it, despite my reservations before I began reading it. I fell in love with Enzo.

  5. Kay West

    I read Black Beauty when I was10. Ginger’s treatment and death really moved me, the first book to make me cry.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I sobbed over it too! Cruelty to defenceless animals is just so hard to comprehend.

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