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ClassicsOnline Home » SEWELL, A.: Black Beauty (Abridged)
Black Beauty, the friendly, patient stallion with a white blaze upon his forehead, is one of the most familiar figures in children’s literature. After the first lively carefree years in the fields, Black Beauty learns to accept the saddle and bridle and the rule of his masters. But a succession of misfortunes shows that the life of a horse can be harsh and painful. This touching portrait, full of drama and sadness, is as moving now as when it was first written in 1877.
There never was a more good tempered, handsome or courageous
horse than Black Beauty. From the time kind Squire Gordon took him in hand as a
foal, to his last, quiet home with the Misses Blomefield and Ellen, Black
Beauty never did less than his best. But it was not always an easy life from a
horse’s point of view, as Black Beauty himself describes.
Passing from one owner to another, he learns of the drunken
cruelty of masters, ladies determined to follow the fashion, whatever the hurt
to their carriage horses, and cab-men who would run their horses into the
ground, rather than treat them well. Yet whatever misfortune comes to him,
Black Beauty bears it nobly.
Black Beauty’s tale is not just a well-told story. He offers
an insight into a past that is difficult to imagine today. In those days, once
you left the train, there were only two ways to get around, on foot and by
horse. The hill that you speed up in a car had to be conquered step by step,
and if you were a horse, going down the other side with a heavy load was not
In real life the sufferings of harness horses in Victorian
times could be far worse than those Black Beauty and Ginger experienced.
Victorian newspapers were full of stories about atrocities committed by half-witted
stable boys and bad tempered grooms. The newspapers might well have reported
the suffering inflicted by their employers. Those magnificent carriage horses
strutting through Hyde Park held their heads high not through pride, but
because they were forced to do so by a savage bit attached to a bearing reign.
Stamping feet, foaming mouths and rattling harnesses were all proofs that the
horses were suffering from ceaseless pain. One of the cruelest whims against
which the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a
long campaign was the barbaric practice of docking the tail, depriving the
horse of its natural fly swat.
Horse dealers were mostly reputable men with an interest in
caring for their horses, but some were ‘copers’ who would use a range of tricks
to deceive the gullible — at the expense of the horse. A lively animal, which
might be a dangerous runaway, was given the ‘ginger’, a sound thrashing for a
few minutes to make it appear quiet and gentle displayed before the victim. If
the horse was a jade, dull and listless, it would be kept in a dark stall and
only when the buyer arrived brought out into the bright light startled and
Anna Sewell’s classic story informs us as much today as it
did in 1877, when it first appeared. She died at an early age, and did not live
to see its success; not only in terms of its popularity but also in the effect
it had on animal welfare — Even the horses of her funeral train benefited. Her
mother insisted that their painful bearing reins be removed. Few books can have
been as important in ‘inducing kindness, sympathy and an understanding
treatment of horses’ as hers.
Notes by Benedict Flynn
After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama,
Jonathan Keeble appeared at many leading repertory theaters including Coventry,
Liverpool, and a season at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Now an established
voice actor, he has narrated several books and performed over 150 radio plays
for the BBC. Favorites include: Bomber, Dr. Who, Wuthering Heights, Mutiny on
the Bounty, The Barchester Chronicles, and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.
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SEWELL, A.: Black Beauty (Abridged)