Saturday, May 15, 2010

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

by Debra E. Marvin

Based on our theme this week and a growing interest in YA (Young Adult) literature, I decided it was time to visit my old friend, Black Beauty. I don't know what age I was when I first read it, but be assured it made a huge impression on me.

What about you? Did you love this book? Were you a horse-crazy girl?

Never one to turn down a visit to Victorian England, I recently reconnected with my sweet childhood friends (via the magic of audiobooks).

Author Anna Sewell (pronounced SooWill), the daughter of quiet Quaker parents, was left lame from a fall at age fourteen. It's suggested her loss of mobility drove her intense interest in horses and animal rights. Her mother was an author of evangelical Children's books and with her help, Anna wrote Black Beauty when she was in her fifties. Love that! The process covered a six year period, due to her poor health, and the book was published a year after its completion in 1877. Unfortunately, her life ended just months afterward. Her one and only book went on to become the sixth all-time best seller of the English Language.

Miss Sewell’s goal was to encourage adults, especially those responsible for horses, to consider the way the animals were treated. She never expected, or knew, that it would go on to become a lingering young adult classic.

Beauty's story is not just about horses. Hearing it again, I’m amazed how relevant it is today and what a strong moral message it carries.

We follow, from his perspective, Black Beauty’s early years with his mother to his first new home with Squire Gordon. We learn to love his stable-mate, Ginger and his friend, the pony Merrylegs. When Mrs. Gordon becomes quite ill, the family must move to a warmer climate, and Beauty’s idyllic life changes when he is sold. He goes from place to place and has a variety of masters and jobs. The reality of what he and the other horses go through is not always pleasant, but as a child, I don’t recall thinking it a terribly depressing book. Black Beauty's time in London as a cab horse is exceptionally well done. Beauty works alongside the retired war horse, Captain, and is well cared for by his master, Jerry, a thoughtful cabbie and family man.

Black Beauty represents a character who learns to do his best at all times and keep a pleasant outlook. He reminds us of the importance of caring for others and cherishing friendships. In the end, after some very difficult years, Beauty finds a pleasant place to live out his last years. The depth of period detail, horse knowledge and Beauty's thoughtful intelligence and gentleness makes for a memorable read and touches our hearts, just as Miss Sewell intended.

For myself, Black Beauty gave me many, many hours of enjoyment long after I’d read the book (and I’m not sure how many times I read it!) because it inspired some of my favorite make-believe. I’ve talked before about the old barn across the road from my house where I played “Black Beauty” in the basement level stalls. When the huge barn on a hillside was torn down in my teen years, I wept at the loss of such a beautiful structure and the memories it held for me. A child without siblings for playmates might well develop a bigger imagination than they would otherwise and I can still remember that musty basement stable and endless days of pretending.
Black Beauty increased my love of reading, my love of horses and probably some Anglophilia. I imagine this is true for a lot of us. Knowing my great grandmother had come to the U.S. from Victorian England as a child probably contributed to that.

I hope you’ve a fond memory of Black Beauty or some of the other books we’ve discussed this week. Take a look back over our recent posts if you have time. And visit next week as well.

Remember to pass on the love of reading to a child you know. Television, videos, and electronic toys have their place but there is nothing as rich as a child’s imagination fueled by a good book!


  1. I hang my head in shame. I never read Black Beauty. I did read Misty of Chinco-whatsit, but I liked the one about Stormy better. And wasn't there a story about a mule or burro. I remember liking that one.

    Okay, I'm going to my corner for the day adn I promise not to come out again until I have something useful to add to the conversation.

  2. Well, Lisa, you can read it aloud to your children when they are a bit older. As I said, the author included the truth about the way some people treated their horses but the theme rises above it all and the moral message is very well done. So come out of the corner. Besides, don't you have some writing to do???

    The Misty and Stormy stories are based on the wild ponies of, in this case, the Assateague barrier island of Virginia. A little known tourist fact is that the horses are rounded up each year to be checked by vets but are truly wild horses. If I'd know that as a child, I would have been begging to go look at them. I did get to see two other herd groups that are farther south.
    I should go back and read those two books again!

  3. My favorite horse stories as a youngster were the Walter Farley series, The Black Stallion and The Island Stallion. LOVED them - I think I read most of them (more than a few times each), there were quite a few. And I'm not sure I completely forgave my parents for not letting me have a horse - after all, we DID live on a farm!

  4. Lovely post, Deb. I enjoyed Black Beauty too. I remember feeling indignant and a bit grossed out when I read some of those scenes you mentioned where people mistreated him.

    When I played with those plastic horse toys as a kid, I made them live in a haunted stable. Or take barbies places. Now I'm all nostalgic. And babbling. :)

  5. I love the haunted stable Susie. Sounds like Jill and her favorite Nancy Drew book. A little gothic suspense!

    Thanks Maquis (secret identity of my longest bookworm pal) You know I'm pretty sure I remember your love affair with the Black Stallion books.

  6. I never knew Anna Sewell's history. That makes the story even more poignant.
    I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Ginger died. That scene was PAINFUL.
    My plastic horses (I liked the tiny ones best) went out and "grazed" and had all sorts of horsey interactions beneath the giant sagebrush in our field! And I remember making tiny bridles for them out of thread. I must have been more patient as a child. : )

  7. Well, when I played Black Beauty (by myself) I was always Ginger. I guess it was easy to pretend I was a horse but not a male horse!

    I sort of stayed in those happier days for Ginger.

    Now I wonder if I did the English accent? It wouldn't surprise me. The voices in my head still do that.

    Thanks for your comments, ladies!

  8. Excellent post, Deb. I loved the story of Black Beauty.

    I had a Shetland pony who went by the name Flicka when I was 12. Not the best horse - quite mean actually - but I enjoyed taking care of him. And riding him through the fields was quite exhilarating - when I could get him to move faster than a trot, anyway. LOL

  9. Love this post, Deb. Beautiful. And what a breathtaking black and white picture. I love it.

  10. Thanks Suzie. I loved that photo and it had to go in here. Heck I even love looking into cow eyes!

    Anita, I'm glad you said that. I had a Welsh pony (bigger than a Shetland) but I didn't mention it because I used to get the old 'spoiled only child' remarks as a kid. Shawnie had a irritable streak in him as well but I loved him. Trotting? not so much!

    I have some funny stories about our relationship, though. My grandpa told me a lot about horses because he'd been in the WWI cavalry in Europe. I will say that I had one of those 'get right back in the saddle experiences' with that pony who always tested my authority.

  11. Deb, great post! I had no idea about the author's journey to publish Black Beauty - very inspiring! I also remember a tv show based on the story of Black Beauty that I loved when I was a child.


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