Black Beauty

by Anna Sewell

Cover image

Publisher: Amazon
Copyright: 1877
Printing: January 2006
ASIN: B000JQU8FC
Format: Kindle
Pages: 288

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

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I have to warn from the start that this is not a book about which I can be objective. There are some books on which one imprints at an early age, books that become more than stories, become part of how one thinks about their subject material for the rest of one's life. Black Beauty is that way for me. I still have the Whitman classics edition (published in 1955) I read as a kid. It no longer has the spine portion of the cover and is in danger of imminent structural collapse, and it has a sticker on the title page with the address where I lived as a child. I have no idea how many times I've read this book, but I'm sure it's at least a dozen. But this was the first time in about twenty years.

Black Beauty is a classic of the talking animal genre, but it's not one of those books where the animals talk to people. Nor is it a book about animals in the wild. It's a story told by a horse about his life, a horse who lives in the world of (mostly upper-class) late-19th-century England. He can talk to other horses and understand people, but the people can't understand him. Black Beauty is the story of the working life of a horse, starting as a well-bred horse for the gentry and, over the course of the book, experiencing a variety of different jobs and social classes.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a realistic portrayal of the inner thoughts of a horse. It's social commentary, largely about horses and written from the viewpoint of a horse, but that viewpoint doesn't have a lot of horse in it. Beauty's views are the author's views, and focus primarily on the way humans treat horses and secondarily on the character of people. There are mentions of stable conditions, feed, and various harnesses, and occasionally some other horse experiences such as nice meadows or insects, but there is absolutely nothing of herd dynamics, no sex whatsoever from any perspective, and an extremely human concept of friendship between the horses that bears little resemblence to an animal relationship. Black Beauty features animals more in the style of The Hundred and One Dalmatians than Bambi.

It's also worth knowing, if you read this book for the first time as an adult, that it's a didactic book. Sewell wrote Black Beauty with a goal: to improve the way that people treat horses. She uses the book to show how some specific ways of treating horses are both hurtful and dangerous (checkreins in particular), vividly illustrates the perils of sloppy grooms and badly maintained stables, and makes pointed comments about many other parts of a horse's working life and equipment (such as blinders). The horses' perspective is used to show how unnecessary and dangerous these things are and to show the results of some types of human cruelty or simple sloppiness and inattention. There are also some (more subtle, generally) comments about human failings not directly related to horses, particularly drinking. But while this could have been ham-handed and painful in the hands of another author, Sewell writes with such a kind heart and obvious open sympathy for both people and animals that her moral stances blend naturally into the stories and fully engage the reader's sympathy. It's also effective; while I have spent hardly any time around horses, I've known for most of my life not to give an overheated horse an unlimited amount of cold water.

Beyond being a good, heart-warming animal story (or, more accurately, a sequence of stories, since Black Beauty feels like a set of short stories about each of his owners plus some inserted stories told by other horses), something fascinating has happened to this book since it was originally written. It's undergone a transformation that I think makes it even more interesting and enjoyable than it would have been originally, or at least interesting for a very different reason. The combination of its setting and its perspective, and it's deep concern with animal treatment issues that are completely foreign to nearly all modern readers, has turned it into a book that has some of the appeal of science fiction.

Most of Black Beauty is set among aristocracy who maintain a stable of horses for riding and drawing carriages. Much of the rest (and these have always been my favorite parts) is set among London cabbies, when cabs were all horse-drawn. Combine that with a story told from the perspective of an animal that few modern readers have much experience with (even if that perspective is flawed), and you have a book that takes a detailed and immersive look inside a culture that is strange and fantastic but still resonates with universals of human behavior and concerns. And because Sewell wrote the book originally for people who lived in that world, she doesn't explain any of it; she just takes it for granted and tells stories within it, letting the modern reader pick up the details as part of the story, which offers exactly the same sort of thrill of discovery as fantasy or science fiction. Well-written science fiction, too, since it follows the maxim of showing rather than telling and avoids any infodumps, since Sewell wouldn't have thought they were needed.

It's a remarkable effect, and one that isn't offered by just any older fiction. Jane Austen is even farther removed from current culture, but since her books are all about people and human relationships, they don't have that delightful sense of the strange and new. Black Beauty is concerned essentially completely with obsolete technology and a work animal that most of us have interacted with only in passing; it has, over time, turned into a completely different kind of book in an alchemical transformation like the making of wine.

I don't know how others will react to this, particularly adult readers coming to it for the first time. Black Beauty has been part of my image of the world for so long that I don't remember what it was like to read it for the first time. But it survived very well on a re-reading. It's not particularly realistic, and it wears its heart and its goals on its sleeve, but it's so warm, kind-hearted, and devoted to showing how much of a difference some thoughtfulness and determination to do the right thing can make that I can't help but love it. Everything is a little too easy and gentle at the start of the book, and I think it gets better towards the end of the book where there's more balance and more risk. But I love all of it, and enjoyed re-reading it.

Some final notes about format, since this re-read was an experiment with reading books on the Kindle: this is one of the public domain books that you can "buy" for free from Amazon if you have a Kindle. It's also available in multiple formats from many of the free public domain book sites, such as Project Gutenberg. My guess is that the Amazon version is the Project Gutenberg version with all the Gutenberg notices stripped off, which is apparently common practice for their public domain books.

Unfortunately, while the actual text is of high quality (I never noticed a typo or transcription error), the formatting of the Amazon version leaves a lot to be desired. It was clearly converted from a hard-wrapped text version to a line-per-paragraph format for the ebook reader, and whoever did that apparently did it by hand and did it poorly. Many of the paragraphs have extraneous line breaks in the center of the paragraph, probably where the line happened to end at the margin of the converter's screen, leading them to not realize there was another hard line break there. This could have easily been fixed by using a script instead of manually reformatting. A lesser problem, although still annoying, is that there is no page number metadata, and the chapter and part headings aren't formatted at all. The text is excellent, but the ebook conversion is sloppy and slapdash.

The only real benefit of the Amazon download is that it's free and easy if you have a Kindle. Otherwise, I recommend looking for a better-formatted version. Even with a Kindle, you may want to try a MOBI file direct from one of the sources of free books instead of Amazon's version. Or just check your local library or used bookstore; Black Beauty has had many, many printings, and you can often find it in the children's section.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-06-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21