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|Black Beauty's Secrets: Anna Sewell and the Humane Treatment of Animals
The real story in a children's book about a horse
By Justine Hankins
Posted on Jul 21, 2005
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Black Beauty, An Autobiography of a Horse still reads well after all these years. A few speeches by the human characters are a little stiff but it clips along at a good pace. Everything I ever needed to know I first learned in Black Beauty as a child. Like many working in animal welfare, human welfare and labor rights, peace, green cities, and land use movements, this little book greatly influenced my life although it is only recently, thanks to Justine Hankin's article that I have realized it. Here is the story behind one of the most famous stories that altered how humans looked at the world. -Editor
Black Beauty nuzzles fondly in the collective memory of childhood. Many of us met the celebrated horse while quietly leafing through illustrated children's classics. Still more were introduced to the story by countless films and television remakes. Black Beauty is one of the best known, and best loved, fictional animal characters of all time. But, on re-reading the book in the cold light of adulthood, its popularity with successive generations of children is something of a mystery. The book is dull by comparison to most children's fiction, old and new. The language is wooden and the story is heavy with dreary detail crammed with horse care tips from diet to stable architecture. The tone is often sanctimonious and many of the horse's pious monologues would be more suited to a Sunday sermon than an exciting adventure story.
But then, Anna Sewell didn't set out to write a book for children. Her mission was not to entertain children, but to inform adults. She wrote at the time that her aim was to "induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses." She used her eponymous equine narrator to catalog the cruelty and neglect suffered by millions of working horses in Victorian Britain. Black Beauty is unlikely to appeal to the modern adult reader, yet, behind the book's prim and quaint Victorian conventions, it is a plea for an ethical treatment of animals that many of today's animal welfare advocates and ecology campaigners might find surprisingly contemporary.
Sewell was born in 1820 into a strict Quaker family, where she was instilled with values of charity and compassion as well as respect for the natural world. "Kindness to animals was part of her Quaker-based religious and moral code which urged prevention of cruelty, whether to animals or humans," says Adrienne E. Gavin, author of Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell. Sewell's mother urged her daughter to respect God's creatures and wrote stories that taught her: "Even frogs can feel, and do not like pain more than you or I." The young Anna is said to have confronted a neighbor with the corpse of a blackbird he had shot.
The (Quaker) Society of Friends was founded in the 17th century and embraced a philosophy of compassion toward animals from the beginning. The words of John Woolman, a Quaker who preached across America in the 1700s, are a typical example: To say we love God and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature... was a contradiction in itself. One of the earliest incidents of what we would now call direct action by animal rights activists occurred in 1805 when a group of Quakers physically stepped in, at no small risk to themselves, to stop a bull from being baited with dogs.
Religious conviction goes a long way toward explaining Sewell's perspective on animal welfare, and her devotion to horses was given added poignancy following a serious fall when she was in her teens. For the rest of her life, she had difficulty walking and relied on a pony and trap for transport. It took Sewell seven years to write Black Beauty, her only novel, which was published in 1877, five months before her death at the age of 58.
Although her primary purpose was to highlight the suffering of horses, she also shows sympathy and understanding for the hardpressed working-man who was forced, through poverty, to push his horse too far. It is cruelty inflicted because of greed or vanity that makes her erupt with indignation. The horses in the book despair of the use of "bearing reins," which kept the animal's head held painfully high and were an essential element of fashionable funerals. One horse, Sir Oliver, complains, "To my mind, fashion is one of the wickedest things in the world" a sentiment more recently evoked in anti-fur campaigns.
Grasping bosses and the miserly rich are blamed for both human and animal suffering. Black Beauty's colleagues die early, but the human worker also faces an early grave. In one typical scene, London cab driver Jerry coughs and splutters with consumption alongside a shivering Black Beauty poor man and horse united in suffering while the wealthy party the night away and then argue about the cab fare. The novel's message is unequivocal: Spare the horses because "we shall all have to be judged according to our works, whether they be towards man or towards beast."
When Black Beauty was first published, only 100 copies were ordered by all the bookshops in London combined. But the book soon became a publishing sensation. In the 1920s, one critic wrote, "Only the Bible has found a wider distribution." He was exaggerating, but not by much. It's estimated that 50 million copies of Black Beauty have now been sold worldwide.
Black Beauty was received with great enthusiasm by animal welfare organizations. Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals endorsed several editions in the United Kingdom. George Angell, the founder of the Massachusetts SPCA, gave free copies to cab drivers with the subtitle The Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Horse. The tales of suffering recounted by Black Beauty and his friends were by no means a literary overstatement; a horse's life was often brutal and short. The book accurately describes the cruelty, neglect, and overwork that were commonly the lot of horses whether they were used for trips to the village shops, to pull a butcher's cart, or as a cavalry horse.
Sewell didn't live to see the book's success and she could never have imagined that her little novel would become one of the most widely read children's books of all time. Nor could she have foreseen that the horse would be replaced by the automobile or that her vision of kindness highly eccentric at the time would become widely accepted as a goal worth striving for. She certainly would never have imagined that one day, in many years to come, little children would spend wet afternoons watching reruns of Black Beauty on television.
2005 © Copyright by Best Friends.org and Justine Hankins
This article is posted by gracious permission of Best Friends.org and by the author, Justine Hankins. West By Northwest.org gratefully acknowledges them.
Best Friends.org magazine is published by Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. They run an extraordinary sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals. Best Friends has a network of friends and supporters worldwide.
Justine Hankins is a journalist for the Guardian Weekend and Best Friends.org magazine and writes with great verve about animals, the people /animal bond, and adventure and the environment.
For more stories at West By Northwest.org about horses visit:
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding
Horses Re-Create Habitat for Cutthroat Profit
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Lise and Her Horses
Life on the Northern Range: Spring Metamorphosis
Remember the Tevis Cup: A Horse Named Raven Flies Over the Mountains and Through the Woods
Horse Neglect and Abuse in America: Fact and Fiction
Disaster Preparedness and Your Animals
Sarah in the Saddle
Cascade Camping Con Caballista or High ho, Silver
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