BLACK BEAUTY is a novel about a horse. And also about people.
Anna Sewell injured her leg and was an invalid for life. She wrote “Black Beauty” in the 1870s, when she was so weak she had to dictate much of it to her mother. She died at 58, a few months after it was published.
“Black Beauty” has sold fifty million copies worldwide and has become, it’s said, “the sixth best seller in the English language.” Why was it so instantly popular? London’s 10,000 cabs were a public scandal; the horses were often badly treated. Sewell’s aim in writing ”Black Beauty,” she said, was to “induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding of the treatment of horses.” She achieved this with a brilliant device: as Black Beauty tells the story — remember, the horse is the narrator — animals are just people in other forms. They think, feel, and speak. Their personalities are a sophisticated combination of temperament and circumstance.
For Sewell, “Black Beauty” is a political book with a moral. But that’s not the enduring reason for the popularity of “Black Beauty.” As Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley has written, “When I first read ‘Black Beauty’ at age ten, I did not read it for the story --- I read it for the horse, for the chance to possess the thing that I otherwise could not have.”
That appeal is eternal. For young readers, “Black Beauty” is simply the best book about horses. It has everything: danger, cruelty, and a plot that never ambles when it can race.
Smartly, Sewell starts with her horse in paradise. Black Beauty’s mother
is a good teacher and his master is kind. He has speed and character: in
an emergency, he can get a message to a doctor fast enough to save his mistress’s life. He has great instincts, and refuses to cross a rotting bridge, saving more lives. He is loved and thanked, fed well and expertly cared for; his lot could not be better.
But three years of happiness are all Black Beauty has, for his owner must move to a better climate. His horses are sold. Level by level, Black Beauty leaves the world of country privilege for the city life. Fortunately, in Jerry Barker he has a master who is kindness incarnate.
Among Jerry’s beliefs: “If we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and we do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” There, right there, is a moral lecture. The way we treat “the least of these” --- that is, the desperately poor and disadvantaged --- is how we will be judged. But it’s crucial that Black Beauty does more than see cruelty. He’s injured and must be sold, and as he descends to a level where he’s purchased for just a few pounds, he experiences it.
This is a Victorian story — it must end well. And it does. In his old age, Black Beauty is returned to a lovely meadow and a righteous owner. “My troubles are over,” he says. In the morning, before he is quite awake, he often finds himself dreaming of his first home....
For all the cruelty it reveals, this must-read novel for young children is a picture of an orderly world, with good that’s more powerful than evil. Anyone would want to live in this world. And with this abridged edition and Paige Peterson’s exquisite illustrations, for a few hours anyone can.