Unusual for me to review a book that I first read when I was very young, but a friend mentioned her 8 year old was reading it when we were talking about my books. It got me thinking about my language choices and the value today of books like Black Beauty. The messages are just as relevant as they ever were, I think.
Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty partly to raise awareness of the cruelty inflicted on working animals. Although the detail may have changed it is, tragically, even more necessary to highlight this message these days. We seem to have slipped backwards, in my opinion, or maybe we have never got any better. We have always struggled with the use of animals by some people as ‘trophies’ or status symbols. For Black Beauty, his idyllic life in a field with his mother comes to an end firstly with a gentle, kind master and grooms at his first home, and then goes steadily downhill once the master dies. In this phase Ginger, Merrylegs and the Captain keep him company. Captain was a War Horse, although the Crimean not the First World War. Anna Sewell’s description of Captain’s adventures meant for me that I had already envisaged the whole of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. It had stayed with me all my life, from a first reading when I was maybe ten. Imagine my surprise on my recent reading when I found the whole of Captain’s story laid out in no more than three pages!
Black Beauty’s relatively good life as a cab horse dredges up all the horrors of Victorian London – and if you think rush hour is a modern invention, remember that it was as bad in Victorian London, with traffic jams of horse drawn vehicles of all shapes and sizes. With added poo. Anna Sewell speaks out against barabaric practices such as the bearing rein – forcing ‘fashionable’ high head carriage but making it impossible for the horse to use its strength or to breathe properly. She shows that people did care for their animals, but as with most of us, conflicts between feeding and clothing one’s family means that the animals get second best, where best is by no means good. Black Beauty does have a happy ending, but it gets worse before it gets better, as perhaps all good stories should.
It can be read as a historical novel, or a children’s book, but it is for children of all ages, and the messages in it are timeless. One of the best books I have ever read, and I’m glad I kept my copy all the way through the many housemoves till it regained an honoured place on my bookshelf.
Read this book. Again.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell