Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Originally published in 1877, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is one of the best-selling books of all time, with over 50 million copies sold worldwide. In many ways, it is also one of the most influential. Told from the point of view of a beautiful black horse, Black Beauty broke literary ground for being one of the first novels to feature an animal as a central character and narrator. Presented as a sort of fictional autobiography of the titular horse, the story is told with realism and conviction, eschewing the fantastical and whimsical elements present in tales with comparable subject matter. The animals are imbued with complex emotions and thoughts usually reserved for human characters; however, unlike similar works of the period, the animals are not intended as personifications of human traits nor as allegories of the human condition. Rather, the novel realistically depicts firsthand the various toils and hardships a typical equine of the era would have experienced as Black Beauty is passed from owner to owner and job to job.

Sewell’s only published work, Black Beauty was inspired by the author’s necessary reliance on horses after suffering a debilitating injury as a child which left her unable to walk unassisted. As a result of her condition, Sewell spent a great deal of time in horse-drawn carriages, where she developed a great respect for the animals and concern for their treatment. Her main motive in writing the novel was to encourage compassion amongst people who worked with horses, specifically carriage and cab drivers. However, the book would go on to gain more popularity than Sewell had anticipated, and kindle major reforms for both animals and humans alike.

In her novel, Sewell alleges that anyone who claims religious faith but is not “kind to man or beast” is living a “sham.” Following the publication of these strong words, there was public outcry calling for improvements in both the welfare of horses and of the working class who cared for them. The bearing rein, which it was fashionable at the time to fasten tightly across a horse’s chest to the point of causing the animal breathing difficulty, fell massively out of favor due to the painful descriptions of its misuse in the book. Additionally, laws were passed allowing the financial difficulties of cab drivers to be eased, which led to a better livelihood not only for drivers, but for the horses they were driving. Anna Sewell did not live to see all of the reforms her words created come to pass, but died a mere five months after the novel’s release in satisfaction, knowing that her mission to inspire “kindness, compassion, and sympathy” had indeed succeeded.

Today Black Beauty is considered a literary classic and is often featured as required reading for younger children due to its animal protagonist. However, the novel remains a powerful examination not simply of animal welfare, but of the human capacity for both cruelty and compassion. Anna Sewell presents her treatise through the eyes of the creatures who would know these aspects of humanity best: our working animals.

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