How 'Black Beauty' Changed The Way We See Horses

Nov 2, 2012
Originally published on November 2, 2012 11:45 pm

NPR's Backseat Book Club is back! And we begin this round of reading adventures with a cherished classic: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Generations of children and adults have loved this book. With vivid detail and simple, yet lyrical prose, Black Beauty describes both the cruelty and kindness that an ebony-colored horse experiences through his lifetime — from the open pastures in the English countryside to the cobblestone grit of 19th-century England.

Sewell wanted the reader to see the world from a horse's point of view and so Black Beauty tells his own story in these pages. His wise observations and unvarnished candor reveal much about both human nature and animal suffering. Black Beauty was born at a time when horse power fueled almost everything: wars, agriculture, transportation, construction and factory work. Horses pulled barges. They hauled coal and granite. And they were also seen as a measure of wealth; the way one rode atop a stiffly controlled horse could convey style and stature. All of this meant horses were both exalted and often pushed past the point of exhaustion.

To better understand how Sewell's book became a children's classic and an animal rights manifesto we turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, who has written several books about horses herself — her latest is called Pie in the Sky. Smiley also rides and grooms horses and has re-opened the pages of Black Beauty several times in her lifetime. The book, she says, offers different lessons in adulthood than when she first picked it up as a child. But Smiley says the central themes of courage, perseverance and the power of kindness are timeless.

"Black Beauty helped people see animals in a new way," Smiley says. "As soon as you say that an animal has a point of view, then it's very difficult to just go and be cruel to that animal. ... [It showed] readers that the world is full of beings who should not be treated like objects."

Beasts Of Burden

Black Beauty, as his name suggests, was prized for his size and strength. But when misfortune comes, he is sold to a series of different owners. Some handlers are kind and show him love and respect. Others are careless or worse — callous. When Black Beauty is rode hard over dark roads by a drunken groom, he stumbles, looses a shoe and injures his legs. Though still beautiful, he is less valuable and ends up in London, pulling a carriage through teeming, dirty streets — a far cry from the green meadows of his youth.

Through his journeys, Black Beauty encounters several equine friends. There's Peggy, who's often whipped because her legs are short and her gait is slow. Ginger is temperamental, but for good reason: She was beaten as a colt. After being badly injured by a cart on the wrong side of the road, Rory dreams of retirement but is instead sent to haul coal.

"It's almost impossible for us to understand now that we have motorized vehicles all the things that horses did," Smiley says. "Anything that had to be moved — no matter how heavy it was — was moved by a horse. They just performed every function in society ... and society couldn't function without them."

Many of the stories are hardscrabble. The humans who control the horses are often flawed. But the friendships among the horses glow with courage and dedication. And instead of just painting easy villains and heroes, Sewell takes care to explain the conditions that often lead to cruelty — from the vanity of the rich to the financial hardships for cab drivers to the role that alcohol played in unraveling the humans' lives.

An Animal Autobiography

Black Beauty was first published in 1877 and was written in the last years of Sewell's life. Sewell, a Quaker born in Yarmouth, England, followed in the footsteps of her mother, Mary Wright Sewell, who wrote several popular books for children. When it was first published, Black Beauty was not necessarily intended for children. Sewell hoped to send a message to adults who controlled how horses were cared for.

Due to illness, Sewell was unable to walk easily so she depended on horse-drawn carts to move about for most of her life.

"She loved to drive the family pony and she loved to talk to the pony as if the pony could understand her," Smiley says. It's likely that Sewell based Beauty's character on Bess, a spirited black horse owned by the Sewell family. "Everybody in the family was quite fond of her," Smiley says.

Sewell's decision to write the book as an "animal autobiography" was quite novel in Victorian England, and the little green book with the sad-looking horse on the cover was released to great fanfare. Promoters in the U.S. brought a pirated edition of the book to America hoping it would do for animal rights what Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for slavery. Within two years, 1 million copies of Black Beauty were in circulation in the U.S., and animal rights activists regularly passed copies of the book to horse drivers and stable hands.

Black Beauty is widely credited with helping to change the way horses were cared for. There is little doubt that the book helped hasten the abolishment of the "bearing rein" — a strap used to pull a horse's head in toward its chest to force the appearance of a noticeable arch of the neck. (This was a highly desired look in aristocratic society, but it created great pain and difficulty for the horses. The animals could not use their neck and chest muscles to pull weigh properly or to breathe correctly. The unnatural arch weakened the horses and usually led to respiratory problems.) Black Beauty also placed a harsh spotlight on the practice of "docking" or cutting short a horses tail, largely for the sake of appearances — a practice that is still widely debated.

One of the things we love best about Black Beauty is that it is a great book for generations to read together. Parents and even grandparents can revisit a book they loved as children to read along with our book club members. We'd love to hear your thoughts about Black Beauty. (Have you ever considered writing an animal or insect biography to explore the world from another point of view?)

We also want to hear your questions about our next book club pick. For November we will be reading a modern-day best-seller, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, whose other books include the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Riordan, a former English and history teacher, uses all he learned in the classroom to educate young readers while entertaining them with rip-roaring adventure. In 2011, Riordan received the Children's Choice Book Award for Author of the Year. We can't wait to put your questions to this author to learn more about how he crafts such successful books.

Happy reading!

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. NPR's Backseat Book Club returns this fall with another reading adventure. As you may recall, this is when we choose a book for 9- to 14-year-olds, and we ask our listeners - young and not quite so young - to read along with us. Our colleague Michele Norris tells us about this month's selection.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Now that we're back in the saddle, we've reached back in history to find a book that will delight adults as well as all those kids between the ages of 9 and 14. For this month, we read a classic, "Black Beauty."


NORRIS: Generations of children - and adults - have loved this book, and it's easy to see why. Rarely does a story tug at the heart in quite this way. It's the tale of a majestic, ebony-colored horse whose life stretches from the green pastures of the English countryside, to the teeming streets of London.


NORRIS: And you view that world through the horse's eyes. He's the narrator. And what you see, and hear, in his voice reveals much about both human nature and animal suffering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) I must stand up in a stable, night and day, except when I'm wanted. And then I must be just as steady and quiet as any old horse who has worked 20 years. Straps here and straps there; a bit in my mouth, and blinkers over my eyes. Now, I am not complaining, for I know it must be so. I only mean to say that for a young horse, full of strength and spirits; who has been used to some large field or plain where he can fling up his head, and toss up his tail, and gallop away at full speed, and then round and back again with a snort to his companions, I say it's hard never to have a bit more liberty to do as you like.

NORRIS: As his name suggests, Black Beauty was prized for his size, and his strength. He spends his youth galloping freely in green meadows. But when misfortune comes, he's sold to a series of owners, and lands in the grime of London.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) The first week of my life as a cab horse, was very trying. I'd never been used to London. And the noise, the hurry; the crowds of horses, carts and carriages that I had to make my way through, made me feel anxious and harassed.

NORRIS: Along the way, he meets a series of horses whose stories are like a soap opera that could be called "Beast of Burden." There's Peggy, who's often whipped; she's just too slow. Ginger is temperamental, but for good reason. Rory is injured in an accident, and sent away to haul coal.

"Black Beauty" was written by Anna Sewell, and first published in England in 1877. To better understand how Sewell's book became both a children's classic and an animal rights manifesto, we turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley.

JANE SMILEY: She loved to drive the family pony, and she loved to talk to the pony as if the pony could understand her. Probably, "Black Beauty" is based on a horse named Bess, that they had; who was quite beautiful and black, and very spirited and willing. And everybody in the family was quite fond of her.

NORRIS: Jane Smiley has read "Black Beauty" many times. She, herself, rides and grooms horses. She says the way horses were mercilessly overworked - and yet, both prized and underappreciated - is the emotional thread in this book. But to understand why "Black Beauty" had such a strong impact, Smiley says, you have to remember how horse power fueled 19th century England.

SMILEY: It's almost impossible for us to understand, I think, now that we have motorized vehicles, all the things that horses did. They went down in coal mines. They carried large amounts of goods, over long distances. I mean, anything that had to be moved, no matter how heavy it was, was moved by a horse. They just performed every function in society. And so they were seen as vehicles and utility animals, and society couldn't function without them.

NORRIS: The little, green book with the sad-looking horse on its cover, was an immediate sensation in England. Promoters brought a pirated edition of the book to America; hoping it would, in part, do for animal rights what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had done for slavery. Within two years, a million copies of "Black Beauty" were in circulation, in the U.S. Smiley says the book did change perceptions, but she suggests another factor was also at work.

SMILEY: Some things go out of fashion; and there's a correlation, but not necessarily a causation. But the irony of it is that the best thing that ever happened to horses was that they ceased to be the automobiles and trucks of their day. The automobile was invented; and horses became pets, companion animals, leisure animals. And so, in general, they became better treated. They no longer had to do the things that they had had to do, all through the 19th century. So it took about a generation - or a generation and a half - for horses to be supplanted by motorized vehicles. So yes, "Black Beauty" had an effect, but technology had, probably, a bigger effect.

NORRIS: Is it an overstatement to say that the book, in some way, paved the way for animal rights movements, and institutions like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals?

SMILEY: I don't think it's an overstatement. I think that "Black Beauty" helped people see animals in a new way. As soon as you say that an animal has a point of view, then it's very difficult to just go and be cruel to that animal. The greater analogy, I think, is when - with the rise of the novel, when women started being portrayed, in the novel, as having inner lives and points of view and opinions. Then, the idea of what women were for, in society, began to shift. And that had only happened in the 18th century, with books like "Pamela" and "Clarissa." So to give a woman a point of view, to give a slave a point of view, to give a horse a point of view - all of these things show, to readers, that the world is full of beings who should not be treated like objects.

NORRIS: If you pick up this book, it will probably touch some emotion. It may make you cry. And yet, we give this book to children, time and time again. This is - very much - a children's book.

SMILEY: Children love very clear moral choices; and they love the knowledge that danger will somehow be overcome. That's a feature of children's literature. And Beauty does come to a good end. He finds a place where he's taken care of, and happy. So that's kind of what we expect in a children's book - a happy ending.

NORRIS: And really, don't we all want a happy ending? I'm Michele Norris.

SIEGEL: That was Jane Smiley talking with our own Michele Norris, about Anna Sewell's classic novel, "Black Beauty."


CORNISH: For NPR's next Backseat Book Club, we've picked a modern-day best seller - "The Red Pyramid," by Rick Riordan. You can send questions for the author to; or tweet us @NPRBackseat.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.