Karen Swallow Prior on Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty
March 30 marks the 200th birthday of Anna Sewell, whose only published work, Black Beauty, is credited with changing the way we see animals, particularly horses, and the way we treat them. Even more significantly, perhaps, is that we cannot change the way we treat the world around us without changing ourselves in the process.
Born to a pious Quaker family, Sewell became disabled as a young girl as a result of crippling ankle injuries. These two circumstances of her life—her religious faith and her physical suffering—inform Sewell’s novel more than any other things. She never married, instead dedicating her life to charitable and educational efforts. And, like most women of her time, Sewell was destined, seemingly, for obscurity. Then at age 50, in the wake of lifelong debilitating illnesses, she was given the news that she would likely live only a few months more. Confined to home, Sewell began writing with great effort a story inspired by the beloved horses that had ferried her frail body about for most of her life. A few months turned into a few years—still not long, but long enough to finish the work she had set out to write. Black Beauty released in time for Christmas of 1877. Sewell died a few months later at the age of 58. While her book was warmly received upon its publication, she didn’t live long enough to witness the power it would come to exert over the world.
The newly industrialized society in which Sewell lived had, ironically, become increasingly dependent upon horses, which were needed to fill the growing transportation and commerce demands of populous urban centers. Within a modern mindset shaped by metaphors of mechanization, horses were viewed as extensions of trains and valued and treated accordingly. The city environment—with tight spaces, loud noises, and cobblestone roads—itself was inherently inhospitable to such delicate, high strung creatures. Compounding the problem further, the migration of many laborers from the countryside to urban areas put more and more horses into the hands of those unschooled in their care. Sewell wrote her book with this audience in mind, nestling lessons on the care of horses inside an engaging story, one that stable hands, grooms, and drivers could both read and enjoy. She wrote not just for those who owned horses but also for those who labored with them.
Yet, the style of the novel was not only more readable to the less educated working class, but it was appealing to more sophisticated elites who were also exhausted by a rapidly changing, ever demanding world. Sewell’s simple, clear, muscular prose—what critics refer to as “plain style”—expresses her Quaker aesthetic. The plainness, rooted in theological conviction, which characterized Quakers’ lifestyles, material goods, and dress extended to their language, both speech and writing, and is beautifully exemplified by the novel.
It is perhaps partially owing to this plain style that Black Beauty is now classified as children’s literature. (But it is perhaps owing, too, to a modern day disdain for simple things like manual labor, animals, imagination, and kindness.) During the mid-Victorian era, children’s literature was a still-developing category of books. The fact is that Sewell was writing for men. And she was read by them, too, as one review attests: “Both men and boys read it with the greatest avidity, and many declare it to be ‘the best book in the world’.”
While horse stories and talking animals are relegated today to children (especially girls), literary categories were less rigid then. So although the premise—a tale narrated by a horse—might seem childish to modern day readers, such a conceit was a novelty, edgy even, in its day. Indeed, the original title page of the novel declares, cheekily, that the tale is “translated from the original equine.” Such “animal autobiographies,” as they are called today, had considerable precedent. Moral lessons spoken by animals, such as fables, go back to ancient times. But longer fictional narratives told entirely from the animal’s perspective sprang up in the eighteenth century alongside the growth of natural history, which stressed the idea of the development of nature, portraying it with metaphors that were more organic than mechanistic. With the rise of this field came an increased desire among the general public to understand the lower creatures in a way dramatically different from earlier Enlightenment philosophers’ cold assessment of animals as merely living machines that do not suffer or feel pain.
This new (or, rather, old) conception of animals is articulated in Black Beauty in the words of a genteel woman who intervenes on behalf of the horse when she find finds him being cruelly whipped by a cart driver. She admonishes the carter, “We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.” Despite the common view of the upper classes as the teachers of, or models for, the working class, shown here and throughout the narrative (which reflected the realities of her time), Sewell is notable for her sharp critique of animal cruelty by members of all social classes. Indeed, in the world of Black Beauty, human beings are primarily categorized not by class, race, age, or sex—but by their kindness.
The novel allowed its readers—first, it was tens of thousands and eventually, tens of millions—to experience the world as a horse does and inspired them to end their systemic brutalization. Moreover, the sympathy the book cultivated for horses spilled over into a general sympathy that stretched toward human beings as well, with many readers seeing parallels in its pages between the plight of horses and that of women and slaves. In fact, when it was printed in America in 1890, Black Beauty was billed by the publisher as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the horse.” This is not surprising, given that the central theme of the novel, spoken by a friend of one of Black Beauty’s kindest owners, is hardly childish: “My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”
Such moralism, rather out of fashion today outside of sermons and hashtag activism, was actually characteristic of much respected literature during this age. “Improving literature,” as it is called, included genres such as conduct books, letters, and didactic fiction. The popularity of such works had been growing since the seventeenth century when a newly emerging social mobility created a market for reading that could initiate the upwardly mobile into the manners and customs of a new class. The earliest novels, in fact, published a century before or more before Black Beauty, drew on this hunger for improvement by combining instruction with entertainment. Within the novel genre, the most prominent type was the bildungsroman or novel of development. These fictional accounts of ordinary people (Jane Eyre or David Copperfield, for example) striving to make their way in the world emerged at a time when the positions of real people in the real world were no longer pre-determined by their status at birth but might be forged by sheer will a little work and a little more luck. Black Beauty follows this model in telling the story of an ordinary horse, from his youth to his old age, whose quest is the same as that found in most of the great Victorian novels: to find his home in the world.
Black Beauty is indisputably a didactic novel. But even so, its lessons succeed not so much as abstract ideas but more through an accumulation of felt experience. The evocative, image-laden language of Black Beauty helps us to feel what the horse feels, from the first words of the book:
“The first place that I can well remember was large pleasant meadow …”
To the last:
“My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple trees.”
The aesthetic belief of the novel is made explicit near the end of the story when, while Black Beauty is embarking on the most terrible chapter of his hard, itinerant life, he says, “I have heard men say that seeing is believing; but I should say that feeling is believing.” And by the time the reader has reached this point, she has indeed felt and believed.
And herein lies the real significance of Black Beauty, and in some ways, the significance of all good stories, and indeed, all good art.
It is the gift of all good literature to help us see the world through the eyes of others. But it is also the gift of good literature to help us see ourselves through others’ eyes. Even though the surface level story of Black Beauty is one that takes us into the interior experience of the horse, the ultimate effect of that imaginative journey is not in knowing what it is like to be a horse. Such a thing is impossible. Rather, it is in helping us know who we are.
Karen Swallow Prior is a literary critic and author who has written for a variety of publications and has been profiled at The New Yorker. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She will begin this fall as Research Professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.