Black Beauty
By Anna Sewell

 

Plot

The narrative is all from the perspective of Black Beauty, a well-bred horse who during a course over 15 years tells us what he's seen, felt and experienced. His life is ever changing and takes us through almost all kinds of work horses were forced to do. We experience his pride, his grief, his pain and his joys, his high times and his downfall as he changes hands and his owners deal with him the way they think they are allowed to. Beauty, a lovely black stallion who enjoys his early life with Farmer Grey and subsequent move to Birtwick Park. There he frolics with fellow horses Ginger and Merry Legs and kindly stable hands John Manly and Joe. Unfortunately, hardships and injury force Beauty's move to a cruel Lord and Lady, hostile liveries, a kind but hard working cabbie named Jerry, and finally backbreaking labour before his return to idyllic pastures with Joe.

Review

This book is a classic and it's like everybody seems to know what it's about. Actually from today's perspective "Black Beauty" seems to be regarded as a children's book – especially for pre-teen girls with a deep affection for horses. This misconception certainly has to do with the many film adaptations we grew up with. Every school kid should probably read it, but the sheer convenience of watching a movie might make an end to this plan.

The novel by Anna Sewell shed light on the mistreatment of horses, tho' Anna never saw this book coming to the shelves. Some sources say that it actually helped to abolish certain practises shortly after it came out (like the cruel practice of using the check-rein (or "bearing rein", a strap used to keep horses' heads high, fashionable in Victorian England but painful and damaging to a horse's neck). She died before its publication in November 1877.

The sheer beauty of this book is that it has to be re-discovered by reading it or – even better in this case – having it read to you. It revolves around a good deal of a lifespan of a high-bred horse called "Black Beauty" - a black stallion. His fortunes and misfortunes are mixed with lovely dialogues he has with other horses. We learn about their stories and what they have seen and heard.

The good and bad humans he finds himself made subject to are the real story here. It's not so much about him; it's all about human society and how it deals especially with animals and weak or strong beings in general. His – final? - rescue to seemingly safe and kind hands feels like a release from all pain and suffering. But as we have learned, humans promise a lot and often can't keep their well-intended promises due to reasons horses can't even start to understand.

And that's what it's all about. Beauty's perception of the world is one were humans rule everything. His job is to obey. Even in his deepest despair we see that he wouldn't even start to think of revolting against plain wrongdoing of humans. This becomes strikingly clear when in the last chapters Beauty comes to the conclusion that humans are the strongest beings. What a funny thought. We all know that a horse is physically stronger than a human, but Beauty is trapped in his moral. His mother's motto used to be: "Always do your best and don't start to complain". May I add here that especially this trade of character isn't particularly common with me? Just a joke! But maybe an explanation why this book counts as typical "good-girl" literature.

What's being described in this fine piece of writing is something else and Anna Sewell doesn't beat around the bush. She wanted to make a point against mistreating of "inferior" creatures in a time when such thinking wasn't regarded as popular or self-evident. Even today we tend to treat animals as things more than beings that got feelings and a sense for liberty. A very disappointing streak in human behaviour is that we tend to think about "number one" and after that not too much follows. As a consequence we tread on weaker beings that don't complain in order to have it easier for ourselves. Some folks simply choose to lay all solutions to their own problems on the backs of others. Especially when this is being done at the cost of a helpless animal a well-known monster lurks back at us. What could be worse than mistreating a helpless creature and working it to death? Does this ring a bell with us – death by work? Ignorance, non-dialectic thinking and denial of empathy lead to catastrophes of gigantic proportions.

Actually Anna Sewell doesn't make it that easy on herself. There is a very striking section in the third part of this book where she let's a carriage man explain why he has to exploit his horses. Not because he acts out of a sick state of mind but because he doesn't have any other financial choice. With this unexpected twist she accuses society's mechanisms in general but she doesn't show us any consequences or solutions. Everybody seems to be a perpetrator and at the same time a victim. Only well-off folks seem to be able to show a dignified manner towards their animals. This solution to the dilemma naturally isn't one: be nice if you can afford it. The one thing that's certain is that today we got machines that work for us the way horses used to work for us. Today we treat four legged beings them like pets, sport devices for well-off folks or as a prolonged dream of ourselves regarding pace and elegance. But don't dare to look any farther. Industrial meat production isn't too far around the corner as well as animal tests. All for our well being and vanity. "For fashion" – one of the strongest sentences of one of Beauty's companions.

So, what's left to say? After giving it a second thought it might well be that you'll find that all mentioned topics aren't overcome yet. So here we go, a highly modern book. It just doesn't give you any clues on how to solve the underlying problems. In this aspect it remains a (strikingly poignant) description of the human condition and the state we're still in.

Nat Review

Needless to say that this topic is one that is very close to Nat's heart. And it does show here in his artistic interpretation. It is very touching to hear him interpret the words and thoughts of our pet-hero, Black Beauty. This audio book definitely is one to listen to when you start out with getting to know Nat's fantastic talent for audio-work. It is a rare combination of his private hobby - horses -, a fantastic book that has so many layers in it and a very carefully and apathetically done adaptation. Make sure not to miss this one.

Status

Out on CD
Chivers Children's Audio Books / BBC Audiobooks
ISBN 978-1-408-40557-4.
Complete and unabridged on six CDs.

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