From pleasant meadow almost to the knacker’s yard – his own story… Black Beauty
‘Come Ann,’ said Mamma,
‘let us take a walk in the green fields; the sun will soon set, but the air is now fresh and warm…’ And thus they do, day by day over some sixty-four pages, with Mamma discoursing equably on the scenes about them or on such exotica as whales, sharks, and ostriches. And at the start of the sixth story they go to see a horse, newly bought by Ann’s aunt: ‘See how still he stands in the stall to eat his corn and hay; while James, the boy-groom, rubs him down, and combs out his mane and tail’ for it is needful for his owner to see ‘that he is well fed and kept nice and clean; and it is a sad thing when men or boys vex or hurt him…’
If that visit did take place,
what a harbinger it proved. For in these Walks with Mamma; or stories in words of one syllable, Mamma is none other than Mrs Mary Sewell who, in one of her family’s several financial crises, had sent off the manuscript to Mr John Harris at his shop at the top of Ludgate Hill, and he had kindly bought it from her for three pounds (‘a little fortune to me then,’ she said) and published it in 1824. Little Ann, or Anna, or, later, Nannie would have been about four-years-old at the time, walking the semi-rural highways round Dalston, north of the City of London, after having been carried thither from her birthplace at Great Yarmouth.
Such trailings about,
always with wolves never too far from the door, were a feature of the Sewells’ life, although they were a close-knit family, abiding by the humanitarian ideals of an inherited Quakerism. Both Anna and her brother Philip sound to have been bright children, despite the eccentricities of English education in the 1820s (Philip would eventually become a civil engineer with a pronounced social conscience), but it was during Anna’s brief spell of schooling in her early teens that the calamity of her life occurred. Running home one wet afternoon, she slipped and fell, so damaging her ankles that, what with incompetent medical treatment, and perhaps an incipient tubercular disposition, she was to become a lifelong invalid.
did not quell her spirits however. Family removals continued – she even spent some time at a spa in Germany – and with walking now always a difficulty she undertook carriage-driving (partly from the need for someone regularly to take her father to Shoreditch station) and this was to develop not only her instinctive understanding of, and care for, horses (dating back perhaps to the visit to the stable with Mamma?) but also her awareness of the widespread abuse to which they were subjected.
was to stem from that experience. Anna and Mamma had always been more like loving sisters than mother and child and throughout much of her adulthood Anna was to act as ‘critic and counsellor’ in the editing of Mary Sewell’s poetic effusions. As products though of ‘a writing life’ they could not help but accustom Anna to the paramountcy of print in everyday communication and it was to print that she thought to turn in what amounted to a campaigning novel on behalf of horses.
A central impulse
was her hatred of ‘the bearing rein’, a fashionable but cruel device designed to keep horses’ heads proudly in the air despite the damage it caused to their muscular system. She did not make the assault direct however, but chose first to cast her critique in the form of a novel and second – a brilliant inspiration – to make it indeed a tale from the horse’s mouth: ‘the autobiography of a horse, translated from the original equine’.
The presumed author
goes about his purpose with great skill. His life as a colt is told in near-idyllic terms, the breaking-in and early training being accomplished under caring and knowledgeable folk in comfortable, rural circumstances. But even for readers who know his story well a certain frisson is inescapable from the start. This cannot be a picaresque tale whose hero may willy-nilly come through his adventures triumphant, but rather an account of one who is at all stages at the mercy of decisions beyond his control. There are premonitions of an uncaring world out there. A horse, eventually known to be Black Beauty’s brother, is killed with his rider while hunting ‘all for one little hare’. A stablemate, Ginger, tells of hard times that he endured before his present berth. Discussions occur in the field over tail-docking, and the foolish use of blinkers, and, inevitably, the torment of the bearing rein.
these prepare both Black Beauty and the reader for the descent into the abyss as human circumstances direct the lives of horses, with Black Beauty making it plain that almost perpetually the horse (still a major element in the conduct of life at this time) is disregarded as a sentient being but is just a piece of property to be worked for whatever benefits its masters may gain from it and then to be cast aside. The bearing rein proves to be only one example of the trials to which working-horses may be subject and as Black Beauty is brought down through no fault of his own from carriage-horse to job-horse, to cab-horse his autobiography becomes a record of human weakness and, over much of its final third, of the horrors endured among the London cabbies. The suffering and death of his old friend Ginger, encountered among the cab-ranks, is the emotional heart of the book: ‘Oh!’ says Black Beauty, ‘if men were more merciful, they would shoot us before we come to such misery.’
As an inexperienced writer,
Black Beauty found for himself an almost ideal way to tell his story, casting it in no fewer than forty-nine chapters, but each well-judged in the way he both recounts each incident, and uses each to move the narrative on. His translator has given him a most winning voice, while her incursion direct into the horse’s imagined consciousness brings a verisimilitude to all the varied crises thrust upon him and overlays them with a moving recognition of the beast’s almost selfless endurance of his lot. We know that he must survive ill-treatment and indignity for, after all, it is he who is telling the story, and the manner in which he tells of that survival makes for a perfect adagio conclusion.
laboured for some six years at her ‘translation’ through bouts of illness in which she dictated episodes to her mother or pencilled them on to scraps of paper for Mamma to transcribe. The finished manuscript went to Mary’s main publisher, Messrs Jarrolds of Norwich and London, who, in the manner of John Harris and Walks with Mamma, bought it outright for forty pounds. It was published in November 1877 to an acclaim which eventually carried it round the world – much, presumably, to the satisfaction of the company. Anna knew little of either its success or of the indignity perpetrated on her by the mercenary Jarrolds, for five months after Black Beauty entered the world his creator was dead.
Black Beauty is published by Puffin Classics (978 0 1413 2103 5, £7.99 pbk). The illustrations by Pauline Baynes are taken from the 1954 edition, now OP.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.