Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Adventure classics -- A woman’s best friend is her horse

Black Beauty

by Anna Sewell


If Anna Sewell’s mother, herself an author of children’s books famous in their time, told her disabled daughter to write about what she knew, did she think that would be about horses? And that Anna’s single book, published only months before her death, would become one of the bestselling books of all time? (At an estimated fifty million copies, it’s up there with such classics as Dr. Spock’s baby book, Lolita and The Name of the Rose.)

And all because Anna, at the age of twelve, slipped while walking home from school, broke her ankles, and would never again be able to stand without a crutch or walk with any ease. Anna learned to drive carriage horses to compensate for her loss of mobility, regularly taking her father to and from his commuter train, experiences she would incorporate into her 1877 classic, Black Beauty.

Like millions of other horse-crazy kids, I read Sewell’s book in childhood. And I was pleasantly startled a few years ago when a young client at the stable where I do volunteer work quoted it to me. Really? Kids in the twenty-first century take time out from texting to fall in love with Black Beauty and his friends?

Not that Anna Sewell ever intended her book to appeal to children. Instead, she wrote it for people who worked with horses, hoping it would “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.”

Interspersed through its purported autobiography of a working horse is practical advice on training horses (including acclimating them to such strange sights as railway locomotives), stable hygiene, nutrition, grooming, exercise, even end of life issues. And critically important from Sewell’s perspective, how to drive horses.

When I read Black Beauty in the mid-twentieth century, I’d only seen horses being driven in Westerns, and then with far less emphasis than on riding them. But driving horses was both Sewell’s daily activity and her passion. Re-reading her manual recently, I learned again through Black Beauty’s experience that even in the dark, a driver with a practiced hand can feel through the rein whether something is wrong in a horse’s gait. And that “a slovenly way of driving gets a horse into bad and often lazy habits,” besides the tart observation that a horse “likes to know that one’s driver is not gone to sleep.”

Sewell’s Black Beauty was a cross between prince and plebeian, thoroughbred and work horse, able to comment on the social classes of the human beings he encounters, from working Farmer Grey to Squire Gordon of Birtwick Park and the aristocratic Countess of W --, through his drop down the social scale to livery horse, cab horse, and finally finding himself in a sale of “old broken-down horses. . . some that I am sure it would have been merciful to shoot.”

Along the way, Sewell gives her own analysis of England’s working poor, some of whose woes, such as the exorbitant licensing fees for cab drivers, were alleviated, perhaps due to her writing, soon after her book was published.

At the end, Black Beauty finds himself with the now grownup children of Vicar Blomefield, to whom Squire Gordon once entrusted another old and beloved horse. And I detect in one of those Sewell herself, “with dark eyes and a merry face,” who Beauty approves as a “good driver.”

“My troubles are all over, and I am at home,” Black Beauty says at the end. “And often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple trees.”

(Because Black Beauty has been so continuously in print, I had trouble finding copyright-free images for this post. The accompanying illustration, of Black Beauty as a colt, is part of William M Hutchinson’s artwork for the 1955 edition from the now defunct Whitman Publishing Company.)

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics opens a March of thrillers and suspense with Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.)

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