Study Guide

Black Beauty

By Anna Sewell

Black Beauty Introduction

There's just something about horses, right? Maybe it's their flowing manes, or perhaps it's their incredible speed, but whatever the reason, lots of people go through a horse phase. If you haven't yourself, then you probably know someone who did (or still is)—My Little Pony couldn't have been popular for generations otherwise.

But here's the thing: The horse craze goes back to way before My Little Pony came on the scene. In fact, in 1877 Anna Sewell published Black Beauty, and well over a century later, it's proven to be a horse story for the ages. But if you think this book is only about galloping through flowery meadows, you're super wrong. Instead it just might be the most important book on animal rights ever written. Why's that? Because for the first time, a horse gets to tell his own story.

Back in 1877, humans and horses had a totally different relationship than they do today. In England, where Sewell's book is set, cars weren't yet on the scene, so if you wanted to get from Point A to Point B, you had two options: a steam engine or a horse. But at the time, much of the general public wasn't really aware that horses needed to be treated a lot differently than steam engines.

Sewell was definitely aware of this. Horses weren't just important to Sewell—they were her lifeline. Injured as a young teenager and unable to walk well, Sewell became totally dependent on horse-drawn carriages and devoted to her own horses. In the years before her death, she began to write a story from a horse's point of view, hoping to expose the cruel practices she'd witnessed.

Sound deep? It is, but Black Beauty's story went on to become the first-ever popular novel narrated by an animal, as well as the only book Sewell ever published. Although Sewell died shortly after its release, she knew that her novel about the hard life of a brave horse was on its way to becoming a runaway success—pun totally intended. 

In its time, Black Beauty was a smash hit. Readers fell in love with Beauty, and they were outraged at the truths of animal cruelty the book exposed. The book sparked huge public interest in laws to protect animal welfare, and Sewell's painful descriptions of the fashionable "bearing rein" caused the rein to be banned in Victorian England. Some readers were so inspired by Beauty's adventures that they handed out Sewell's novel to stables as a horse care manual—you know, like the Victorian version of Horse Care For Dummies.

But this little book didn't just appeal to horse enthusiasts. Black Beauty went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time, with over 50 million copies sold. And it didn't stop there—Black Beauty has also inspired countless movie and television adaptations. (Okay, more like nine or ten, but on the scale of remakes from one to Spider-Man, we're talking Spider-Man.) It seems like someone is always filming this horse.

Obviously Victorian horse issues aren't a modern-day problem. When was the last time you rode in a horse-drawn carriage? But as all these book sales and movie remakes make clear, the poignant tale of Black Beauty still hits home. We're all aware that animal rights are a big deal, and it's interesting to realize that this started with Black Beauty, a story straight from the horse's mouth.

Yeah, we went there.

What is Black Beauty About and Why Should I Care?

Okay. Pretend you're a horse.

No, really—give it a good shot. Close your eyes, swish your imaginary tail, try to swat those pesky horseflies. Now open your eyes and look in front of you. Everything looks different, right? You know, because your eyes are on the sides of your head. As for the fly that just bit you, good luck scratching that itch—you don't have any hands. Why don't you ask someone to scratch it for you? Oh right; you can't talk. This could be a problem…

How much time have you spent actually imagining what it's like to be a (non-human) animal? We're willing to bet it's not a lot. But Anna Sewell's done just this, and she's done it quite well (as far as we can tell anyway—spoiler alert: we're not horses). Black Beauty's point of view is beyond convincing. It's easy to believe that he's a real horse, and that somehow Sewell managed to interview a horse she happened to know. And importantly, once you view the world from an animal's perspective, everything looks quite different.

Sewell's use of animal POV paved the way for countless classic books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. That's barely even the tip of the animal-story iceberg—a beast of a 'berg—and it's all because Sewell showed readers that viewing the world through animal eyes is one way to tell a fantastic story. Plus it's a way to give a reader some valuable perspective on the ways we humans interact with the natural world.

In other words, you may never look at a horse—or even your dog—the same way again.

Black Beauty Resources

Websites

Black Beauty Online
Lose your book? Never fear. The Literature Project has the entire text of this book online for free.

Movie or TV Productions

Black Beauty (1921)
We don't have a lot of details about this silent film, a very early adaptation of the novel directed by Edward H. Griffith.

Black Beauty (1946)
This 1946 adaptation made in America adds romance and new characters to the classic story.

Black Beauty (1971)
A British adaptation from 1971 stars child actor Mark Lester. You might recognize Mark from another little role of his—Oliver Twist, in the musical Oliver!.

The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972)
This British family drama didn't retell Sewell's story, but picked up where the novel ended.

Black Beauty (1978)
Cartoon giants Hanna-Barbera told the story of our favorite horse in a one-hour animated special.

Black Beauty (1978)
They don't want to stop, do they? This is yet another television drama, this time as a miniseries.

Black Beauty (1987)
Yup, another animated Beauty hit the small screen, this one made by Burbank Films Australia.

Black Beauty (1994)
Finally Black Beauty narrates his own story, just like he does in the book. Actor Alan Cumming voices Beauty, with a supporting cast that includes Game of Thrones' Sean Bean, Doctor Who's Peter Davison, and Harry Potter's David Thewlis—all backed by a Danny Elfman musical score.

Articles and Interviews

The Scoop on Victorian Horse Transport
Hansom cab, carriage, or Clarence? How about a growler? Click on through for some fun fast facts on horse-drawn modes of transportation.

So. Many. Rules.
Ladies, make sure you have your skirts in your left hand—Victorian riding etiquette can be complicated and high-stakes. Want to know what to wear and how to behave? Check out this article on equestrian manners in Victorian times.

"How Black Beauty Changed the Way We See Horses"
With the help of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, NPR's All Things Considered takes a look at how Black Beauty transformed the way people treat horses. We're thinking Sewell would be totally pleased.

"How Black Beauty Inspired My Social Work Career"
A social worker and blogger explains why this book inspired her future career choice. Did you ever guess this book would inspire someone to help humans?

Video

Black Beauty (1978)
Hanna-Barbera's animated movie adaptation is here in its full 1970s animated glory on YouTube. So grab a snack and get ready to visit Victorian Britain via the American 1970s.

Black Beauty (1987)
This 1987 animated adaptation is also on YouTube, about forty-five minutes of horsey goodness. Get ready for some accents.

The Adventures of Black Beauty
You can catch a few full episodes of this television drama on YouTube also. The 1970s loved itself some Black Beauty, it seems.

Trailer for 2015's Black Beauty
From the looks of it, this version doesn't have much to do with the original novel, but hey, it's another Black Beauty.

Audio

Black Beauty Audiobook
LibroVox's audio recording of the full novel is free to all and available on YouTube. So close your eyes and get ready for a wild ride.

Danny Elfman's Black Beauty Soundtrack
You might know Danny Elfman from his music for basically every Tim Burton film ever. Check out his soundtrack from the 1994 Black Beauty film.

Images

"Top Horses in TV and Film"
Black Beauty makes the countdown of the all-time top horses on screen.

First Edition
Check out the very first cover for Black Beauty. Pretty classic, right?