What comes to mind when you think of Victorian England? It's an incredibly rich, evocative time period that serves as the setting for a lot of famous stories. You might think of Charles Dickens, or high tea, or that Doctor Who episode with all the corsets and top hats.
Technically, the Victorian era took place during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. This novel was published in 1877, putting it right in the heart of Victorian times. This was a peaceful, prosperous time for England, but also a time that saw a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and between people of different social status.
What's most important to remember, though, is that this is a time before cars. Due to the Industrial Revolution, more and more people were moving to urban areas, and the rise of railways made long-distance travel much easier. But in everyday life, horses were still the primary mode of transport, and people were completely dependent on horses to get around.
Black Beauty shows us this particular slice of Victorian England—how horses fit into society. Although the steam engine was starting to ease the burden of using horses to transport goods, there were still plenty of horses used for every imaginable task, including carting heavy loads, mining, farm work, and pulling cabs in the heart of London.
By 1900—not long after this story was set—one million of the horses in Britain were working horses. That's a whole lot of horses, not to mention a whole lot of, um, horse waste. The amount of manure produced by London's horses was so extreme that the city experienced a "Great Horse Manure Crisis" in 1894. Think we're joking? We're totally serious.
How did they solve this problem? Well, they actually couldn't figure out how to do it—it was that bad. But thankfully, a little invention called the car came along, and the problem solved itself a few decades later. Until then, however, the care, maintenance, and general use of horses was a huge deal in British society.
Because horses were so vital to every part of Victorian life, a whole industry existed to support them. People who owned horses kept grooms and stable boys to care for them. There were farriers—doctors who cared just for horses—and ostlers, the men who worked at inns and hotels and took care of visiting horses. Not to mention cab drivers, blacksmiths, and the list goes on. And there were lots of different choices for horse-drawn transport and different trends and fashions in horse tack (like the infamous bearing rein).
These days, we only see horses pulling carriages during Budweiser Super Bowl ads. It's amazing to imagine what it might have been like to hail a cab in the crowded streets of London and have a horse-drawn hansom cab pull up at the curb. Black Beauty paints a vivid picture of life during a time when horses didn't just live out in the countryside—they were woven deeply into every part of society.