Our narrator and the star of the show, Black Beauty is the character we get to know best in this book. All the events in this story are told through Beauty's eyes—but what do we know about the horse himself?
We can infer from Beauty's descriptions that he's a spectacular horse. When he's born, he's a "dull black" (1.4), but when he's a little older, he really comes into his own. He gives us the straight truth:
I was now beginning to grow handsome; my coat had grown fine and soft, and was bright black. I had one white foot, and a pretty white star on my forehead. I was thought very handsome. (3.1)
Not only that, but Beauty is naturally fast and comes from a line of equally gorgeous horses. His mother, Duchess, tells him that he's "well-bred and well-born," with a respected father, a sweet-tempered grandmother, and a grandfather who "won the cup two years at the Newmarket races" (1.6). If horses can come from good families, Beauty comes from the cream of the crop.
You'd think this noble breeding would go to a horse's head, but not this horse. Instead it gives Beauty the sense that he needs to work hard to preserve his good family name. Beauty's mom makes sure to teach him the right and wrong way to behave, and Beauty really takes it to heart. Even though he leaves his mom when he's very young and never sees her again, one of the first things he tells us is, "I have never forgotten my mother's advice" (1.6). He's a mama's boy for life, in the best of ways.
His early lessons from Duchess shape a lot of Beauty's personality. "I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play" (1.6), Duchess tells him, and Beauty checks every box on this list.
Throughout the book, even in the worst of times, Beauty does what he's told. He never bites, kicks, or fights back, even when he's treated poorly or in great pain. "The load was very heavy, and I had had neither food nor rest since the morning; but I did my best, as I always had done, in spite of cruelty and injustice" (47.15), Beauty says when he truly believes he might die from overwork.
You'd think Beauty would seem too good to be true, but remember: He's a horse. By making Beauty so selfless and noble, Anna Sewell reminds us that a lot of animals actually have this kind of personality. Have you ever known a dog who's happy so long as she's doing what her master asks? Beauty is the same way—like the most loyal of pets, he's happiest when he feels like he's doing his job well. He expresses huge affection for the masters who treat him with kindness, and although he despises cruel and ignorant people, he never once rebels against their authority. (Beauty totally skips the rebellious teenage phase.)
Actually, hang on. Beauty does rebel once in his life, but it's for a pretty good reason.
The one time Beauty does disobey his master, it's because he believes his master's life is in danger. Out in a storm one night, Beauty senses that recent rain has damaged a bridge they're about to cross. Despite Squire Gordon's urging, Beauty won't cross the bridge: "[…] he gave me a cut with the whip, but I dared not stir. He gave me a sharp cut; I jumped, but I dared not go forward" (7.9), Beauty says. Beauty's resolve to keep his master safe, even if it means disobeying him, saves their lives—the bridge is, in fact, broken.
Beauty's courage is the one thing that makes him far more than just an obedient servant. More than once, he rides at top speed to save the life of a human he cares about. In one memorable case, it costs Beauty his health, since the strenuous ride to fetch a doctor for Mrs. Gordon makes him very sick afterward. But he earns the gratitude and amazement of his loyal master. As Squire Gordon tells him:
"My good horse, you saved your mistress's life, Beauty! Yes, you saved her life." (18.18)
Beauty's groom, John, adds that he "[…] never saw a horse go so fast in his life, it seemed as though the horse knew what was the matter" (18.18). And of course he did; Beauty can't talk, but he understands.
In fact, Beauty understands a lot. One hallmark of Beauty's character is his willingness to listen to others. Wherever he goes, he has a knack for getting other horses to tell their life stories. Of course, this is a very helpful trait for the narrator of a book, but it seems to fit Beauty's gentle, caring personality, too.
When he first goes to Birtwick Park, Beauty gets his new stable mate, Ginger, to spill her entire history—two chapter's worth, in fact. And at London cabbie Jerry Barker's stable, Beauty soon knows everything about his fellow cab horse, Captain, and tells us an extensive story about Captain's time in the Crimean War. In many other locations, Beauty asks questions of other horses and, importantly, he always pays attention to what nearby humans are saying, too.
Along this line, Beauty's excellent at reading human emotions, a trait that Beauty believes isn't unique to him—it's just due to being a horse. When he leaves Birtwick, Beauty knows his master and groom are heartbroken: "He seemed very low-spirited," Beauty says of Squire Gordon. "I knew that by his voice. I believe we horses can tell more by the voice than many men can" (21.5). Look out, dogs; you've got yourselves some competition for Man's Best Friend status.
When it comes right down to it, Beauty is a good guy. Of course he's not above complaining, or even a little sarcasm on occasion, but it's obvious there's not an evil bone in his body. He's a steadfast, true friend to nearly everyone. So when he runs into Ginger in very hard times, he never thinks about himself or what her fate might mean for his own future. He just tries his best to comfort her. "You are the only friend I ever had" (40.8), Ginger tells him. And what an amazing friend to have.
Beauty's only flaw, actually, is that he… has no flaws. He's about as perfect as it gets. This seems to go against rule number one of writing a compelling protagonist—but somehow, we still love him. Maybe it's the animal thing? Beauty reminds us that animals can be a lot simpler and more selfless than people.
If Beauty does have a flaw at all, it's that he's basically powerless, though that's certainly not his fault. In his world, resisting authority only leads to bad things, and fighting back is a terrible idea. Beauty's lack of control in his own life is endlessly frustrating, since we only want good things for such a good horse.