You guys. This was not supposed to happen. My vision for this blog, it was grand. I was going to read beloved classics from my childhood (and some trash; come on, I wasn’t a perfect child), fall in love with them all over again for much more mature, grandiose reasons than the first time, and generally impress everyone with my skills of being awesome.
I didn’t think I wouldn’t like the book. Yes, the entire point is to show how the way I read books has changed, but I hadn’t counted on my reading tastes to have changed.
In retrospect, this was probably stupid. Of course they’ve changed. It would be a bit sad if they hadn’t. And while I found Black Beauty interesting as a concept, and while I certainly enjoyed learning a little more about its history and origins (which I will expand on in a minute), halfway through the book I just couldn’t go on. It doesn’t have the sense of urgency to me as an adult that it did when I was a child. But after a month or so of not knowing what to do about this, and therefore accidentally abandoning this blog (sorry!), a friend helped me to realize that not liking a book would still make for a pretty good blog post. So here I am.
I can’t remember if I knew this when I first read it, but Black Beauty was originally written as an animal-rights tome of sorts. It was first published in 1877 in England, when horses were widely and harshly used. Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty in order to raise awareness about the cruel methods used to break horses, as well as the completely unnecessary and brutal techniques used to make horses walk and appear fashionable.
Because of this, the book has a somewhat unusual narrative structure, in which the protagonist (Beauty, a horse) goes from colthood (is there a proper term for the childhood of a horse? Probably, but colthood will have to do) to old-horse-hood (see previous parenthetical query), experiencing a wide spectrum of treatment as he goes.
The decision to have a horse narrate is certainly effective, and likely the reason I found the book so emotionally draining as a child. It’s unusual, and it evokes compassion and provokes new considerations. I had likely never thought too much about what animals were thinking (aside from a nagging feeling that maybe my cat was really a person just like in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which was terrifying, by the way), and I had certainly never been exposed to animal cruelty before. Beauty rarely experiences true cruelty in this book: most of his suffering is a result of ignorance on the part of his owners rather than a true desire to harm. But ignorance is presented, rightly, as a poor excuse for mistreating an animal.
One thing I did notice on this re-read that I probably didn’t realize the first time around was the Uncle Tom-ness of Beauty. Aside: I feel I am about to go to literary hell for comparing Black Beauty to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but bear with me, because there are real similarities. One of the most frustrating things about both characters is their submissiveness, their unwillingness to stand up for themselves despite constantly talking about how they are being mistreated. This is a byproduct of the time in which both books were written: the authors were attempting to reach audiences reluctant to change their privileged ways of life, and in order to have an effect on people they needed to make their characters as sympathetic as possible. To a modern reader this can be incredibly stifling, as it is difficult to understand why Tom placidly accepts beatings or why Beauty doesn’t just kick someone in the face already. But I can see that it was necessary. When I first read it, this technique totally worked on me. I felt terrible. Why wouldn’t someone help this poor, defenceless horse? But now that I have more reading experience and have read a few other books that use this technique, it is easy to both see through it and to see the ingenenuity involved. It’s not an accident that Beauty doesn’t lash out at his abusers, and it was extremely clever of Sewell to restrain him like that.
Was this book worth a re-read as an adult? Maybe not. But when I was nine? It rocked. That’s worth a lot.