Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877)


I love horses, but my experience with the animal is sorely lacking. As a teen, I once sat on a grey mare belonging to a friend of the family and was led in a circle or two within a small corral. My feet barely reached the stirrups. I remember the sway of the saddle against my hams and thighs and unaccountably contrasting it with my bike seat and the backseat of my parent’s Monte Carlo. Later as an adult in the NAVY, some sailor friends of mine and I drove down to Baha, Mexico and one morning after a punishing night of binge drinking, one friend and I rented a pair of temperamental horses, his a chestnut stallion, mine a dappled mare. We cantered along an overcast beach until things became dangerous when my friend’s mount tried to mount my own.  

Having spent most of my life in an urban environment, opportunity to ride rarely presented itself. So I know next to nothing firsthand about the species. Most of what I know about their habits and habitat, diet and history, I learned from books. Which is unfortunate, considering how beautiful and majestic horses are. Many of them are quite graceful and statuesque, and though I’ve never had the privilege to ride one at a gallop, I imagine it would be exhilarating.

Since my current writing project, book two of a trilogy, is set in a period mirroring our own Middle-ages, knowledge of all things horse would benefit my work. Not to slight knowledge accrued from books, far from it, but I suspect personal experience would go a long way toward projecting authority and authenticity in my narrative.

Needless to say I’ve settled for the next best thing. In addition to the research I’m doing online, I recently downloaded this Public Domain ebook from Amazon for free, partly because it’s considered a classic, partly because I thought I’d learn a few more useful things about horses.

My impressions of the book are mixed. While I feel the contents herein taught me a good deal of useful stuff that’ll lend itself to my manuscript, I haven’t much else to say positively about the novel. The writing isn’t bad. However, there’s no real story here. Certainly no plot.

Our eponymous protagonist Black Beauty narrates first person, or first horse. So the dialogue is limited to what people say to and near the horse and what Black Beauty and the other equine community communicates to one another while enjoying a respite.

Since the protagonist has no goal or ambition apart from making his masters happy and avoiding needless pain at the hands of the indifferent, the ignorant, the drunkard, or the malevolent, events simply occur, and Black Beauty offers his commentary and impressions accordingly. But the horse has no underlying need or desire or objective. As a result, we readers have neither anyone nor anything to root for as our protagonist is subjected to all varieties of tasks and abuse.

Apart from championing the virtues of hard work and compassion for the lesser animals, the supporting cast of characters has little to offer in the way of insight into human nature. I suppose this is tolerable when reading a high-octane thriller, but in a book casually chronicling the life of a horse, characters can’t afford to be bland. Nevertheless, the cast shuffles in and out of Black Beauty’s life with little mention beyond its buying or selling the animal and treating it well or poorly.

Notwithstanding their puritanism, these people reveal next to nothing about themselves, though, in fairness, they do reveal a good deal about the period. Black Beauty reveals little more, noting only whether those he is introduced to appear kind or cruel, young or old. And unless someone drank or neglected his duties in the service of the horse, no conflict appears. Most of the dialogue is limited to Christian adages and abstention to such a degree that it grew somewhat annoying. (The author’s aversion to drink is evident throughout, and her depiction of anyone indulging is always negative.)

The only thing Sewell was liberal about was in her point to chastise (via her protagonist Black Beauty) those who ill-used horses or engaged in unhealthy practices, as well as what sort of punishment Black Beauty, and by extension the author, felt commiserate to their crimes.

As to learning anything useful from this book, I did indeed. The author demonstrated an impressive knowledge of all things horse. I suspect she wrote from personal experience. I took notes about what not to do or feed a horse after a hard run, how to properly maintain a stable, etc. We must remember the horse was the main mode of transportation throughout much of human history, certainly during the nineteenth century in merry ole England, when people utilized coaches and cabs and gigs as incessantly as New Yorkers utilize cabs today. Not only did Sewell appear to thoroughly understand the habits of riding and its variegated rider or cab driver – whether sympathetic or indifferent to his horse – she knew a great deal about riding gear, its purpose, and its (often deleterious) effects on the animal.

Though she barely alludes to the subject, it would appear human population had begun to render horse and buggy overtly strained. Without the eventual invention (and intervention), of the automobile during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – since prior to this advent many cab drivers were renting out their services seven days a week, sometimes sixteen hours a day (overtaxing their horses) – our inhumane treatment of horses might’ve produced a far less palatable relationship with our equine friends. In fact, given Sewell’s focus on the individual suffering of horses in the story, I’m surprised she didn’t devote attention to this widespread problem apart from two brief conversations that only indirectly hint at the issue.

Sewell exercises strong opinions about the value and efficacy of the riding tools in fashion at the time. From check-reins, blinkers (or blinders), ring snaffles, and other particulars – whether it be a saddled horse, horses attached to a coach, a brougham, a phaeton, or any number of conditions a horse is subjected to in the service of its master, such as the effects various terrain have on hoofs and shoes and a horse's legs, how a rider utilizes the reins, the whip, etc. She is harsh in her critique of the cruel or derelict owner or rider, frustrated by the subsequent sickness a horse can incur due to ignorance and indifference, and so on.

I won’t deny the narrative was moving in spots. While I’m typically not sentimental, some of what these innocent creatures endure can be heart-wrenching. Viewing this practice from a horse’s perspective can’t be otherwise. For a host of reasons, some understandable, others not, many horses were overworked until either sickness and decease set in and they died prematurely. Some would struggle until their knees gave out, their spirits sagged, their eyes went dull, and they were either set out to pasture in the hopes that they would improve and return to work, or they’d die and be sold for glue or some such.

I’m glad I read the book, but with regards to the story or lack thereof, the book suffers from an excess of moralizing and treads perilously close to a sermon or glorified religious tract. Overall not awful but not great. Three out of five stars. Rated G

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