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Sunday in Victoria Park

Today marks the last day of Banned Book Week, an annual observance in Libraryland. Every year, libraries around the nation try to raise awareness of our freedom and right to make intelligent decisions for ourselves and to prove we can dually be inspired, as well as know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Last year, I went into more detail about the philosophy behind the observance and listed a few 19th century book titles that have been challenged or banned at some point in the world for various reasons.

Today, however, I choose to focus on a novel that was not previously mentioned; Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. The author was in her fifties when she penned her story about a beloved and abused horse. In her real life, Miss Sewell was a “cripple” at the age of fourteen from a bizarre injury damaging her ankles. For the rest of her life she was unable to walk properly and depended heavily on the assistance of others. She developed a deep attachment to her family’s equine she used as transportation and to take the pressure off her ankles by merely sitting on him.

Black Beauty/Kemp-Welch Giclee Print

Black Beauty/Kemp-Welch

The story of Black Beauty broke ground with multiple firsts when it debuted in 1877. Firstly, it was told in first person from the horse’s perspective in a non-fantastical way; but true to the life an average 19th century horse might endure, in an autobiographical format. While this was not a “new” technique, it was one that was not employed often. Secondly, the author was a woman and made no means to hide her identity with “Anon,” some nomme de plume or use of initials to de-feminize her moniker.

However, the most important and controversial aspect of the book was the trials and mistreatment of Black Beauty. With each chapter, Miss Sewell, “recounts” a moral incident in the life of her titular character. As Wikipedia states:

The text advocates fairer treatment of horses in Victorian England. The story
is narrated from Black Beauty’s perspective and resultantly readers arguably
gained insight into how horses suffered through their use by human beings with
restrictive technical objects like the “bearing rein” and “blinkers” as well as
procedures like cutting off the tails of the horses.

Readers were appalled by the plight of Black Beauty and other equine personalities from the book. Their hearts went out in compassion to these beasts of burden and riots and demonstrations went to the streets to change the laws governing the treatment of horses by their employers. In short, it raised a ruckus with its awareness. It was thusly banned in certain districts and towns to prevent violent public disturbances and the challenging of the status quo. Readers took a stand! There are stories of advocates handing out copies to those in the taxicab trade and those who work with horses; subsequently some of the heads of these establishments forbade their employees to read the books in fear of being humane to the animals would cut profit of the business.

Black Beauty did more than any other book before or since, to aid better treatment for animals. It was never intended to be a children’s novel, especially the graphic nature of some scenes, but it was more of a sad observation of real life of a woman who dearly loved her horse. Miss Sewell never intended to write a revolution, she wrote a spin on reality. Tragically, she died less than six months after the release of Black Beauty, but at least got to see some of its initial publishing success.