‘We call them dumb animals and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.’
Well, it didn’t end quite as I remembered. It ended well, for Beauty at least, but not as neatly as in my imagination -reunited with Merrylegs in the vicarage paddock. Black Beauty was not such an emotional story, either, only to be read through a veil of tears, though it certainly has its moments. Although Beauty suffers, the amount of time he spends with good – or good-ish – owners rather than bad ones is much higher than I thought!
As a child, after the first reading, once I knew about Ginger’s tragic fate, this was always the lowest, saddest part in the story which I approached with dread and a big lump in my throat. Yet this episode, which loomed so large, lasted barely two sides of a page. After one brief conversation with Ginger on the cab rank, Beauty isn’t even sure it is Ginger he later sees lying in the cart. ‘I believe it was Ginger. I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over.’ Gulp!
My first tears came when Beauty is parted from his second home and the kind coachman, John Manly: ‘I held my face close to him, for that was all I could do to say goodbye: and then he was gone, and I have never seen him since.’ This briefly-described image felt so powerful. It embodies so much of the wonderful bond that can exist between domesticated animals and humans and the wordless communication we understand so well.
It’s the compassion and wisdom of humans that keeps the horses from trouble, because they are dumb animals. Beauty can’t tell his driver when he has a crippling stone in his hoof and the driver fails to notice. He can’t say he’s cold and shivering after a long hard day, or thirsty, if whoever is meant to take care of him is lazy or ignorant or just absent. Anna Sewell has to say all this for him, to the readers, educating them along the way. All animals – including humans, I would add – communicate through behaviour, but that behaviour has to be understood and not dismissed, and that’s part of her lesson. At first Ginger protests through bad behaviour but that doesn’t serve her well. ‘Men are stronger, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end.’
Beauty’s progress is one of regular partings and losses, with the horse in no control over any of it. His mother Duchess tells him, ‘A horse never knows who may buy him or who may drive him. It is all chance for us.’ On finding out that a horse he saw killed in a hunt was his half-brother, Beauty reflects, ‘It seems that horses have no relations. At least they never know each other, after they are sold.’
It was on this re-reading that the troubling parallel with slavery kept coming to mind, which never occurred to me as a child. I was too wrapped up in the story of beautiful, noble, helpless horses to imagine that humans were treated in a similar way. Perhaps back then I knew little about the details of slavery. But the themes of power and ownership versus powerlessness and voicelessness, being bred for work and sold away once old enough to be useful, of being treated like machines with no thought of what was going on inside the creature, of monetary value based on strength and health, kept reinforcing this.
Of course Sewell doesn’t think in terms of animal rights; or even the possible rights of workers like the downtrodden rental cab-men, stuck in a vicious circle of debt and overwork, harsh masters and cheating customers – she knows it’s a bad situation but having shown great understanding says, through the Governor at the cab-rank, ‘but who’s to mend it I don’t know.’ People – and horses – right at the bottom of the heap disappear from the story into destitution and death. Like many a Victorian campaigner, she’s against the evils of drink, and she even has a chapter on elections, which are ‘a serious business’, not to be approached in an atmosphere of foolish drunkenness, bribery, and bullying. But Sewell is firmly lodged in the paternalistic world where all good deeds are in the gift of good masters, or those with a conscience, and she can only try to educate those who aren’t so enlightened.
There is one scene which I fondly imagine is Anna Sewell herself, reasoning with the carter who overloads Beauty and keeps him on a bearing rein so that he can’t throw his weight into pulling the load. The anonymous lady proves her theory by demonstration, treats the man with respect and thanks him for trying out her plan. This is a modest lesson in how to win people over, at least temporarily. As a child I learned a lot about horse care from Black Beauty, although I was never lucky enough to own a horse to try it out on! I don’t remember all the other moral lessons at all, but I suppose I must have taken them in.
In old age Beauty comes to a place of safety where he will never be sold again ‘and so I have nothing to fear…My troubles are over and I am at home.’ Which is probably all that any of us might ask.