New Edition of Black Beauty to Benefit Horses in Need

Black Beauty illustration by Cecil Aldin

How many times did you read Black Beauty as a child? I’m not sure I can even count that high! Unlike the pure equine fantasy novels of Walter Farley (I longed for him to write a book about a girl as I read and re-read The Black Stallion and the Island Stallion series), Black Beauty introduced me to the concept of animal welfare and the responsibility of humans to be lifelong caretakers of the horses I longed to own.

It only seems fitting that the newest edition of Black Beauty will benefit horses in need. The special edition is being published by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with the Redwings Horse Sanctuary to commemorate the Sanctuary’s 40th anniversary . Half the proceeds from the sale of the books will go to help the more than 200 horses, ponies, donkeys and mules in the care of Redwings, which is the largest horse sanctuary in the United Kingdom. It uses the text based on the first edition of Black Beauty that Sewell dedicated to her aunts. This edition is now in the Norfolk Heritage center.

Cecil Aldin drew the illustrations for the earliest editions of the novel.

Black Beauty was written by Anna Sewell, a Quaker born in Yarmouth England. Her empathy for horses was likely grounded in her own health issues. She broke her ankles at age 14, walking home from school in the rain. After the injury was mismanaged, she was never able to walk or stand comfortably again, and used crutches for the rest of her life. As a result of this accident, she became dependent on her pony and trap. It was her familiarity with this form of transport that fostered her interest in and love of horses.

Writing was a family business for the Sewells. Her mother, Mary Wright Sewell, wrote several popular books for children, which Anna helped edit. By the time Anna decided to write her own book, her health had declined precipitously and she was mostly bedridden. The novel was written on slips of paper and dictated to her mother and aunts. Published in 1877, Sewell wrote the book over a four year period when her health was declining. She sold the novel for £40 (the equivalent of £3,732.70 today) but died five months later of either tuberculosis or heptitis. She was 57 years old and while she saw the novel’s initial success (more than 100,000 copies were sold the first year), she did not live to see the impact her book had on animal welfare. Two years after the release of the novel, one million copies of Black Beauty were in circulation in the United States! Today, more than 50 million copies of Black Beauty have been sold and remain in print 150 years after its original publication. It has been translated into 50 languages and remains one of the best selling English language novels of all time.

This Victorian era print shows the use of bearing reins to keep the horses’ heads high. Black Beauty was instrumental in convincing people to abandon this practice.

Interestingly, Anna Sewell didn’t intend Black Beauty for children; books; she hoped to influence the adults who owned and cared for horses so as to improve their lives. In many ways, her legacy lived on. After the book was published, it was believed to have had a significant effect on reducing cruelty to horses. Bearing reins — which held the horses’ heads upright at an unnatural angle to make them look more elegant — prevented horses from properly using their backs to pull a load and restricted their breathing.

Black Beauty is considered to be one of the first — if not the first — English novels to be written from the perspective of an animal. On the title page is written, “translated from the equine.” Most important about this approach is it gave horses a voice and gave her readers insights into what it might be like to be a sentient being whose lives were controlled by the often capricious whims of their owners.

Do you remember reading Black Beauty? How did it change your perceptions of animal welfare?


3 thoughts on “New Edition of Black Beauty to Benefit Horses in Need

  1. I remember being very affected by this novel, especially the depictions of the constant turn over between owners. It is likely one of the reasons that I have kept my horses into old age rather than sell them. Thank you for this post.

  2. I read it as a child and later as an older teenager. I can easily say that it affected me in so many ways. I didn’t have horses then, I was a city kid in Detroit. To be brutally honest, it depressed me so much I have never read it again. I’m the type of person that totally involves in a book or a movie, so much so that coming out of a movie theater is like awakening from a very long and detailed dream. The scenes in Farley’s “The Black Stallion”..where Alex is almost affected as a horse crazy girl that I never finished the book. But I did finish Black Beauty, twice and again, found myself depressed at the random cruelty, abuse and neglect, in some cases all for fashion…(the bearing rein, for instance, or the insistence of the Victgorians on cutting off a horse’s tail right to the end of the bone looked ‘fashionable” was, to me, horrible.) I still get angry when I see saddlebred show horses with huge blocks on their hooves and their tail broken and reset so that it flags, I suppose, like an Arabian.
    In fact, when I was massaging horses professionally, I never met a saddlebred that wasn’t in constant pain in his back. When you see a horse cross one hind leg over the other (hanging one leg on the other leg’s hock) it tells you they’re miserable. And all for a ribbon.

    If anyone chooses to flame me for my observations on saddlebreds, go take a hike.

    1. I remember being terribly sad when I read it and thought if I ever owned a horse, I’d take wonderful care of it. I’ve never been able to watch the Big Lick horses or the Saddlebreds. Too cruel and completely pointless.

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