Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Black Beauty

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When I read fiction, I mostly go for entertainment, as a less lazy alternative to TV for purposes like relaxation between work, reading non-fiction, thinking, writing, whatnot. Yesterday, I decided to slum it, even by my standards: I had read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty with great enjoyment as a child, but had almost no recollection of it, and decided to refresh my memory.

Seeing that this is a children’s book, I expected it to be something banal and not overly well written—and as a horse book probably a little too girly to boot.

Was I wrong…

For starters, the book is not actually about horses: The main contents are moral stories and advice on how to handle horses and other humans, as well as how to lead ones life. Notably, most or all of the “horse advice” can be taken as applying to humans too, especially with an eye at e.g. master–servant* relationships; be it immediately or after looking past horse-specific details. The overall story, which is told from a horse’s** perspective, is just a vehicle.

*Note that the book was published in 1877, and by an English author, when a master–servant hierarchy, great class differences, etc., were everyday reality. The situation is less drastic today; but, to some degree, the same lessons can apply to e.g. an employer–employee relationship.

**The eponymous Black Beauty, later referred to by a number of different names by a number of different owners. Partly due to the name confusion, partly due to “Black Beauty” being a little awkward as a name, I will mostly speak in terms of “protagonist” below.

The prose is sometimes a little simple (as is to be expected), but of very high quality, especially for, in my understanding, a first-time author*. It has a great flow, is very coherent, and uses seemingly complex sentence constructs without actually introducing complexity or making the text harder to understand. (This is something that I struggle with myself, and where I could learn a great deal from Anna Sewell.) More over, the prose proves that it is possible to write in an understandable manner without resorting to the extreme fragmentation and simplistic (as opposed to simple) language used by many modern authors and journalists.

*Going by the Wikipedia article on Anna Sewell she had helped her mother, another author, with editing in the past, but had at least not published anything herself.

Take the first paragraph and imagine how it might have looked if written today:

The first place that I can well remember, was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a ploughed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a plantation of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.

This is just three sentences, the third spanning over two hundred (non-space) characters, and containing three commas and one semi-colon—while still being extremely easy to read. A modern day children’s author who even tries to use a semi-colon might be forbidden to do so by an editor or a readability metric… (I might, admittedly, have put commas a little differently.)

The structure is well thought-through and the events move along at a high tempo without developments seeming unnatural*; although there is some change of character as the protagonist becomes a cab horse**. The episodic character of the book and, to a lesser degree, the progress from life station to life station makes it a little “choppy”, especially by today’s standards; however, in terms of readability and message, this has little practical effect.

*With the exception of the continual descent of the protagonist. However, this is not necessarily rare in the literature of the time or in the “moral” category. An interesting difference, however, is that such descent is more commonly through the lacking character of the protagonist. Here the protagonist, as well as the other horses, is the innocent victim of unfortunate circumstances or lacking character in others (e.g. the drunk rider who causes severe injuries to the protagonist—while riding himself to death).

**The stories grow longer and the tempo lower, more time is spent on one station, and the focus moves more towards human issues, notably working conditions.

Had this been a book for adults, I might have criticized the weak character development, but it is a children’s book. To boot, this shallowness does not prevent the book from bringing its message across—-it might even make it easier. (Cf. e.g. the similar character depth of “Animal Farm”, which also features anthropomorphic animals and an animal–human conflict, and is written for adult readers to a higher degree.)

Similarly, the actual events and depictions of the events are often a little too child-centric, in parts verging on the boring, for me as an adult reader; however, I do remember that I found the book positively captivating as a child.

For a children’s book, and nominally likely somewhat younger children at that, this book is quite an accomplishment.

I would raise one possibly major point of criticism: When reading as a child, everything deeper than the surface action went over my head. If this is the case with other children too, the book might be less effectual than what Sewell hoped for.

As an aside, it is interesting that the protagonist, in particular, and horses, in general, tended to start of in a “high station” and descend in station as their physical capabilities grew less impressive. Here there is, likely unintended, an additional lesson in that those who want to move in a positive direction have to make sure that they have something wanted to offer—and to increase what is offered over time to get even higher. Those who let their abilities stagnate or even deteriorate are likely to see the same happening to their careers and lives. (Unfortunately for the protagonist, there was little he, as a horse, could do about it.) From another angle, this can serve as a reminder that we all grow old and should not be too cocky about our physical abilities when young.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 25, 2017 at 6:48 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] containing more food for thought than “Pride and Prejudice” did. I have earlier written about “Black Beauty” as a very positive […]

  2. […] with an eye on the expected level of accomplishment. For instance, my very positive discussion of Black Beauty must be seen as referring to a children’s book—had I found the exact same contents in a work […]

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