Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell


Another one of those ubiquitous classics that you assume is a syrupy, overly sentimental girlie novel. Maybe I should seek out books that I think I already ‘know’ before I have read them and actually, well, read them.

Like so many other Victorian novelists, Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty as a moral argument for change. Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist. By writing a sympathetic ‘autobiography’ from a horse’s point of view, describing in lucid detail all a horse must suffer under poor and sometimes mean care, Sewell hoped to bring about positive changes in animal welfare. Hence there is a lot of political activism behind this sensitive and humane novel.

The novel works remarkably well, where it could so easily have failed. Sewell builds up her portrait of Beauty in a simple, crystal clear style. Her writing is so dignified, sensitive and composed that you soon become emotionally involved in the twists and turns of Beauty’s fate. Near the end of the book, when Beauty must suffer yet another careless owner, my heart sunk at the poor creature’s terrible fate.

Sewell gives her reader’s a happy ending. It is perhaps a little unrealistic. Frankly, it's a fairy tale ending. However, after making sure we have so much emotionally invested in Beauty, Sewell would have been treating her readers cruelly herself if she ended Beauty's days in further hardship. It would certainly have plunged this reader into a week long depression.

Black Beauty is quite an achievement. A work written as activist propaganda that in the end turns out to be a perfectly realised aesthetic success. How did she do it? I sense it's this literary miracle that makes Black Beauty such an ongoing success.

Sewell died five months after the publication of her first novel. One wonders what other future novels she may have written, and that instead died with her.

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