Another children’s classic, #58 Black Beauty is available for free on Project Gutenberg. A lot of kids go through a ‘horse’ phase (see also: ‘dinosaur phase’, ‘digger phase’) and no doubt have fond memories of the book as a result. I missed out on that, and although I’m sure I read Black Beauty at least once before I was 18, I don’t remember it well.
The proper care of equines, as narrated by a horse
Early animal rights literature, Black Beauty is designed to convince middle-class children to be kind to the dumb beasts they pass every day.
Set in a world before motorcars (it was first published in 1877), the novel follows the ordinary life of a working horse. Born of good stock he is well-trained in his youth, then sold to various masters, good and bad. Each person or situation Black Beauty encounters provides the audience with a valuable lesson about how to treat horses. The lecturing is heavy handed and is only saved by the fact that I’m reading it a hundred years too late, so I don’t actually know how long cab horses work for (half a day, although the cab men do a full day) or how far you can ride in a day (32 miles is quoted as reasonable). The author also manages to squeeze in lectures about other subjects, including ‘the demon drink’ and docking dogs’ tails.
A snapshot of Victorian life
Although I wasn’t that taken with the plot of Black Beauty, like Diary of a Nobody it does show ordinary life in a way which other novels don’t. As the book is primarily about what happens to the horses, the people are more or less incidental, so someone being knocked down and killed, dying of TB or otherwise suffering from living in Victorian London isn’t really commented on. The book also fills in ordinary details like how taking a cab worked, what a day trip involved, what hired horses were like.
Horses were so fundamental to society before the car but their appearance in novels usually lacks detail – fictional cars have more personality than working horses, from the obligatory temperamental banger in PA meets billionaire romances right up to Christine.
Black Beauty was an interesting read and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is thinking of writing a historical novel – but it’s probably not much good for anyone who’s thinking of getting on a horse! Conveniently for writers, Black Beauty takes place in both Bath and London, two of the most commonly described cities in British fictional history, and covers a good swathe of the jobs horses did (I didn’t notice any pit ponies, but I may have blinked).