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Literature / Black Beauty

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"There are a great many kinds of men; there are good, thoughtful men like our master, that any horse may be proud to serve; but there are bad, cruel men, who never ought to have a horse or dog to call their own. Beside, there are a great many foolish men, vain, ignorant, and careless, who never trouble themselves to think; these spoil more horses than all, just for want of sense; they don't mean it, but they do it for all that. I hope you will fall into good hands; but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us, but still I say, do your best, wherever it is, and keep up your good name."
Duchess, Black Beauty's mother, to her son.

Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse is an 1877 polemic novel by Anna Sewell, tracing the life of the titular fictional horse from colthood to retirement. Today it is considered a classic of children's literature; however, originally it was not written for children, but as an effort to draw attention to the wildly varying treatment of horses in Victorian England. As a result it contains mini-lectures on everything from bits and blinkers to broken knees. Along the way Beauty also provides a horse's perspective on the human capacity for cruelty and kindness, and comparisons between the treatment of animals and the treatment of poor working-class humans.

Many film and television adaptations have been made, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original work.

This novel and its adaptations provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Many versions, including the 1994 one, expands on the relationship between Beauty and Joe to being that of best friends. In the book, they don't share much of a relationship, and their reunion is more of an afterthought. In the 1994 film version, it's a huge Tear Jerker.
  • Adaptation Distillation: While not getting everything right (and cutting the dialogue for all of the animals besides Beauty), the 1994 movie is considered the best of the film versions. (Not to mention that David Thewlis as Jerry Barker is some of the best casting in film history.)
    • Many adaptations cut out the part early on where Beauty with his mother witness a fox hunt going terribly wrong when one horse stumbles into a ditch, killing both him and his rider. Beauty later finds out that horse was his brother.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Reuben Smith in the 1978 cartoon. In the book and other adaptations, he's generally kind and only shows any ill behavior once while drunk (although it does cost him his life and leaves Beauty injured). In Hanna-Barbera's version, he's outright abusive, and survives to purchase Beauty later on for the sole purpose of overworking him.
  • Adapted Out: Inevitable with a story with so many characters, so often only the most notable of Beauty's owners are given any attention while any others (if they are acknowledged at all) tend to be glossed over with some variant of "and then for several years I changed hands frequently." Beauty also meets a number of horses in the book, but generally only his mother, Ginger, and Merrylegs are named or get any real screentime (one cartoon kept Sir Oliver in, possibly the only time another horse is mentioned by name), and no adaptation has ever kept the brief scene of Rob Roy, Beauty's older brother.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: Many of the film versions like to throw this in there.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Beauty isn't sure if the dead horse he sees is Ginger, he merely hopes it is her so her suffering would come to an end. For all the reader knows, and hopes, Ginger could have found a happy ending just like Beauty.
  • Amplified Animal Aptitude: Mostly averted. Once you get past the fact that the horse is narrating his own life story and having weighty ethical and philosophical discussions with other horses, Beauty largely behaves like a normal horse and acts mostly on instinct rather than reason - for instance, being too terrified to leave a burning barn until he's blindfolded and led out.
  • Animal Stereotypes: Black Beauty fits the horse stereotype to a T.
  • Animal Talk: Par for the course in a story like this.
  • Animated Adaptation: Two, one American (courtesy of Hanna-Barbera) and one Australian (via Burbank Films).
    • A third was made by Jetlag productions in the 90's. Of the three, it falls between the other two in terms of faithfulness to the book. Hanna-Barbera's is generally considered to be about as faithful as a 45-minute cartoon could reasonably manage, while Burbank Films' version keeps a few notable scenes but otherwise bears only a passing resemblance.
  • Artistic License – Animal Care: Only in-universe; for example, Beauty is nearly killed by a groom who gives him cold water and leaves him standing uncovered in his stall after a strenuous effort. This is an invitation for colic, and it causes all the horse's muscles to lock up.
  • Author Filibuster: At least half the book is devoted to characters spending entire chapters basically getting on soapboxes to deliver lectures that have little or nothing to do with the actual plot (such as politics).
  • Author Tract: Anna Sewell suffered a serious injury in childhood which eventually left her unable to stand or walk unaided, and hence needing horses/ponies to get around. This constant exposure to them and their welfare was the motivation behind her book, to get people to be a little more conscious about the way they treated animals. Giving particular weight to the moral was that if religion did not teach people to be kind to animals, it was a sham (remember, this was read by Victorian Britons). Boy, did it work: an outpouring of concern about animal welfare resulted, and the use of the bearing rein lost almost all favornote . The book also inspired several pieces of anti-cruelty legislature, as well as changes to laws in order to ease financial strain on cab drivers, which in turn led to better treatment of their horses.
  • Automaton Horse: Invoked and savagely defied. The novel pulls no punches in depicting how many horses suffer at the hands of people who treat them like machinery instead of living creatures.
    • Early in the novel a nobleman's son treats Ginger like a furry motorcycle to hop on, ride at top speed through long and rigorous hunts, then dump back in the stall. The strain on her body permanently damages her bronchial tract to the point that she is never able run as well again. She is given a year of pasture rest to heal, but the damage is great and the breath problems eventually return. She's sold as a work horse, which strains her physical health more and more until she's possibly driven to an early death (Beauty never knows if it is indeed her dead body that he sees).
    • Reuben Smith, a groom with a drinking problem, is warned that one of Beauty's shoes has come loose, but he rides him anyway. The shoe eventually comes off en route and Beauty's foot is consequently cut by sharp stones, causing him to injure himself and accidentally throw his rider to his death when the pain causes him to stumble and fall on his knees. (Ironically, Beauty indicates that Reuben is well aware that horses are living creatures that need to be tended to... but only when he's sober, which he's decidedly not on this night.)
    • One of the most miserable periods of Beauty's life is when he's a rental horse. While not as cruel or neglectful as some of his other owners, one of his most hated customer types are city folks who think horses are a smaller, furrier kind of engine train, and expect him to gallop and/or canter at full speed to the destination, no matter how far away it is, and won't let him slow down or take rest stops along the way.
  • Back for the Finale: Joe Green returns to be Beauty's caretaker in the final chapter.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: In the 1994 film, York tells a circling Black Beauty in his stable to stand still. Beauty does so and by doing so brings his hoof down on York's foot.
  • Big Damn Reunion: Beauty and Joe have this at the end of the 1994 film version.
  • Bitch Alert: Lady Wexmere in the 1994 film. Her first scene is her having the bearing rein tightened over the horses, stating "they're not fit to be seen". Ginger gets a bit of an introduction like this but Beauty is attracted to her immediately.
    • Subverted with Ginger. She's very cross when she first meets Beauty (blaming him for getting her turned out of her box, which Merrylegs points out was her own snapping that did it), but as she defrosts and reveals her backstory, she turns out to be very agreeable when well-treated, she and Beauty become close friends.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Beauty ends up in a good home with the promise of never being sold again. Ginger, on the other hand, continues to suffer under one cruel owner after the other, ultimately killing her. Combine that with Beauty seeing her dead body, hoping her pain is finally at an end, and the ending with him dreaming about the days the two were together, along with Merrylegs and you'll find yourself in serious need of a tissue.
    • It's even worse in the book or comic when you actually read the conversation Beauty and Ginger have the last time he sees her alive.
    I said, "You used to stand up for yourself if you were ill-used."
    "Ah!" she said, "I did once, but it's no use; men are strongest, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing that we can do, but just bear it — bear it on and on to the end. I wish the end was come, I wish I was dead. I have seen dead horses, and I am sure they do not suffer pain; I wish I may drop down dead at my work, and not be sent off to the knackers."
    • Also in the book, Beauty isn't even sure if the dead horse he sees is Ginger, he merely hopes it is.
  • Break the Cutie: Ginger. Poor, poor Ginger.
    • In a scene exclusive to the book, Beauty spots a small pony being cruelly whipped and looking very worse-for-wear. While he can't be sure, Beauty claims he thinks the pony looked like Merrylegs.
  • Broken Bird: Have we mentioned "poor Ginger"?
  • Death by Adaptation: An uncertain case. In the book, Beauty only gets a glimpse of a dead horse that could be Ginger, but he's not sure whether or not it actually is. In the film, he (and the audience) can clearly see that it's her.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Ginger. Unusually for this trope, she is 'defrosted' by kind and humane treatment by her humans, not by the efforts of the hero.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Ginger. Poor thing just never caught a break.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Sewell lists herself as the "translator" of Black Beauty's autobiography.
  • Drunk Driver: Reuben Smith gets drunk and then tries to ride Beauty home. It doesn't end well.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: You're damn right that horse has to earn his happy ending.
  • The Film of the Book: Quite a few in fact. At least four movies.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The 1994 movie opens with the happy home Beauty ends up at before beginning his story.
  • Friend to All Children: Merrylegs the pony is specifically cited as such. It helps that, being a Shetland pony, he's pretty much child-sized... and, much like a well-trained real life Shetland, he does have his limits and won't tolerate being treated like a toy (as the rowdy boys mentioned in the Rearing Horse example discover).
  • Friend to All Living Things: Jerry Barker goes out of his way to ensure that his horses are well-fed and cared for, refuses to ride at high speeds to make up for the lateness of customers, and speaks out against cruelty to animals wherever he sees it. He also decides to put Captain out of his pain instead of selling him after Captain is injured as it is the kinder thing to do.
  • Furry Reminder: Horses mainly talk, but they whinny when surprised.
  • Gender Flip: In a 1995 animated adaptation, Joe was changed into a girl named Jenny. The same can be said for the 2020 version, only that the name is Jo Green.
    • On another note, the 2020 Disney+ adaptation will feature Black Beauty, who is a either a stallion or a gelding in most incarnations, as a mare.
  • Hollywood Atheist: One of Jerry's fellow cab riders, Larry, doesn't believe in religion. He's also the hardest on his horses, is willing to drive them more harshly for an extra shilling, and of all the cab drivers is going through horses the most frequently because he wears them out with his harsh treatment. The book is a bit more nuanced about this since Jerry states that any man who is cruel to other people and animals isn't religious, no matter how much he goes to church, and that a truly religious man wouldn't do either.
  • Horsey Heroism: Beauty (and to a lesser extent, the groom who rides him) saves his mistress's life when he brings the doctor in time.
  • Horsing Around:
    • At least twice Beauty rebels against orders. The first time he refuses to cross an unsafe bridge; the second, he pitches a fit at the bearing rein. He is meant to have the audience's sympathy (and he does) both times.
    • The book also includes a scene in which Beauty, and John riding him, observe a boy trying to whip his pony into jumping a fence too high for it, and getting tipped out of the saddle and over the fence on his own for his trouble. As in the examples involving Beauty, the reader's sympathy, like John's, is with the pony.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: See if you can read the words "bearing rein" without being thrown into a frothing rage. Beauty gives this memorable quote about it in the 1994 version:
    Black Beauty: A bearing rein is well-named, for it is unbearable. It makes no sense, and nonsense can drive a horse mad.
  • Hypocrite: Jerry is accused of this on occasions when he does have to take Beauty fast or work on Sundays, but he only ever does this if he's sure there's a good reason, such as a passenger having a genuine need to be somewhere. One chapter notes that he and Beauty enjoyed a trip out to the country on a Sunday as the weather was particularly good.
  • I Will Find You: What Joe tells Beauty when leaving him in his new home.
  • Kick the Dog: Some of the more villainous characters get to do this.
  • Mature Animal Story: While the novel does not contain any material that is inappropriate for children, most of it would probably go over their heads.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Ginger, a chestnut mare, though she is called that because she snaps. Doubles as a Stealth Pun.
    • On the human side we have Joe Green, whose youthful inexperience almost causes Beauty's death, and Mr. Thoroughgood, the thoroughly good old man who buys beat down working horses like Ladybird and Beauty and gives them a second chance at life by rehabilitating them and finding them good owners.
    • Some of Beauty's grooms after he's sold to Mr. Barry have names that are a little too on-the-nose: a groom who steals feed is named Filcher; a vain, lazy, deceitful groom is named Alfred Smirk.
  • Nearly Normal Animal: Beauty is entirely a horse, but he is capable of grasping maxims like "always do your best" and "keep up your good name." His mother tells him not to kick or bite, not for threat of punishment, but because he is of a good family and above such coarse behavior.
  • No Antagonist: Some bad owners come and go, but there's no single figure driving the conflict of the novel.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Beauty explains that the blinkers invoke this because they restrict horses' vision so they can only see a fraction of their normal range, and only from the front. Since most sights and sounds come from beside and behind them, not being able to see where sudden noises and/or sights come from keeps the horses wondering what it is, and winds up frightening them more than if they didn't have them on.
    • Same when the barn catches fire. Even before the smoke and fire shows, the horses sense something is wrong, but can't understand what it is, and this frightens them far more than any Jump Scare ever could. So much so that two horses pay with their lives, because they're too scared of the unknown terror surrounding the barn to move out of the barn.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Beauty is normally so gentle and compliant that the few times he acts up, those that know him know that something is seriously wrong.
    • On the night of Reuben Smith's death, Beauty can tell something's up because the normally gentle Smith is rough and abrasive to everyone he encounters, and because he's dismissive about a loose nail in Beauty's shoe when he's usually meticulous about those types of details. It doesn't take him long to realize that Smith is drunk.
  • Old Soldier: Captain, Jerry Barker's other cab horse, is an equine version. In his prime he was a cavalry mount, and he tells Beauty the story of his experiences in the Crimean War.
  • One-Book Author: Black Beauty is sadly the only book Anna Sewell wrote before her death, but is still remembered today as a timeless classic.
  • Primal Fear: Horses are full of them. Fire, loud noises like from steam engines (it took Beauty two weeks to get desensitized to it), reduced vision like from blinkers, sudden or constant noises like from crowded streets, etc.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Ginger to Beauty in many adaptations. She's not described as more than his friend in the book.
  • Rearing Horse: Mostly played straight; downplayed with the pony Merrylegs, who would do this as a gentle way to get passengers off his back when he'd had enough of them (he is, of course, a lot closer to the ground).
  • Rhyming Names: When Beauty's made a cab horse, his owner's named Jerry, the owner's son is Harry, and his main competitor a man named Larry. Throw in the fact that Jerry bought him from a man named Barry and it's hard to tell if Sewell was doing it on purpose or not.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Duchess, Black Beauty's mother, who only shows up in the first few chapters and in Beauty's memories a few times after that. She was a well-behaved and much-beloved horse, and brought up her children to be docile and obedient to humans. Beauty's behavior throughout the story is defined by her teachings, and his kinder owners recognize immediately what a good temperament he has.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • In the 1995 animated adaptation, the last time Beauty sees Ginger is at a fair where she appears to be in much better health and is being sold to a young girl, implying she got a happy ending in contrast to the original. This is in contrast to the earlier animated adaption that even includes the scene where Beauty sees her dead body being pulled away in a cart.
    • Similarly, in the republished versions that are clearly meant for modern children, Black Beauty turns out to be wrong about Ginger dying, and she is reunited with Beauty in the end. Frequently joined by Merrylegs, despite the ironclad, plot-relevant promise never to sell him.
    • In the book, Reuben Smith dies after he rides Black Beauty while intoxicated and ends up falling off. In the 1994 version, he survives, but loses his job.
  • Tempting Fate: Lady Anne rides a mare she's warned is not safe, then refuses to dismount when her riding partner needs to make a quick stop inside.
    "Oh, do not hurry yourself; Lizzie and I shall not run away from you."
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Implied to be the fate of Mrs. Gordon. Subverted at the end, when it turns out she's still alive after young Jim Green has grown into a man.
  • Too Unhappy to Be Hungry: After young Joe Green makes a mistake while taking care of Black Beauty that causes the horse to fall seriously ill, he becomes so heartbroken that he stops eating.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The attitude of some owners to their horses. Several of the horses we see under these masters have crossed the Despair Event Horizon and are waiting to die, particularly Ginger.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Averted for the most part with the animal abusers in the story usually portrayed as monsters viewing and treating horses as little more than machines to be used and disposed of. There is one instance, however, where Jerry scolds a fellow cab driver he sees with a malnourished horse, only for the driver to reply that he'd love to feed his horse more if he could, but the cab driver wages are so bad he literally has to choose between feeding his horse and feeding his family, and sadly, his family has to come first. In the end, both he and Jerry are left lamenting how unfair the state of things are that it's that way.
  • Xenofiction: The book is a portrait of 19th-century England as seen through the eyes of a horse, focusing on the joys and hardships of life and how humans can bring either comfort or suffering to animals who have no choice but to serve them.