The Furry Canon: Black Beauty

05 May 2016 |

Would I recommend Anna Sewell’s 1877 classic Black Beauty for inclusion in the furry canon? Yes, but with one qualification: the book’s central conceit is innovatively furry; the rest of the book is not.

I will begin with the furry element of Black Beauty: it is, as its subtitle proclaims, the auto-biography of a horse. More than just the story of a particular, modern horse’s life—not merely as a symbolic or allegorical gesture—it is a horse’s life told in the first person. In his own voice, Beauty guides us through the daily adventures and boredoms of a horse’s life, commenting on his masters’ behavior, his material condition, and his emotive reaction to it all. Though Beauty never vocalizes an English word, he is a talking horse by virtue of the fact that he addresses us.

And I am sorry to say it, but this is the extent of the book’s anthropomorphism. Despite his internal rational faculties, Beauty is definitely a horse. Throughout the entire book, I waited for him to act in some way that would reflect the thoughtfulness of his narration, but no: this is not a fantasy, and Sewell makes sure that Black Beauty’s behavior fits solidly within equine parameters.

In fact, to have anthropomorphized Beauty beyond a narrative voice would have undermined the book’s purpose, which relied on being a unimpeachable record of the sufferings of Victorian-era horses. Despite their prevailing reputation as unfeeling killjoys, Victorians were some the first Westerners who could have mustered the compassion—or, perhaps, the proto-furry sensibility—to produce and appreciate a novel like Black Beauty.

Following Descartes, many Europeans since the Enlightenment had believed that animals--in contrast to humans--were the equivalent of biological machines, possessing no interior life, senses, or pain. They had no memories or thoughts, only instincts, programs set running by God and death terminated. Away from the philosophers, the situation was even easier to explain: animals were appliances. You made an investment in them and discarded them when they could no longer return your investment. Indeed, Black Beauty then may have inspired the same bemused reactions as The Brave Little Toaster today.

Nevertheless, a new social consciousness gradually arose. The likes of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens depicted, however caricatured, the desperate situation of Europe’s poor. In the United States, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin described the plight of slaves in the American South and kindled the tinder of the Civil War. John Snow discovered that cholera spread not from noxious vapors but from contaminated water—a conclusion he reached from caring about poor Londoners enough to quantify their deaths and illnesses. Movements began to abolish debtors’ prisons and to provide humanitarian aid. Temperance societies arose to raise awareness about the effects of alcohol abuse on families and to persuade men to abandon the devil’s drink1.

With this awareness came a new concern about nonhuman life. Contradicting ASPCAphilosophical and theological justifications for beating and killing animals, some reformers declared that animal pain was an evil to be mitigated just as much as human pain. Members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in the United Kingdom in 1824, became known as “angels for horses” for the work they did to punish unkind owners, provide drinking fountains for thirsty carriage horses, and euthanize horses beyond treatment or relief. Its American affiliate, founded in New York City in 1866, was even granted formal police authority to punish animal abusers.

But while these movements have evolved into “animal rights” today, primary among the reasons they offered for caring about animals was an anthropocentric one that has fallen out of fashion: practicing cruelty toward “dumb brutes” would habituate its (mostly male) practitioners to treat humans, especially women and children, with cruelty. Treating animals with kindness was an integral part of human (again, particularly male—gender featured hugely in these campaigns) moral development.

Having studied the time period, I had a hard time viewing Black Beauty as anything more than a narrativized morality manual. Beauty never has an owner who is not either lauded as a paragon of virtue or criticized as one who indulges in vice. (Regarding gender, note that his best owner is surnamed “Manly”!) He receives an unsightly injury from a master who rode him too hard in a drunken rage; he watches other horses and owners deteriorate due to rock-bottom wages and greedy employers; he witnesses a corrupt stable-owner defraud those whose horses are under his stingy, neglectful care. Beauty himself is sold several times—changing names each time—because of his owners’ economic hardship. While a Londoner might be able to brush off the sale of a horse as one would that of a practical but out-of-style car, Sewell reminds us that the horse has a life after being sold and that, as a horse ages and its physical ability degenerates, his or her life becomes ever more desperate and troubled. Humans, therefore, share some responsibility for their animals’ continued well-being; for someone with a good conscience, out of sight could not mean out of mind.

In this light, Beauty’s ability to talk to horses is revealed less as essential anthropomorphism but as an instrumentally deployed device: Beauty’s conversations with other horses serve almost exclusively to illuminate other fields of equine life Beauty could not himself experience. Ginger shows how poor training can effectively disable a horse for work; Captain gives an insight into the life of a war horse on the front lines of the Crimean War2. Again, these stories are meant to demonstrate the proper care of horses through both positive and negative examples.

Curiously, throughout the entire book Sewell seldom has Beauty himself criticize humans; instead, she gives that duty to human characters Beauty overhears. However, Black Beauty’s acquiescence to the most unreasonable or painful treatment he receives—his perfect loyalty, unwillingness to judge, and unflaggingly obliging temperament—only prove his innocence and pile the sins even deeper on his abusers’ heads.

That Sewell’s purpose is moral is affirmed by when she decides to end the book: not with Beauty's old age (it would be hard to end an autobiography with death), but with his return to a secure life. “My troubles are over, and I am at home,” he says. The end of life's vicissitudes—adventures with the potential for moral commentary—is the end of story. And it is not altogether happy: in the book’s final lines, Beauty, solitary, finds himself reminiscing about his unblemished colthood: “often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees.” These friends and vistas he will never see again.

Sewell’s didacticism, in my opinion, has not aged well. Black Beauty’s passivity seldom engages more than the reader’s compassion and pity. This, of course, is the point3. If, however, you want to learn about the plight of the horse in its heyday, Black Beauty is exactly what you should read. As it did in Victorians for their working animals, hopefully Beauty’s minimal anthropomorphism can serve to evoke in modern readers empathy with cattle in feedlots or pigs in gestation crates.


1 Which in the mid-1800s America and Britain was hard liquor, not beer or wine.
Notably, the war in which Florence Nightingale pioneered life-saving practices that would become standard medical procedure.
I will admit that for me it was refreshing to read an explicitly Christian defense of kindness to animals; so far has the discourse moved toward utilitarianism and “rights”—and so split is society among culture-wars lines—that religious arguments are seldom prominently made in animal ethics.


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The Furry Canon, recommended, at the time of publication:
Redwall