More than a children’s book: A surface reading of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty

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Lucinda Janson

Keywords

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, Surface reading, Class, Victorian literature, Children's fiction, Animal welfare

Abstract

This article employs Margaret Cohen’s notion of the ‘generic horizon’ to explore the production and reception of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty. It uses a ‘surface reading’ methodology, focusing on the novel’s contemporary generic context and on how the book was received and marketed. This allows the article to interrogate critical commonplaces about the novel’s genre. While Black Beauty is typically considered a children’s book, the novel in fact had a considerable adult audience, especially among working-class men. This article sheds new light on Black Beauty’s genre through its contextual reading of moralistic, animal-centric children’s literature, and didactic tracts on horse management. It contends that the novel is a sophisticated exploration of the suffering and indignities faced by both horses and their working-class handlers in Victorian England. Reading the novel alongside contemporary horse care manuals brings into focus Sewell’s serious didactic purpose, in both teaching the correct means of tending horses and in presenting them as feeling, sympathetic beings in their own right. This article argues that Sewell’s novel deserves to be read as a significant contribution to nineteenth-century debates about animal welfare.

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