Comfort Read: Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) by Megan Sales

In the latest in our Comfort Reads series, second year student Megan Sales reflects on a childhood favourite… 

Re-reading one of my favourite childhood books wasn’t something I considered until my younger sister recently returned my copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). It sparked memories of the me being so excited when I opened the book one Christmas Day that I raced upstairs to read it, unable to wait. When my sister returned the book, I opened it smiling, reminiscing, and re-read the whole book by the next day.

I found it to be an amazing experience to re-read a book with a new perceptive. I could appreciate the animal rights activism within the novel as well as the finer details, those underlying warnings about capitalist culture glorifying the necessity to take care of ‘me, myself and I’. Sewell reminds us of the need to be responsible for one’s actions and to stand up against injustice. She suggests that people and animals are a product of their treatment and tells us that there is a need to understand there are always reasons behind behaviour.

Upon re-reading, John Manly emerged as my favourite character. His words resonated with me:

“Only ignorance! Only ignorance! […] Don’t you know it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? – and which does the most mischief, heaven only knows. If people can say, ‘Oh! I did not know, I did not mean any harm’ they think it is all right.”

(Sewell, pg. 95)

How applicable these words are today still. In the wake of “woke culture” (as many take pleasure in calling it) and the debates surrounding it, here is a voice from the past, from outside of our present moment warning against ignorance and reminding us of the importance of standing up against wrongdoing. It appears to be something that has stood the test of time with us; the desire to be ignorant rather than nurse the guilt of our former actions. To borrow from Sewell, perhaps many of today’s social problems arise “[…] because people think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrong-doer to light.” (pg. 205).

These words were written 144 years ago and yet they could have been written today. There is so much more to say about this novel. If you have not already, I strongly recommend you do find and pick up that old forgotten novel. These insights are powerful and defining. I like to think of myself as an empathic person. I get it wrong sometimes, for certain, but this novel helped shape my perspective and my need to gain understanding before I pass judgement. I do believe that is the beauty of literature. Encountering different perspectives to reach new understandings, to understand not only ourselves but others and the way we work, think, and feel. Furthermore, the ability to see our inherent nature, how we may not have changed just as much as we think. This opens new doors of possibility.

Works cited:

Sewell, A (1877) Black Beauty, London: Penguin, (1994).