Black Beauty
Anna Sewell
Contributed by Machelle Schuler
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Chapter 4

Merrylegs is the first of the horses to leave for his new home. Then John comes and takes Ginger and Beauty to their new home at Earlshall Park, where they see for the first time Mr. York—their new coachman—a friendly yet firm middle-aged man. The man asks John about the temperament of these two new horses, and John replies that they are the finest pair of horses in the country. Of the two, he says, Beauty has a calmer temper and Ginger is a bit irritable if she receives harsh treatment. John also points out that they never had to use the checkrein. Unfortunately, the checkrein is necessary at the hall, Mr. York says, despite his own preferences against it. The lady of the hall will not stand for anything but check-reins and the heads of her horses must be held up high. John anticipates hardship and is loath to leave the horses here but leave them he must.

That afternoon Beauty wears the checkrein for the first time, and though he finds it burdensome, he is able to bear the annoyance. The next day the lady, upon seeing Beauty and Ginger harnessed to the carriage, demands that the coachman tighten the check-reins as the horses’ heads must rise higher. The coachman reluctantly surrendered and tightened the reins one hole. Day by day this pattern continued; the lady demanded that the coachman tighten the reins more and more until Beauty came to hate his harness and hate his carriage and especially hate his checkrein.

All this tension came to a head one day when the lady came down, more annoyed than ever, and demanded that the man once again tighten the check-rein. This was one step too far for Ginger; as soon as they opened the rein for adjustment she started kicking and flailing and knocking about. She managed to knock Mr. York in the nose and she unintentionally kicked Beauty as well. The grooms had to wrestle her to the ground and lead her back to the stables bruised and angered. After that incident they did not harness her to the carriages again. Instead Beauty had a new partner—Max—who had given in to the inevitability of the checkrein and bore it with no outward resistance. Mr. York in private voiced great annoyance with the lady and her unreasonable demands, but outwardly he did not disobey her and continued to use the checkreins on the carriage horses. For four months Beauty continued to bear that pain, and here he had no friend like John to take care of him. Mr. York, Beauty guesses, knew and sympathized with his pain, but had probably accepted the checkrein as inevitable and did nothing to relieve Beauty.

That spring, the Earl and some of his family departed on a trip to London, leaving Ginger and Beauty behind in the hall. Lady Anne, who stayed behind, would often take Beauty out on a ride. Beauty loved these rides, as she was a masterful rider and had a happy and gentle disposition. She is the one who gave Beauty his next name, “Black Auster.” One day however, Lady Anne decided to ride Lizzie—another horse on the barn, a gentle yet rather nervous mare—and leave Beauty so that the gentleman Blantyre could ride him instead. So the two riders and two horses went off and all went well at first. When they reached their intended destination, Blantyre stepped away for a few minutes and during that short span of time, a few carthorses and colts came down the road. One of the colts ran right into Lizzie’s legs and the nervous old mare panicked, kicked around and then dashed off with Lady Anne holding on for her life. Off they went, Anne unable to stop her frightened horse. Blantyre was back in a minute and upon seeing what happened, he leapt onto Beauty and the two went dashing off after the runaway horse. The chase was on. Sometimes Lizzie would be in sight, other times hidden. Up this hill and down that turn she went. Over one dike and ditch they leapt and so Beauty leapt right after them. TO their dismay, Lady Anne had fallen off after such a jump, and Blantyre—spotting two men in the distance willing to help—immediately dispatched one of them on Beauty to send word to the doctor. And so again Beauty had to dash back to town for the doctor and again he performed spectacularly. The doctor came in time and Lady Anne soon recovered and Beauty’s hope and joy in life started to slowly return.

Then Beauty shifts his focus to the man who acted as the substitute coachman when Mr. York was away: Reuben Smith. Smith was, according to Beauty, a highly capable, kind, hard-working man. He would have been one of Beauty’s best caretakers were it not for one critical flaw: he had a drinking problem. Though he could control himself for months at a time, every now and then he would have a bout and do something that brought shame upon himself and hard times upon his wife. One such time he was so drunk he could not drive his passengers back home, and so for that offence he was dismissed. However, Mr. York interceded on his behalf, and the kind-hearted Earl took Smith back in. So it was that one day, Smith was riding Beauty on an errand. On their journey a nail in one of Beauty’s shoes became loose. When they reached a rest stop, the hostler warned Smith about the nail but the man—having drunk during the rest—dismissed the man and left the shoe as it was. Then he took Beauty off on a gallop back home, whipping every now and then, as he was drunk and in a bad temper. Beauty’s shoe eventually came off during such a hard ride, but Smith failed to notice.

The next part of the road was particularly stony and sharp and Beauty’s unprotected foot soon began to bleed and hurt terribly. The journey continued and Beauty soon reached his limit. He stumbled and fell, unintentionally flinging Smith of his back. The man fell unconscious and soon died, while the horse could only stand there, trembling under multiple pains. Two men eventually came down the road from the opposite direction; they were looking for Smith and here they found him dead. Susan his wife would be devastated, one man was saying, and he must have in a terrible state to try and ride a shoeless horse over this type of road. After voicing these regrets the two men together plan how to take both the body and Beauty back to the hall.

The walk home caused Beauty severe pain; the man leading him gave him a makeshift wrapping and did the best he could but the three-mile trail after Beauty’s already painful journey only further damaged his health. Eventually, though, he made it; and, there in his old stables, he fell asleep despite the pain. In the morning the farrier attempted to treat Beauty’s wound. He would heal, the doctor said, but in the process of treating his wound they had to burn out some flesh and apply a burning fluid that permanently discolored Beauty’s knees. As for Smith, he was buried soon enough and his wife had to take care of their six children by herself; she could only repeat over and over her regrets that he drank when he was otherwise such a good man.


Some critics read Black Beauty through the lens of slavery and feminism. They argue that Sewell is using Black Beauty and his story to portray the hardships of being a slave and the hardships of being a woman in late-Victorian England. The connections to both these categories figure prominently in this section. As for the slave narrative, they argue that Black Beauty is indeed intentionally analogous to a slave narrative like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to this argument, there is a direct connection between Beauty’s story and the story of the typical antebellum slave. Evidence for this abounds, the argument says. The whole story, after all, is about the service of one creature to another group of creatures whom he calls master and mistress and in whose control he perpetually remains. His whole life he spends serving them and in return he receives food, water, shelter and basic care. The subjugators force him to wear things like a harness and bit and if he does not obey their whips are at the ready. The checkreins, which feature so heavily in this section, are like the slaves’ chains. When Ginger rebels against these reins in a move that calls to mind a slave’s bid for freedom, her captors beat her down. All of these details sum up to tell the story of masters, slaves and their interactions with each other. Indeed the fundamental, anthropomorphist premise of the book--a story-telling horse—gives to an animal a human-specific trait and thus the tale is about linking animal to man.

However, to focus again on this section, one of the key messages of this section is Sewell’s condemnation of drinking. While she has earlier touched upon the idea, in this section—with the story of Reuben Smith—she provides a concrete statement of that message. She first introduces Smith as a wise, good, highly capable caretaker. He would be, in the opinion of Black Beauty, the most capable caretaker the horse has seen were it not for one problem, one fatal flaw: his habit of drinking. By specifically emphasizing the fact that he is otherwise so capable and drinking is his only major problem, Sewell is isolating this one variable of drinking in order to highlight its specific harms. Furthermore, she makes sure to point out that he does not even drink that much; this is not a daily thing for him, it only happens every few months or so. She does this to strengthen her case against drinking; she is pointing out that even in small amounts it can wreck the otherwise most successful of people. Two more stories she offers to emphasize the harms of drinking. The first is when she narrates what happened in the past, when Smith was too drunk to drive his charge home. The master fired him and so he lost his job and his wife and six children lost their house—this detail of the family is to elicit sympathy for the family and anger at the cause of their pain. Later Mr. York convinced the master to rehire Mr. Smith. Even after this first warning, though, he did not stop. The consequences of his second drinking bout were then catastrophic; he dies and his wife loses her beloved husband, his children their father, and the whole family loses the house and breadwinner in one fell swoop. With his story then, Sewell expresses her loathing of drinking and she furthers her efforts to discourage people from taking part in the practice.

With the introduction of these two characters—Mr. York and Mr. Smith—Sewell marks this section as a clear turning point in Black Beauty’s story. Previously, Beauty’s masters and caretakers were for the most part benevolent and capable. Here we have two characters that, although still in some ways caring and efficient, have major flaws in the caretaking, flaws which cause significant harm to the horses under their care. Their failures and flaws foreshadow the even greater harm of the following section. Black Beauty’s journey from idyllic childhood to hard adulthood shifts gradually, and this point marks the beginning of Beauty’s difficult times. To return to the present point though, Sewell here presents two caretakers who are not wholly good—as John and James were—and not wholly bad. Mr. York is kind and a good worker. He feels for the horses and has quite a good understanding of their problems. His flaw though, is that he will not stand up for the horses when he sees the lady of the hall causing them harm. He will bitterly resent her meddling and will wish it did not happen, but he will not take concrete steps to stop it. Black Beauty himself notes this, and wishes that Mr. York had stood up more for those horses under his care. It is his refusal to do this that leads to Ginger’s fit, and which results in Beauty having to suffer the checkrein for half a year. As for Mr. Smith, he is highly capable and kind. He too knows his job well. Yet he, like Mr. York, has a fatal flaw, which is his drinking problem. This flaw eventually results in the tragic incident that is discussed more in the paragraph below. What Sewell is emphasizing though, by introducing these two new characters, is that knowledge and skill and a little bit of empathy are not adequate. One needs to also have principle and bravery and overwhelmingly good character. Joe and James and John had that. They were brave and just, as the story of the fire and the brick porter and the rider with the whip and all their other stories demonstrate. She is contrasting them with Mr. York and Mr. Smith, who were nearly there but failed in these key areas of principle, bravery and justice. Her point is to argue that a caretaker cannot do this job halfway and call it quits, a caretaker must excel in all these different areas in order to do good and justice to those under their care.

Finally, the tragic story of Reuben Smith—which is really a turning point of the book—also marks the first time Black Beauty fails his rider and falls. This failure and the consequences of it are of critical importance in understanding Sewell’s motif of: a good master leads to good horses and a bad master leads to bad horses. As the above paragraph notes, up until this section Beauty has been--for the most part--under the care of good, kind, and wise masters. Sewell used those earlier sections mostly to establish the first part of her argument: that good masters, good upbringing and so on produce good horses. In this section she focuses on the latter half of that argument, and as an example she uses takes the most important character of the story--our Black Beauty--and narrates one of his greatest failures—his involuntary stumbling and the subsequent death of Smith. Beauty, who has succeeded so spectacularly many times before, now unwillingly causes the death of his rider. Undoubtedly the fault is not at all Beauty’s, and that is the whole point. He was under the care of a bad, incapable master and that is the cause of his failure. To underscore the impact that a master has on his horse, she tells us of Black Beauty’s permanent scar. She is pointing out that this failure will not only live on in memories but will have a visible scar—the discolored stains on Beauty’s knees—as a constant reminder of this story. Black Beauty is now permanently changed. This horse, whose name after all is Black Beauty, and whose first identity marker in the eyes of people is his beautiful black coat, now has that defining characteristic of his permanently tarnished. In this way, Sewell develops that key motif of her story, which links education and upbringing to the behavior and character of the horse.

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