Anna Sewell's only novel is one of eternal morality. The story of a handsome, well-bred as well as good natured horse and his journey through Victorian Era Britain.
Black Beauty, originally named Darkie, is born a dark colored colt with a white starred forehead, into a household of fair wealth, "the first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it." His mother's name is Duchess, and she was a favorite of the master's. He called her, "Pet."
When Darkie is caught by his mother running, kicking and biting with other colts of the field, she whinnies him to her side and explains to her son, that his play mates are cart horse colts and they are not of the most mannered variety. She tells him, "I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways: do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick, even in play."
At the age of four Darkie, receives his breaking in. He is in a very good place with a kind and sensible master, but still, he is disconcerted by the bit in his mouth and finds the weight of his master upon his back quite odd indeed. But he is coaxed and petted to quell the shock of the change. Darkie is also trained to become used to man's machines, such as trains, so he will not have to fear nor fret when at a station. Soon before their parting Darkie's mother gives him advice to last a lifetime:
There are a great many kinds of men; there are good, thoughtful men like our master, that any horse may be proud to serve; and there are bad, cruel men, who never ought to have a horse or a dog to call their own. Besides, 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.
Soon Darkie finds himself within the luxury of a lose box at Squire Gordon's estate. His stable mates are Merry Legs and Ginger. Merry Legs is a pert, tubby, plucky little grey dappled pony who is a fair favorite with children. Ginger is a tall chestnut beauty with a vigorous temper and a good heart.
It is here, Darkie is named Black Beauty, and he is again in a good place, with practical and compassionate owners. His one wish is for liberty. To run and roll upon meadow grass as he used to when a colt. He dislikes the steel bit, the straps and only being let out of his stall when he is needed. Though, every Sunday, the family would walk to Church and the horses would be let free for exercise in a large pleasant meadow.
"It was a great treat for us to be turned out into the home paddock or the old orchard; the grass was so cool and soft to our feet, the air so sweet, and the freedom to do as we liked was so pleasant - gallop, to lie down, and roll over on our backs, or to nibble the sweet grass. Then it was a very good time for talking, as we stood together under the shade of the large chestnut tree."
As the times in the orchard and meadow allowed the horses room for conversation, it was in this manner Black Beauty learned about Ginger's upbringing. Within Ginger's past were some reasonable caretakers, but also many abusers. Including those so very fond of the check reign, a strap that runs from the harness, directly upon the horse's neck and attaches to the back of its head. The tighter the reign, the higher the horse's head.
Check reigns were in fashion among a variety of classes, during the period, and such fashion caused much distress and suffering for the horse. Ginger rails against ill treatment and the check reign. Black Beauty's owners have never used it, so he has as of yet no personal knowledge of having his head and neck forced up. Ginger describes men as "brutes" and "blockheads" which many can be, but Merry Legs turns the sour mood around by reminding all of the good masters they have now.
But, such peace and quality of life pleasantries were not to last as the mistress of the household becomes direly ill. The estate is broken up as the master and mistress depart to a more temperate climate in desperate hopes, the change in environment will remedy the lady's declining health. The horses are given to friends. Merry Legs is never to be sold as per agreement. Black Beauty and Ginger are placed with the Earl of W- at Earlshall Park, a much wealthier estate than their former home. Here the mistress is fond of the check reign and insists upon its use despite warning regarding Ginger's temper.
One morning the mistress demands the reigns to be up far too tightly and Ginger lashes out, kicking her way out of the carriage harness. Black Beauty, now named Black Auster, is accidently kicked in the bargain and the lady misses the Duchess's garden party. All for the check reign.
Many ill treatments of the horses come from knowing ignorance such as use of the check reign or else from over exhausted systems, exemplified by low rung cab drivers who can hardly care for themselves, much less the horses. And the horses are never preferred above people.
Black Auster is sold from the Earl of W-'s estate, when his knees are broken by a drunken rider and the hair burned off as part of the medical treatment. The look of his knees causes him to fall into the middle class. He is first sold as a job horse. A client of the renting stable, takes a liking to Black Auster's quality and recommends him to a friend of his, Mr. Barry, a businessman whose doctor has recommended he take on a horse for exercise. Beauty would likely have had a well off home with Mr. Barry as the accommodations of the businessman's stables were sound including food of high quality. But his new owner had the misfortune of hiring two irresponsible grooms in a row; one who stole corn and the other time, by being lazy and not cleaning out the stall. So, in disgust and likely embarrassment, Mr. Barry sold the horse.
Beauty then finds a home in the city of London, with a good natured middle rung cab driver with a kind family. He is worked very hard, as all cab horses are, but is treated well. On passing, Beauty sees Ginger again. She is used up as a low cab horse and no longer fights for herself anymore. Her wind had been ruined by the check reign and she kept being sold lower down, until she found herself reaching for a piece of straw that had blown from Beauty's feed. She recognizes Beauty, but he cannot believe it is her at first, as she is now a tired creature, with buckling joints and glazed, empty eyes that are hoping for death. She does not kick or jump when she is mistreated anymore, as men are stronger. She was a beautiful, hard working horse, who did the best she could. They speak for a little while but then Ginger is pulled away. Shortly after, Beauty sees a dead chestnut horse in a cart. It has a long thin neck and blood runs out of its mouth. Beauty hopes it to be Ginger. He laments, "I saw a great deal of trouble among the horses in London, and much of it that might have been prevented with a little common sense."
Beauty's owner Jerry, eventually became too ill from the strain of a cab driver's life, contracting bronchitis, to run a cab on his own anymore. Beauty is now about 13 years of age. He is still a fine looking horse but for the knees, still he is not who he used to be. At yet another horse market, Beauty comes upon the uncommon good fortune of being bought by a fair man who fixed up Beauty with kindness and care to sell him to ladies in need of a calm, trustworthy horse. His new stable boy is Joe Green, who used to work at Squire Gordan's. Beauty is never to be sold, and he says, "My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and 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."
By Sarah Bahl
For any little girl who ever loved horses, or any woman who loved horses as a little girl (me) National Velvet is a treasure. Played by Elizabeth Taylor, Velvet, is a little brunette girl, who (in the early 1920s) jots about her English village as if she were riding a horse. (Doesn't every little girl?) Her retainer makes her adorably awkward and Velvet is dreamy, off on a world of her own, much of the time as proper little girls should be.
Velvet differs greatly from her older sister, Edwina (played by Angela Lansbury) who is curvy and in love with boys rather than horses. Edwina attempts to explain her love for boys to Velvet, but Velvet cannot understand how anyone could feel for a boy what should be felt for a horse. While galloping down a country lane Velvet meets a wandering fellow, (played by Mickey Rooney), a former jockey on the outs with life. As they talk, Velvet and her new friend, then see a horse, a large bay gelding, as it jumps a fence and runs down the lane.
The next, is a scene that would make anyone vomit up cheese, as Velvet, stands in front of the horse, and says, "Woah." The horse then rears on his hind legs and comes to a stop. She, as a small girl, has wooed the beast with her aura. (They don't make cheese like they used to.) Velvet names the horse Pie, and the owner, Farmer Ede agrees to the name, as he says the horse is like a pirate.
Farmer Ede does not like the presence of Velvet's vagabond friend, and tells him, to find greener pasture elsewhere. Velvet defends her new buddy, by saying he is invited to dinner. Her yet unnamed friend also happens to have her mother's name, Brown, written in some notes and says he is in the village for business.
The stranger, has dinner with Velvet and her family. He says his last name is Taylor and his deceased father knew the Browns. The Browns are suspiciously polite to Mi Taylor. Velvet seems very happy for the new company. She has nothing in common with her siblings, as aside from her older sister Edwina, she has a sister Mally who loves canaries, and a younger brother Donald who keeps dead bugs in a jar around his neck.
Velvet's mother, is a tall and athletic woman, once a famous swimmer of the English Channel, who truly understands Velvet. Mi watches Mrs. Brown put away her family's savings after working on the books. He steals the money and would have left town with it, except Velvet invites him to stay, upon her parents' permission; mainly on her mother's insistence. Mi is then hired by Mr. Brown, the village butcher to help with the family business.
Shortly later, Mi tells Velvet about his past, while they traverse on a simple cart together, to deliver meat to a customer. He tells Velvet he no longer likes horses because of a spill he had. While they are talking, Velvet sees Pie in a field, and Mi stops the cart for Velvet to gaze at Pie some more. The family dog is also traveling with them, and jumps out of the cart to chase Pie.
Pie, then jumps over a fence and when Mi measures the jump, he realizes it's the size of a steeple chase jump and that the horse must have unusual talent. Pie keeps running through the village and trashes a few neighbors' properties. Mr. Ede is fed up by the time and expense the animal wastes and puts Pie up for auction. Velvet desperately hopes she has the right number come auction time, but she does not.
She faints from the stress and is brought back home to rest. Velvet looks out the window from her resting place and sees Pie being lead to her by the whole village. Velvet believes herself to be hallucinating but it is not so. They really are leading Pie to her.
And so Velvet is made immeasurably happy now that she has Pie and can ride him and jump him with freedom. Though, not all is calm and clean cut for the Browns now that Velvet has Pie. Mr. Brown has all the same complaints of the horse as Farmer Ede.
Racehorses are meant to run within the same realm of sentiment as sled-dogs die facing North. It's not just an urge but a need. A necessity meant to be acted upon. So, the Pie, without papers or ribbons, is given to a little girl with braces by the town as no one else in the town has the temperament to keep the animal. Pie is a racehorse. He loves to jump and race, the same as he needs to breathe.
When Mr. Brown harnesses Pie to his butcher cart to deliver meat, the Pie does not react calmly and the cart is smashed, as the Pie dashes away. Velvet is delighted with whatever Pie does. Mr. Brown hems and haws over the dollar and cent fluctuations caused by the latest member of the household.
Mi supports and watches Velvet throughout her adventures - he goes from a thief to a guarding sheepdog type personality due to Velvet's kindness to him. Mi loves Velvet because she trusts him. Velvet does not care what Mi has done in his past, in terms of judging him at least, for she is simply so happy to have a friend who knows and understands horses as she. No one, in a long time had trusted Mi, but Velvet did, which in turn makes Mi trustworthy. Plus Mi, has a place to stay, food to eat and income to earn now, due to Velvet's trust and her family's support.
It is Mrs. Brown, who is the most protectively pivotal character in the film. Mrs. Brown is far ahead of her husband in terms of athleticism and intelligence. She is a very gifted woman. Mr. Brown is a caring man, not the most forward thinking, but a normal well rounded person.
All the Brown children are normal, enough, except for Velvet. Mrs. Brown loves Velvet for her personality, spirit and tomboyish athleticism. She has a connection with Velvet and is protective of Velvet and supportive of her in achieving her goals. Out of her three children, Mrs. Brown only sees Velvet as an extension of herself. Though, she is a kind, thoughtful, and practical mother to all.
So, when Velvet shares with her family that she has successfully entered Pie in the Grand National, it is her mother who sits with Velvet in the attic, going through clippings and talking about her past as a swimmer to Velvet. Mrs. Brown then pours into Velvet's lap the 100 pounds she won for swimming the Channel. The money is given to Velvet to cover the expenses of the Grand National.
The winter before the race Velvet is sent home from school to find Edwina crying in the living room. Velvet asks Edwina what has happened to find Edwina is sobbing over a boy. Velvet is relieved to find this is all it is until Mi enters the room and tells Velvet, that something is wrong with Pie. Edwina, still sobbing shoats out to Velvet, who is rushing out the door, that she can't understand why Velvet would value a horse so much over a boy and she hopes Pie dies.
Velvet and Mi nurse Pie back to health and begin intensive training all spring and summer. Pie recovers and is ready for the Grand National, early the next spring. They do not have a professional jockey, so Velvet does all the training runs, herself. Before daybreak, Pie, Velvet, and Mi pile into a horse trailer and off for their long journey to the race they go.
During the journey, Velvet worries about the jockey they will hire. Will the jockey like Pie and understand him the way she does? Once they arrive at the racing grounds, Mi and Velvet meet with the Latvian jockey, who they plan on racing Pie. The jockey is dismissive of their attempts to introduce him to Pie to the extent he flat out insults both Mi and Velvet.
The two friends walk out in disgust, keeping with them the jockey's papers, and leaving with the jockey, the payment they had given the jockey in advance. Mi looks elsewhere for another jockey but cannot find one at the last minute. Velvet tells Mi he should run the race and Mi then confesses to Velvet the details of his true fears about racing. Mi was involved in an accident, killing another jockey and did not have the courage to race anymore.
It is late at night, when Mi decides to bring Pie back from the stables, as it appears they will have to scratch the race. While walking Pie back to the horse trailer Mi passes a small race track under a full moon. He gets over his fears as he races Pie, barebacked. Mi tells Pie they will race the next day. He goes to the trailer to tell Velvet that he's found a jockey, but Velvet's response surprises him.
She is already dressed in the jockey outfit and she states her hair and eye color matches the jockey's papers. She wants her hair cut, and she really wants to win. Mi loves Velvet so much he never tells her, he is the jockey, he is referring to, who can ride Pie.
So, Mi cuts Velvet's hair and begins to describe the course to her, so she will be better prepared but Velvet stops Mi from explaining, telling him it is no use. Every other jockey will be so much more practiced than her regardless, so she might as well just get on Pie, when the time comes and go.
Velvet looks very much a girl still, with her hair short and in her jockey outfit. She comes across as softer and smaller than the other jockeys even though they are all the same height, but for the sake of cinema, she is a plausible male jockey. Mi and Velvet, both pretend Velvet is Latvian, by acting as if Velvet does not understand English. This creates a comical air for the scene as Mi gestures dramatically to Velvet in order to explain things, such as how to sit on the weight chair, while he is speaking English. Velvet gives off the persona of someone who does not understand, as she blinks and reacts slowly to things.
The race begins. The Grand National is a real life race consisting of a 4 1/2 mile run with 30 measurable jumps. It is a harsh and grueling ride for both horse and rider. The racing scene, is an actual live event and as any Grand National race would be. Horses fell and jockeys were brutal; and I was amazed at the shocks both horses and jockeys walked away from.
Switching back to "real life," according to a Time article by Jenny Wilson, in 2011, only 19 of 40 Grand National competing horses, crossed the finish line. Two horses were killed. These numbers should support one's imagination in recognizing how harsh the race is, at least for those who have not seen the film nor the race.
Mi watches the race from the ground level, by the holding fence, or at least he tries to watch. Anyone who has been to a steeplechase race knows that one doesn't get to see the whole event, but instead one's vision is sectioned to a rush of horses bursting by, before they disappear around the nearest bend. And Mi is short as well as lacking binoculars. Mi demands information about the race from the gentleman standing next to him, who is wearing a black coat and top hat. The gentleman also has binoculars and when Mi, asks about Pi, the race compatriot states, "Don't know, can't see a thing," while gazing through his binoculars. The two men who could not be more different in terms of wealth, fashion nor height and they are both sharing the moment of a lifetime together.
Mi is worried for Velvet and when she wins the race, he is ecstatic. Mi rushes onto the field as Velvet faints from exhaustion and falls from Pie. A red objection flag is raised, because according to the rules, the jockey must remain on his mount for a certain duration of time after crossing the finish line. Velvet, though she won the race, came off too soon.
Velvet is put on a stretcher and while being examined, the Latvian jockey is discovered, to be a girl. This is all to a sense of comedy, as the Doctor states to the officials, "I'm a Doctor and believe me sir, that's a girl!" as if being able to recognize a person's gender depends on a medical degree. The film is filled with many such oddball quirks. Velvet is allowed to keep her prize and recognition for winning the race, despite being an adolescent female, but she is forfeited the rights to the winning purse.
Velvet returns to her hometown, as a local hero. Her father is excited by proposals to turn Velvet and the Pie into American film stars, but Velvet refuses as she believes Pie would not be happy living such a lifestyle. Velvet's mother, remains objective to the conversation between Velvet and her father, though it is clear Velvet and her mother agree entirely that the potential extra money would not be worth the possible negative ramifications to the quality of life for both Velvet and Pie.
Mr. Brown is a good man, just not quite as insightful as Velvet and her mother. He throws all the papered proposals into the fire and that is the end of the matter. Mrs. Brown married him because he is a good man, as she makes clear to him, while they sit by the window and ponder their lives together.
Shortly, they are interrupted by Velvet who wants to know where Mi has gone. Mrs. Brown explains to Velvet that, all parts of life have a beginning, an end, and a continuance and now Mi is back on his feet and ready to face the world after turning his back in anger on it. Velvet as always sees this end as really, a potential for beginning. She, then in response, asks her parents' permission to tell Mi, how Mi's father knows her parents. The secret behind the connection is never revealed in the film, that ends with Velvet catching up to Mi to tell him the news, on a lane similar to the one they first met on. And so Velvet, is made truly happy, by having the type of personality, that looks for what matters and carries on with it.
By Sarah Bahl