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Black Beauty

Anna Sewell's Revolution

Picture of Anna Sewell Anna Sewell (1820-1878): a master of plain language.

There is not too much known or written about Anna Sewell, the writer of the 1877 classic Black Beauty, one of the most popular novels ever written. By 1995, its world-wide sales were estimated at 40 million —compared to to the 50 million of all of Dickens' works. The book also spawned countless other horse novels, films, and TV programs.

Most significantly, Anna Sewell's work brought about a sea change in the relations between humans and animals.

She was born into a very religious Quaker family in Yarmouth, England, who had strong beliefs about the humane treatment of animals. The Sewells were all champions of social reform and very active in alleviating the poverty and sufferings of the working poor.

As Anna got older, she and her mother Mary teamed up working in phlanthropic and charitable projects. As adult education was just starting, they organized workers clubs and libraries, teaching youth and workers literacy. They taught young women sewing, child care, health care, housekeeping, and how to deal with poverty and drunken husbands.

When Anna was fourteen, in a great downpour, she slipped and fell, damaging both ankles. They never healed properly. For the rest of her life, she had difficulty getting around and was rarely able to stand or walk without assistance. Besides that, she was later afflicted with a chronic disease, probably a severe form of lupus unknown at the time, which kept her weak and bedridden for much of her life.

To get around, she took to riding horses and carriages, taking full advantage of her grandfather's horses. She spent many hours driving her father to and from work. Her biograher Adrienne E. Gavin writes:

Riding undoubtedly gave Anna, as it gives many women, a sense of power and independence...

Even more importantly for Anna, on horseback she was free temporarily from lameness and dependency; she was strong, powerful, and untouchable.

The plight of horses

Anna became deeply involved in the care and welfare of horses. In Victorian times, horses were widely used for work and fundamental to the economy. With the coming of the industrial revolution, they were even more in demand to transport people and goods to-and-from train stations and factories.

There were 300,000 horses in England, 100,00 in London alone, one for every 8 persons. Besides ploughing fields, they pulled carriages, cabs, coaches, trolleys, buses, and carts and wagons of every kind for hauling freight.

Work horses were treated very badly, often beaten or starved to death. Soldiers often rode horses into battle emaciated from disease and starvation. Anna could not stand such cruelty. She also condemned the practice of "bearing rein" or "check-rein," strapping down the horse's head to create the arch in the neck so very fashionable at the time.

Although Anna was physically weak, she often showed great determination and courage. Her niece wrote of her:

"The sight of cruelty to animals or to the helpless, or even thoughtlessness and indifference to suffereing, roused her indignation almost to fury, and wherever she was, or whoever she had to face, she would stop and scathe the culprit with burning words."

Literary background

When Anna was still young, her mother Mary took up writing short instructional novels to supplement the family income. In 1824, Mary Sewell published her first book, Walks with Mamma, or Stories in Words of One Syllable, one of the first childrens' books bound in cloth. In her walks in the woods with her daughter Anne, Mamma describes for her daughter Anne the ways of nature.

In time, Mary would become well known for her children's books, using simple language that reflected both her reader's needs and her dislike for fancy phraseology and affected manners. A reviewer wrote: "Her straightforward, unflinching attack on literary self-love was a compliment to sense and temper."

Anna would become her mother's keenest admirer and most uncompromising critic. A relative later recalled: "All Mary Sewell's work was subjected to Anna's very honest cricitism and approval and no doubt gained much by it." Mary herself later wrote:

My Nannie has always been my critic and counsellor. I have never made a plan for anything without submitting it to her judgment. Every line I have written been at her feet before it has gone forth to the world....Oh, if I can only pass my Nannie, I don't fear the world after that.

Writing the book

In 1871, at the age of 51, shortly after moving to Old Catton, a small village outside Norwich, Anna started writing the "little book' she had been planning for some time. She was also very ill, fighting a bout of lupus as well as tuberculosis and hepatitis. It was now Mary's turn to help Anna in her writing task.

Although the book would be a big hit with children, Anna wrote it for adults, not the owners of horses but those who dealt with them, the drivers, groomers, traders, and stable boys.

Black Beauty book cover
A book jacket for one of the many editions of Black Beauty: a gift of genius.

After seven years of working together on the sofa, Anna and Mary found a local publishing house. Once in print, the book was an immediate best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. What readers and critics found most striking was the voice of the narrator, the horse himself. The title page of the first American edition reads:

Black Beauty
His Grooms and Companions
The Autobiography of a Horse
Translated from the Original Equine
by Anna Sewell

Anna died a few months later, living just long enough to enjoy the book's spectacular success.

Shortly after her death, England abolished bearing rein and founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. States and countries across the world did likewise and began outlawing cruelty to animals. Clubs of every sort sprang up supporting the humane treatement of animals. Anna's book is often credited for having done for animals what Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe did for slaves.

Black Beauty is also a work of great literary achievement. Its simple language, written at a 7th-grade level, is often underestimated. Gavin writes:

"It provides practical education, moral instruction, narrative excitement, and emotional involvement. It is highly readable and survives where others of its time and style have long since obsolesced.

"The novel's strength lies in the sincerity and passion with which Anna wrote and in readers' empathy with its good-hearted, hardworking hero who, in the face of brutal injustice, sticks to his principles and comes through against all odds. Black Beauty's real power is found in its emotional bond with readers...

"A classic is something the idea of which seems so simple and so perfect that to imagine a world where it no longer exists is impossible. This is the gift of genius: to fill a gap in the world that no one knew was there but whose existence is evidenced by its filling. Black Beauty is such a book."*

*Dark Horse: A life of Anna Sewell by Adrienne E Gavin. Sutton Publishing. 2004.

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