Born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk on 30 March 1820, Anna Sewell turns 200 today. Her father, Isaac Philip Sewell was a bank manager and later commercial traveller (Wikipedia also mentions him running a shop) while her mother Mary Wright Sewell was a successful author, who wrote children’s books. Anna first learnt to ride when she and her brother used to visit her grandparents, who lived at Dudwick Farm in Norfolk. Initially educated at home due to lack of money, Anna attended school at the age of twelve for the first time in Stoke Newington. At fourteen, she fell and injured both her ankles severely, not being able to walk or stand without a crutch thereafter. She also began to use horse drawn carriages, as she could drive despite her difficulty with walking. [She never used a whip on her horses.] This added to her love of horses, and concern with their better treatment. In 1836, her father took a job and moved to Brighton hoping that the climate would improve her health. The family moved again, to Lancing in 1845, but Sewell’s health deteriorated. After she travelled to Europe for treatment, the family moved again, first to Wick, and later Bath.
In her youth, Anna helped her mother edit various children’s books that she wrote. From the year 1871, Sewell began to write only book, Black Beauty, which she wrote over a period of seven years till 1877. She was in very poor health at the time and would dictate the text to her mother, or write on scraps of paper which her mother transcribed. Although she abandoned the project in 1876, she began working on it again with great effort as she was anxious she would not see it complete during her life time. Her mother found a publisher, and Anna sold the book to Jarrods in November 1877. At this time, she was 57 years old, and received £40 (£20 according to another source) for it. Five months later, she died of hepatitis, but she did see it’s initial success.
Black Beauty is written in the form of an autobiography, beginning with his days on a farm as a colt, to more difficult times, and finely his retirement, recalling times of both cruelty and kindness. Having observed the cruel treatment which horses suffered, in writing the book, Sewell sought ‘to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’. The book is said to have not only led to concern for the welfare of animals, but also to have played an important role in abolishing the practice of using a checkrein (‘a short rein passing from the bit to the saddle of a harness to prevent the horse from lowering its head’), or as another source refers to it, ‘bearing rein’ which kept the horse’s head high but also caused pain and damage to the horse’s neck. The book became an instant bestseller having sold 30,000 copies at the time of Sewell’s death, and continues to be one of the best selling books of all time, with 50 million copies sold overall. Although Sewell didn’t not intend it to be a children’s book but one for anyone who owned or worked with horses, today, it is known primarily as a children’s book.
The book has been adapted for film, television, and theatre several times, the first being as early as 1917.
Find the full text of Black Beauty here.
- Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Sewell
- ‘checkrein’: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/checkrein