In 1877, an English author named Anna Sewell published Black Beauty, an infamous novel told in autobiography form from the point of view of a horse, revealing the horrors of animal welfare. This was revolutionary in the literary community of her era. She skillfully spun the tale in a very convincing manner, drawing the reader to happily accept the tale coming from “the horse’s mouth”, so to speak. Upon the original cover, text cleverly declared that the novel was translated from the original equine language, cultivating suspense and curiosity in the would-be reader. This is somehow all the reader needs to get over the hurdle of the fact that horses do not speak English. With that being said, like Dickens and other important authors of her time, she also stressed the importance of treating people with kindness, sympathy, and respect.
“… there is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham… “
During her childhood, Sewell injured both ankles during a rain storm and found that she would never be able to stand or walk for any length of time for the rest of the her life. Still driving to be useful, despite being disabled, she spent many hours driving her father to and from the train station, and learned about horses in the process. Part of her respect for horses developed from her reliance upon them for transportation. As a youth, Sewell helped edit the pieces written by Mary Wright Sewell, her mother, who was a deeply religious author who wrote juvenile best-sellers.
After reading “Essay on Animals” by Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), she decided her “destiny” was to write a book to inspire kindness, sympathy, and understanding in the treatment of animals. Black Beauty’s portrayal of the plight of the working animal brought attention to and support for the improvement of their treatment, as readers related to the pain of the victimized horses. The book was credited for being instrumental in the abolishment of the hideous and cruel usage of the checkrein, or bearing rein, as it is commonly called, a strong leather strap that is used to keep horses’ head “fashionably” high, common in Victorian England. If used for too long, or is too tight, it is very painful and will damage the neck muscles and ligament of the pull horse. Not only will it cause permanent spine problems, but it can hinder breathing and make many animals useless for pulling. While users of the bearing rein suggested that high head carriage was a sign of nobility or pride, many 19th century critics of the bearing rein applied the pejorative meaning “patient endurance; suffering without complaint”. Sewell also touched on the issue of the usage of “blinkers” on horses. “Blinkers”, also known as blinders, restrict the visual range of the animal. Today, they are banned from many equestrian events.
Her life being void of a spouse or children, she visited many European spas for her health. During these visits, she met many artists, writers, and philanthropists. She became inspired and prepared to write her masterpiece. Black Beauty was written between 1871-1877. Suffering from an illness, possibly hepatitis or tuberculosis, she barely could leave her Old Catton home bed. Her mother assisted Sewell throughout her illness, and took the initiative to sell the book to Jarrold & Sons, local publishers for a mere 20 pounds. It was an immediate best-seller, becoming one of the best-selling books of all times, with over fifty million copies sold, eventually becoming the sixth best seller in the English language. Unfortunately, Sewell would never see the ultimate popularity of the book, as it was published five months before her death. She did, however, live long enough to be able to see the initial success of her first and only book breaking existing sales records before she succumbed to her illness on April 25th, 1878. On the 30th of April, 1878, she was laid to rest in the Quaker burial ground at Lammas near Buxton, Norfolk. Her birthplace in Church Plain, Great Yarmouth is now a museum.
Two years after its release, there were over one million copies in circulation in the United States alone. Even today, barely a year goes by without seeing a new print edition being published, thereby continuing the life and success of this book. The original introduction of Black Beauty, written by Sewell herself, indicates her intent and purpose of her producing the novel. Despite being labeled as children’s literature, it was Sewell’s intent for Black Beauty to be more instructional as an equine care manual rather than an entertaining story. Valuing education, Sewell wanted to induce an understanding of the proper treatment of horses, giving a clear picture of a replacement for the current practices of her day. It was noted by animal activists that one could read Black Beauty and have a fairly good grasp on the proper treatment of horses. Worldwide, it was common practice for animal rights activists to hand out copies to horse drivers and people who worked with horses. Claudia Johnson and Vernon E. Johnson, authors of In the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, have referred to Black Beauty as being “the most influential anticruelty novel of all time”. It is often called the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Horse”, and is listed with Uncle Tom’s Cabin when considering social protests inspired by novels in the United States. The strong degree of outrage and protest action that was inspired by Black Beauty that snowballed in the form of action and legislation was truly the intention of Sewell.
Black Beauty is the forerunner to the pony book genre of children’s literature, although she did not intend for the book to fit that genre, as clearly mentioned by Sewell.
It’s a strong possibility that Tracy Park in South Gloucestershire, which is now a golf club, is the inspiration for Sewell’s Birtwick Park.
#58 on BBC Big Read of 2003
#58 on BBC Top 100 Books List of 2011
The Guardian’s Definitive List Everyone Must Read