Black Beauty’s Author

By Jean Ducey

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    Millions of people own copies of the book Black Beauty. It has been printed in many languages, and some say that the only other book to receive wider distribution is the Bible. Now, 104 years after Black Beauty was first published on November 24, 1877, it is still in print. More than seventeen editions of the book were printed in England alone. Yet, in spite of the book’s continuing popularity, few readers know that the name of its author is Anna Sewell.

    A great deal of Miss Sewell’s life was spent in pain. It is difficult to imagine anyone less fierce than the quiet Quaker girl from a loving family, but Anna became furious whenever she discovered that animals were being mistreated, especially horses.

    By the time Anna was two, her family was living above her father’s shop in a tiny building at Number 18 Camomile Street, London, England. Across the way stood a rank of hackney coaches. The old horses often waited for hours in the rain, and in the wintertime stamped their feet on the treacherous frozen cobblestones to keep warm. They were plagued by flies during the summer and developed harness sores from pulling their heavy loads.

    There was one coal black horse there with a white flash on his forehead, and every day Anna watched him as she waited, nose against the glass, until her mother was free to take her across the street to see him.

    Mary Sewell often held her daughter up so that she could feed an apple to the horse. As he ate, Anna talked to him while checking his bit or untangling a knot in his mane. The coachman was amazed that the child showed no fear.

    Anna’s mother, a remarkable woman, taught her own children. She took Anna and her brother to the country each day and they returned, brown from the sun, carrying wild flowers and birds’ nests to study. To earn money to buy her children books, she wrote a reader called Walks with Mama and sold it for three pounds.

    Anna was elated when the family moved to an old mansion called Palatine House at Stoke Newington, for there she was able to attend her first school.

    One cloudy day when she was fourteen, Anna raced off to school in her usual hurry, forgetting her umbrella. After school that day it began to rain. At the gate Anna fell and sprained her ankle. Doctors in those days didn’t have the benefit of X-ray machines, and sometimes mistakes were made in the treatment of bones and ligaments. For the rest of her life Anna was crippled. At times she could walk a little, but much of the time she was an invalid.

    The family’s move to Lancing, when Anna was twenty-five, enabled the family to keep a pony and carriage. Each day Anna drove her father to Shoreham to catch the Brighton train, and then in the evening she picked him up. During these drives Anna was unaware that she was laying up much information that she could use later in writing Black Beauty.

    By the time Anna was fifty, she was virtually an invalid, but her diary reveals that she must have been a very busy one.

    An entry dated August 21, 1877, reads: “My first proofs of Black Beauty are come—very nice type.”

    This book that was thought over and lived with for so many years before being written comes to life in spare, direct, and truthful words. Anna’s Quaker background gave her great reverence for people and justice.

    Although the book proved very popular with all age groups, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed little interest. But George T. Angell of Boston, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, had been watching for a story to promote humane treatment of horses. After reading Black Beauty, he raised enough money to print 10,000 copies of the book. And he made an appeal to the readers of the SPCA magazine.

    By the end of 1890, two hundred sixteen thousand copies of Black Beauty had been sold. Twenty years later the book was still selling a quarter million copies yearly.

    Anna Sewell died a year after the book’s publication on April 25, 1878, of a painful lung infection. When the horse-drawn hearse arrived at the door, her mother looked down from an upstairs window and saw that the horses had bearing-reins [checkreins]. “Oh, this will never do!” she exclaimed and hurried to order the cruel, restricting reins removed. This loving mother thereby performed one more service for her daughter and for her daughter’s friends, the horses.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown