About Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty:

There can be few people who have not heard of Anna
Sewell’s book Black Beauty, even in our twenty-first
century nuclear age. Many, though, may consider the
work to be sentimental Victorian slush. But if that is
the case, why does it live on? Black Beauty was
written in a vastly different age to this and was a
product of its time.

The daughter of Mary and Isaac Sewell, Anna was born
on 30th March 1820, in Great Yarmouth. When Anna was
fourteen both her ankles were severely strained –
injuries from which she never recovered. She was left
an invalid for the rest of her life.

In those days, well-bred women were considered weak,
prey to the vapours and incapable of handling their
own affairs. They were chattels of fathers and

Anna’s mother Mary, though, had backbone enough to
stand out from the rest of her sex. She became famous
in her own right with children’s books because she
did not take at all kindly to the Victorian male’s
chauvinistic behaviour.

Mary Sewell achieved considerable fame, which must
have rubbed off on Anna. For some years they lived at
Abson in south Gloucestershire at a property known as
Blue Lodge. While there, Mary Sewell started a series
of mothers’ meetings which were held at nearby Wick.
They were very popular and Anna would attend.

While at Blue Lodge, Anna saw a man killed by a cart,
an incident she never forgot and which she
incorporated into Black Beauty. From Abson, mother and
daughter moved to Englishcombe Lane at Bath. It is not
clear how long they lived there but ultimately they
moved back to Norwich.

Because of her disability Anna could only get about on
horseback, or by pony and trap. This was the age of
the horse, as the railways had not yet moved into the
powerful position they would eventually hold. Anna
must have seen the most appalling sights, including
cruelty to horses from savage treatment or starvation.
These were carefully stored in her mind for her book.

She must also have pondered how a horse, through
various changes of ownership, could go from being in
great shape to almost being at death’s door. This is
vividly brought home in the book when Black Beauty
meets Ginger for the last time.

Two practices in particular cut into Anna’s heart.
One was the savage and unnecessary practice of docking
horses’ tails. The excuse given was that the tail
would not then get caught up in the harness, but
carriage horses today don’t have this problem.
Perhaps the real root of the habit was pure fashion. A
horse with no tail has no protection against biting

The second evil was the use of the bearing rein. The
well-off liked their carriage horses to hold their
heads high, and they achieved this with the vicious
bearing rein which, when attached to the bridle in a
certain position, meant the horse could not stretch.
Its head was clamped high, agonising the neck muscles.
It was a cruel invention, and Anna fought it tooth and
nail – with her pen.

Many call Black Beauty a semi-autobiographical work.
Certainly Anna laboured long and hard at her only
book. It took six years to write, mostly on scraps of
paper when she was back in Norwich. It was her mother
Mary who patiently wrote out the manuscript.

Black Beauty was published in 1877 and became an
instant success. It was backed from the start by the
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as
it was known then. The Victorians swarmed to buy the
book and it soon sold 100,000 copies.  It was
translated into French, Italian and German, a
considerable feat for those days. But Anna did not
live long after her book came out, dying in 1878.
Black Beauty was her only work but it is doubtful if
even she realised what an effect it was to have on
people. It has been filmed and the story remains
evergreen. Above all it is a social history of the way
people lived. What an epitaph for Anna Sewell.

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