Anna Sewell (1820-1878)
Anna Sewell, who labored against illness to complete her only book, a then-unique “animal autobiography” called Black Beauty, lived five months after it was published in 1877. That was long enough to see its success, and the woman whose aim was “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding of animals” into a world that veered between idolizing and exploiting them died knowing she had realized her goal.
Born to a Quaker family, Sewell’s mother was a successful writer of children’s books promoting moral uplift and good behavior. At fourteen, a slip-and-fall accident left both her ankles seriously damaged; years of medical mistreatment followed, leaving her unable to stand or walk for long without crutches. She got about mostly in a horse-drawn cart, and the experience quickened her sympathies for the animals upon whom she depended.
Sewell and her mother converted to the Church of England, but retained an evangelical slant in their practice and her mother’s books, and Sewell- who acted as an in-house editor and trial audience, was able to work her interest in animal welfare into the books. By 1871, when she became largely bedridden, she began working through the idea she’d worked over in her mind- a novel told from the point of view of a once-proud showhorse reduced to hard times and poor treatment through a succession of owners.
Sewell wrote the book in bed, and, as her strength faded, took to writing short portions on slips her mother transcribed. At the end she was reduced to dictating the last chapters.
A pirated American edition sold a million copies in two years; animal rights campaigners handed out copies to liveries, cabbies and haulers. The book is widely credited with discrediting the practice of polling horses’ tails, and the use of the chokerein, a bit that forced the horses’ necks into a stiff, upright and painful position that was all the fashion among the Victorian well-to-do.
Though intended as an adult work, Black Beauty found its niche as a children’s classic, and has never been out of print. One estimate is that the book has sold over fifty million copies.