Prof. Waller Hastings
Northern State University
Aberdeen, SD 57401

Anna Sewell

    Sewell wrote only one book in her life, but it was one that was to have a significant impact in at least two areas: the humane treatment of animals and the future direction of children’s literature.
    Anna Sewell was born to a religious Quaker family in Yarmouth in 1820, but spent her childhood in London and its suburbs.  With few exceptions, her entire life was spent within her parents’ home, where she was heavily influenced by her mother Mary’s religious and educational convictions.  Her mother supervised her education through the age of 12, emphasizing moral virtues and self-reliance, and providing the children with few toys or storybooks.  Sewell’s mother had a particular interest in natural history, which instilled in Anna a particular affinity for animals.
    At age 12, she moved with her family to the suburb of Stoke Newington, where she was at last allowed to attend school outside the home and was first exposed to foreign languages, mathematics, and art, areas in which her mother was either not interested or had no particular knowledge.  Her external schooling was most notable, however, as the occasion for an injury to her ankle when she slipped returning home from school one day.  This left her, at age 14, an invalid for life; while the injury was real, the extent of her limitation may have reflected a degree of socially useful hypochondria. About this time, both Anna and her mother left the Society of Friends (Quakers), although they remained involved with evangelical churches.
    As a young woman, Sewell developed her literary talents by critiquing her mother’s writing; from about 1850 on, Mary Sewell wrote several evangelical children’s books and verse.  Anna’s chronic invalidism also induced her mother to take her to several European spas seeking a cure; here  Anna met various writers, artists, philosophers, and other more worldly types than her Quaker upbringing had introduced her to. Most significantly, on one of these tours she met the poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson.  Otherwise, Anna was primarily occupied in “good works” -- teaching Sunday School, instructing workers at an evening institute, and joining in her mother’s temperance activities.
    At about age 51, she simultaneously contracted a mysterious illness which left her in chronic ill health and ultimately killed her, and began work on a book about horses, which was to become Black Beauty.  However, she did not begin to write in earnest until about 1876, when she was 56 years old.  The book was published just before Sewell’s death ; she received 20 pounds for all rights from her publisher.  It was evidently not immediately successful, selling just 100 copies to London shops at its first publication; however, anti-cruelty groups gave it positive notices, inducing the publisher to promote it further, especially to the school market, resulting in the good sales.  Black Beauty  has remained in print ever since; by 1923, the publisher claimed that the novel was the #6 best seller in the world.
Black Beauty
    Blount calls Black Beauty “the first real animal novel,” “the most famous and best-loved animal book of all time,” and “perhaps the last of the moral tales” (249-50).  Susan Chitty calls it “probably the most successful animal story ever written” with more than 30 million sold (7).  However, she points out that the book was not written for children so much as for working-class folk who handled horses.
    According to Prusty, Black Beauty had a “missionary aim” to “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.”   The book was widely used as propaganda by groups seeking more humane treatment of horses and the elimination of the bearing rein; thousands of copies were given away to horse handlers and drivers in an effort to restrain abuse of work animals.  The book did lead to the abolition of the bearing rein, although it was not the only propaganda in these efforts -- just the strongest one.
    Sewell’s writing was strongly influenced by Horace Bushnell’s “Essay on Animals” and her own close observation of the life of Victorian horses.  Parsons suggests another possible source may be George MacDonald’s fantasy At the Back of the North Wind  (1868-70), in which similar observations about animal treatment and human social conditions are presented in the story of Old Diamond the horse and young Diamond the boy.
    Sewell also learned a great deal of practical knowledge about horse driving and training from her brother Philip and from conversations with various drivers she encountered as she went about.   In one such conversation, for instance, she spoke with a cabman who complained of the “Christians” who took a cab on Sundays, forcing the working class cabmen to violate the Sabbath; she put similar comments into the mouths of Jerry and his family.
    In addition to its missionary purpose in the area of animal abuse, Black Beauty offers several other moral messages, through Beauty’s observation of the moral natures of various humans with whom he come into contact and through overt sermonizing by several of the humans.  Although, as Pronty notes, the horses themselves are cut off from any experience of divinity, there is clearly a Christian moral sensibility underlying the novel as a whole.  Unlike other anti-cruelty crusaders, Sewell places the blame for abuse of cab horses, e.g., on the owners who exploit both horse and driver, rather than on the working men who perpetrate the cruel practices (Ferguson).
    Black Beauty’s life is a microcosm of Victorian horse experience, with every kind of rider, driver, and event occurring at some point in his life.  Moira Ferguson has argued that much of the language of the novel, and some of its power, comes from its use of the language of slavery, with the horse being placed in the position of the slave.  Details such as the initial description of home on a “plantation of trees,” “our master’s home” and the names given to the horses (“Black Beauty” itself, but also “Darkie,” and later names evoking his complexion).  The pattern of the narrative is also like slave narratives, showing a wide variety of masters’ behaviors as, e.g., in the story of Ginger.  Ginger’s resistance contrasts with Black Beauty’s acceptance of equine servitude, and reveals the uneasiness with which author and society view overt rebellion, while at the same time revealing the causes of rebellion.
Points for discussion:

  • Issues of moral reform.  Children’s books of this period were primarily written for middle-class children.  The emphasis on kind treatment (of animals, but also of the working class) reflects important social messages for the target audience.

  •     The novel began as an anti-cruelty tract, specifically opposing the use of the bearing rein, a form of restraint used to keep horses’ heads erect as they pulled a carriage.  In the process, the horse’s ability to respond to stress was impeded:
       . . . we had a steep hill to go up.  Then I began to understand what I had heard of.  Of course I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do: but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs. . . .
        Day by day, hole by hole our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on as I used to do, I began to dread it.  (Black Beauty  111)
    Although Black Beauty was not the only tract seeking the abolition of the bearing rein, it was by far the strongest and most effective propaganda in the ultimately successful effort.
    A. Waller Hastings
    Professor of English
    Northern State University
    Aberdeen, SD  57401

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    This page last updated April 30, 2004