recess radio program

Anna Sewell
    by Rita Smith

Anna Sewell wrote only one book in her lifetime, Black Beauty. Sewell was raised in a Quaker household by a mother who took very seriously the Quaker advice "to seek out and alleviate suffering." She did her share of charity work among the poor, but it was the suffering of animals that most affected her.

When she was 12 she fell while running downhill and sprained her ankle badly. It never healed properly and she was lame for the rest of her life, making walking difficult and painful, but she became a skilled rider and driver of the horse and carriage, handling the horses with gentleness and controlling them by simply using her voice, never the whip. It angered her deeply to see people mistreating any animal, but especially horses.

Her health declined throughout her life, and by the time she was fifty she was an invalid confined to her bed. She used this time of inactivity to write Black Beauty, whose "special aim," she said, [was to] "induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses."1

Besides her natural sympathy for animals, she was inspired to write the book by theologian Horace Bushnell's "Essay on Animals", which promoted kindness to animals as being in harmony with the purposes of God, and by a conversation she had with a London cab driver who related shocking tales of the lives of poor, often cruel London cab drivers and their beleaguered horses. Black Beauty was published in London in November, 1877. It sold slowly at first, but within six months sales had almost reached the 100,000 mark. It was published in the United States in 1890 and by 1892 a million copies were in circulation. The book continued to sell at the rate of a 25,000 copies a year for twenty years, thanks mainly to George T. Angell, the founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who after reading it felt that "sending Black Beauty into every American home may be... an important step in the progress, not only of American, but the world's, humanity and civilization."2 He wanted anyone who drove horses (and this was at a time when horses were the only mode of transportation) to have the book and he managed to get the Franklin Miller Harness Dressing Company to underwrite the publication of thousands of copies of the book in which chapter headings were decorated with a row of horses all wearing rugs printed with Miller's name. These books were sold widely at a very low price.

Sewell died in April, 1878, six months after the publication of Black Beauty, so she experienced some of the book's success, but she could never have imagined that the book would remain in print for years to come, be translated into many languages, made into four films, and adapted for television. In fact, according to critic Susan Chitty, Black Beauty came to be the sixth best-selling book ever written in the English language with its sales figures of forty million copies equaling that of the entire works of Charles Dickens.3

1 Oxford, p. 479.
2 Chitty, p. 557-8.
3 Chitty p.525.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984., p. 479.

Chitty, Susan, "Anna Sewell" in Writers for Children, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

Copyright 2004 Rita Smith

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."