Sewell, Anna (1820–1878)

views updated

Sewell, Anna (1820–1878)

English writer whose sole published work, Black Beauty, became both a bestselling children's classic and a rallying cry for 19th-century organizations which campaigned for the humane treatment of animals. Pronunciation: SUE-uhl. Born on March 30, 1820, in Yarmouth, Norfolk, England; died in Old Catton, near Norwich, England, on April 25, 1878; daughter of Isaac Sewell (a bank manager) and Mary Wright Sewell (a writer); had one brother; educated at home with books purchased from her mother's earnings as a writer and at a day school near Stoke Newington; never married.

Moved to Dalston, where she was given horse-riding lessons (1822); moved to Stoke Newington, where she eventually injured an ankle while running during a rainstorm (1832); moved to Brighton (1836); moved to Wick and began teaching a class in biology to workingmen (1848); received hydrotherapy treatments in Germany (1846 and 1856); moved to Old Catton (1867); began writing Black Beauty (1871); completed manuscript for Black Beauty and was paid £20 for the story (1877); published Black Beauty during Christmas season (1877); favorable reviews appeared (January 1878); 30,000 copies sold at time of her death (1878).

Selected writings:

Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse (Jarrold, 1877, published in America as Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, J.F. Murphy, 1891); other editions include those illustrated by Cecil Aldin (Jarrold, 1912); Katharine Pyle (Dodd, 1923); Alice B. Woodward (Bell, 1931); Rowland Wheelwright (Harrap, 1932); John Beer (Dodd, 1941); Fritz Eichenberg (Grosset, 1945); Wesley Dennis (World, 1946); (illustrated and adapted) Paul Brown (Scribner, 1952); Lionel Edwards (Ward, Lock, 1954); Charles Mozley (F. Watts, 1959); Charlotte Hough (Penguin, 1968); Victor Ambrus (Brockhampton, 1973).

The life of the English writer Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty, was filled with paradoxes. Despite the fact that the novel would become a classic, it was her only published work and would appear in print only three months before her death. While she intended the book to be read mainly by workers who cared for horses, Black Beauty became both a timeless children's story and a rallying point for the British and American Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And although Black Beauty sold more than 30 million copies, becoming one of the most enduring popular literary works from the 19th century, Sewell's name was absent when her country's major biographical reference work, Dictionary of National Biography, was published.

Sewell was born in London in 1820, the daughter of Isaac Sewell and Mary Wright Sewell , both strict Quakers. Her family was forced to move frequently because of repeated economic troubles. At the time of Anna's birth, her father was closing out a failing business. Before her brother Philip was born two years later, another business venture had failed. Forced to declare bankruptcy, the family sold much of their furniture, including a tea set which had been a wedding gift from Mary Sewell's parents.

After a search that lasted several weeks in 1822, friends helped the family locate a small house at Dalston. The Sewells would stay there for ten years. Anna saw very little of her father, who left for work at eight in the morning and returned home at about eight at night. Between mother and daughter, however, a close bond emerged, so much so that Mary, on her daughter's ninth birthday, wrote, "Anna Sewell has this day completed her ninth year, and is in many respects a delight and comfort to her mother."

To help her family financially, Mary Sewell began to write, producing the first in a series of books for children, Walks with Mamma. With her earnings, she purchased books for her children's education at home. Setting high standards for their learning, she also took Anna and her brother on natural history outings and on visits to the British Museum. After reading that horseback riding contributed to both good character and good health, she arranged for her daughter to be given riding lessons.

In 1832, the family moved to Stoke Newington, where they remodeled a small house which they named "Palatine Cottage." Set in the middle of an ornamental garden with a goldfish pond, Palatine Cottage also was surrounded by sufficient land for the family to keep cows—hoping to sell the milk to neighbors—as well as ducks, hens, pigs, rabbits and bees. The family worked together to milk the cows and churn butter. There was, Sewell wrote, "no idea of degradation belonging to the work … and time passed most pleasantly."

For Sewell, the four-year stay at Stoke Newington, with the animals that she loved, reinforced the teachings of her family's Quaker religion regarding the care of animals. Although Mary left Quakerism during these years for a more evangelical Protestantism, the family observed Quaker rules against hunting, believing in "a tender consideration … for the creatures of God." In an indirect way, Stoke Newington also made it possible for Sewell to attend a nearby day school. To this point, Sewell's education had been in the form of tutoring from her mother three times a week. The topics were reading, writing, and natural history, but Sewell also read works by Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Tennyson. She especially liked Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam."

When Mary Sewell's brother arrived at Stoke Newington for an extended visit, she was unable to continue her tutoring and arranged to have Anna enrolled in a day school located about a mile away. The school gave Sewell the companionship of girls her age, even though their clothes differed from her own Quaker dress. It also introduced her to subjects, such as French and mathematics, that Mary Sewell had not emphasized. Anna, who loved to do water-colors and sketches, also received her first professional art instruction. Although her mother considered painting materials to be an extravagance, one of Sewell's favorite pastimes as an adult would be painting landscapes.

An accident Sewell suffered during the years at Stoke Newington would have a major effect on her life. Attempting to run in a downpour while on her way home from school, she slipped and fell on a steeply sloping section of the road, injuring an ankle. Thinking the injury to be only a sprain, Mary decided not to consult a doctor. When she finally took her daughter to physicians, the injury was apparently worsened by the medical treatment they prescribed, including bleeding. For Sewell, only 14 years old at the time, it was the beginning of what her mother called a life of "constant frustration."

From 1836 to 1845, the family lived at Brighton, where Sewell's father finally obtained secure and well-paying employment as branch bank manager for the London and County Joint Stock bank. The family began to think that the doctors' treatments were helping, and Anna resumed a moderately active life, going out with friends and taking a few steps at a time. Sewell also began to learn to play the piano, and both mother and daughter worked to help the poor in the Brighton workhouse.

From 1845 through 1858, the Sewells moved on to three other houses, at Lancing, Haywards Heath, and Chichester. Sewell's condition appeared to improve for a time, and the family purchased a pony and trap for her. It was her duty to drive her father to the train station in the morning and pick him up there after work in the evening. She showed pride in her skills as a driver, training the pony to respond to verbal signals and avoiding use of the whip. On one occasion she was overheard to say, "Now thee must go a little faster—thee would be sorry for us to be late at the station." Having become accustomed to animals at Palatine Cottage, Sewell showed an interest in the kind of care the hired hands were giving her pony. She made it a habit to visit the stable regularly, watching the pony eat oats in the mornings and evenings and inspecting the straw to make certain that it was clean.

While at Lancing, Sewell's condition worsened. She was able to walk with a crutch, but physicians were unable to diagnose the condition with any precision. Her mother was increasingly becoming her chief nurse. Hydrotherapy treatments during two trips to Germany by Sewell and her mother—to Marienbad in 1846 and to Boppard in 1856—appeared to be beneficial. Sewell began standing and walking for longer periods.

Sewell, Mary Wright (1797–1884)

English author. Born Mary Wright in England in 1797; died in 1884; daughter of John Wright (a Quaker); married Isaac Sewell (a bank manager), in 1819; children: Anna Sewell (1820–1878, a writer); Philip Sewell (b. 1822).

Mary Wright Sewell was born in 1797, the daughter of John Wright, a Quaker. She was a governess at an Essex school before marrying Isaac Sewell (a bank manager) in 1819. In 1835, she joined the Church of England. Sewell, who had an abiding interest in philanthropy, was also the author of verses and stories of a moral nature, including her poem collections Stories in Verse (1861) and Poems and Ballads (1886).

At this time her mother began to write a variety of verses and ballads, some of which became bestsellers. Among these were her 1862 book Thy Poor Brother and two ballads, including "Mother's Last Words." Sewell, who helped her mother prepare the manuscripts, also wrote a number of verses and short stories, none of which were published. While Anna and Mary were becoming constant companions, the traditional roles of mother and daughter were somewhat reversed. Sewell, who had been confined indoors so much of her adult life, had become the more organized and responsible of the two, a fact that led her mother to nickname her "My nannie."

In 1858, the family moved to Wick, staying for six years in a house that they named "Blue Lodge." Here Mary increased her pace of writing, but Anna's health appeared to worsen. Although by now she was able to stand for only a few seconds at a time, she was often seen looking out of a window which overlooked a garden. In a letter written to a friend in late 1858, Mary Sewell referred to her daughter as "quite lame" but "very active according to her own measure."

At Wick, mother and daughter established a temperance society and an educational institute for workers who took a pledge not to drink. Sewell, who taught biology, sometimes would drive her pony and cart alone into the village at night, frequently making her way under difficult weather conditions. By the last year at Wick, however, she was unable to help her mother with an active schedule which included visiting women in the local workhouse, writing letters for them, and arranging for girls who had run away from home to return to their families.

If we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.

—Anna Sewell

In addition to the problem with her ankle, Sewell apparently also suffered from other undiagnosed ailments during the last 20 years of her life, although some writers have wondered whether her symptoms, such as an occasional shortness of breath, might have been the result of her relatively confined lifestyle. Life in 19th-century England was seldom pleasant for unmarried women—or "spinsters," in Victorian terms. Florence Nightingale was reported to have said that for unmarried women, there was no tyranny "like the petty grinding tyranny of a Good English Family."

The family moved to Bath in 1864 and finally to Old Catton. There, Sewell discovered that her pony did not like the streets, which were paved with small round pebbles, and was amused that the pony insisted on finding its own way around the edge of the road. Eventually, at age 54, Sewell became so weak that her family gave up her cart and pony.

Black Beauty was written during these years at Old Catton, when Sewell was in her 50s. By now she was confined largely to sitting at home, often on the family sofa. She kept a journal, written in the pages of an old account book and covering the years 1870–77. "I am quite poorly in pain," she reportedly wrote in an early entry. In the midst of journal entries which described the activities of her family, such as comments on her mother's continuing work as a Sunday School teacher, she wrote a brief running commentary indicating her progress in writing Black Beauty.

In 1871, she noted, "I am writing the life of a horse"; in December 1876, she added, "I am getting on with my little book, Black Beauty. I have for six years been confined to the house, and to my sofa, and have from time to time, as I was able, been writing what I think will turn out a little book, its special aim being to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses … I am anxious, if I can, to present the true condition [of cabmen], and their great difficulties, in a correct and telling manner."

Sewell conceded that she had been influenced by a friend who told her about the Anglican theologian Horace Bushnell, who had written a book about animals. She wrote that he had "helped me feel it was worth a great effort to try to bring the thoughts of men more in harmony with the purpose of God on this subject." She also admitted being influenced by people with whom she had talked about horses. Although confined to her house, she told of a cabman who stopped by her window for a chat and bemoaned the necessity of working on Sunday. He recalled driving a woman on a Sunday who, when she paid him, also gave him a pamphlet which described Sunday work as sinful. "Now m'am," the cabman told Sewell, "I call that hypocrisy—don't you?"

After Sewell wrote pages in pencil, they were recopied by her mother. When the book was completed, Mary Sewell asked Jarrolds, her publisher in London, to read "this little thing of my daughter's." Jarrolds offered £20 for the rights to the book, and Sewell accepted the proposal on the advice of her mother, who told her that new authors could not reasonably expect to be paid more.

Considering that it was apparently written in fits and starts, and when Sewell's health allowed, Black Beauty was remarkably seamless. Presented as the "autobiography of a horse," with Sewell as the translator from "the original equine," Black Beauty traces the life of a gelding with "racing blood" in his veins who is alternately mistreated or lovingly cared for, as he is

sold from one owner to another. The narrative opens with an idyllic life for the four-year-old horse, who is at first owned by a kindly Squire Gordon, whose wife, after considering and rejecting names such as "Blackbird" and "Ebony," settles on the name "Black Beauty." Among the grooming staff, the favorite of Black Beauty is a cheerful 14-year-old, Joe Green.

Sold when the Gordon family moves for health reasons, Black Beauty suffers under the control of a coachman who applies the hated bearing rein, which forces the horse's neck back into an unnaturally high position, makes it difficult to see from the side, and cuts off the horse's wind. When the coachman, in a drunken state, drives Black Beauty recklessly, the horse, who has a loose shoe, is injured (this section of the book becomes an occasion for comments on the evils of drink).

Goodhearted and malevolent owners follow: among them, a kindly owner whose groom feeds the oats provided for the horses to his pet rabbits instead; a London cabman who treats Black Beauty well and helps the horse navigate the confusing and congested streets of London; a corn dealer who overworks his horses nearly to death, using them to pull wagons overloaded with grain; and a master who raises horses for racing at English fairs. The novel ends when Black Beauty is bought by Joe Green, his beloved caretaker from his time with the Gordons.

The novel has a number of sharply drawn portraits of horses and ponies, and at least some of them seem to reflect Sewell's own experiences. These included Merrylegs, who appears to be based on Sewell's own pony. Other horses may be composites or inventions, such as Ginger, a Chestnut mare driven vicious by human mistreatment, including a brutal "breaking-in." Ginger reappears, very late in the novel, as a broken-down horse with a slumbering gait, a frequent cough, and legs that have been swollen from overwork. While intended as a morality tale on the human mistreatment of animals, and especially horses, the book includes many details about the feeding and general care of horses, including common horse ailments.

The novel, with its portrayal of cities as congested and unpleasant, reflected Sewell's own views of what large cities became after the Industrial Revolution; it also reflected her belief, common in Victorian England, that human society was properly a hierarchy, and that the lower classes served the upper classes, just as horses served human beings. Its central message, however, was Sewell's belief: "We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words." Her motivation was "to show what gentle and devoted friends horses can be"; the book appears to be an act of gratitude for animals, which had enriched her life and made it possible for her to be mobile.

The early printings of Black Beauty contained the dedication, "To my dear and honoured MOTHER whose life no less than her pen was devoted to the welfare of others, this little book is affectionately DEDICATED." In fact, when Sewell died in April 1878, some three months after the publication of her novel, her mother, noticing that most carriages in the funeral procession used bearing reins on their horses, walked down the line of vehicles and requested that the offensive reins be removed.

It is estimated that by the time of Sewell's death, some 30,000 copies had been printed. By 1890, an estimated 216,000 copies had been sold, and the words "Recommended by the British SPCA" were appearing in editions in her native country. By 1894, the popularity of the book caused Jarrolds to produce several editions of the book at different price levels, ranging from a paper edition for a shilling, a school cloth edition for one and sixpence, and a literary edition with "cloth elegant binding" for two shillings.

While one British publication noted that "it would be difficult to conceive of a book more admirably suited to the purpose" of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British society was not the first organization to embrace Black Beauty. George Angell, the founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Humane Education Association, and the magazine Our Dumb Animals, recognized the importance of the book for his movement very early. A supporter sent a copy to him in February 1880. He concluded that the book might be as much of a "boost" for his movement as Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Uncle Tom's Cabin had been for abolitionism.

Within two weeks of receiving a copy of the book, Angell had begun soliciting funds for an American edition, planning to print, initially, 10,000 copies, with the eventual goal of distributing 100,000 copies. It would be a pirated edition, printed without copyright permission, a fact that Angell justified with the statement that the author had "died unmarried after the publication of the book; that her mother, a widow, died soon after"; that the author had received a "mere 20 pounds" from the original British publisher; that there was no American copyright; and that his organization could undersell and underprice any other American publisher. The goal was to place a copy of Black Beauty in every American home, an important step in the progress "not only of the American, but of the world's, humanity and civilization."

Black Beauty played a role in the gradual abolition of the bearing rein, as organizations for the humane treatment of animals began to campaign, on both sides of the Atlantic, against its use and against the abuse of horses used for heavy labor, particularly in mining work. BlackBeauty also became a 20th-century phenomenon. Of the British novelists of the 19th century, only the books of Charles Dickens proved more popular a century later. One writer has calculated that Black Beauty is the sixth most popular work in the English language. The book has been translated into French, Italian, Hindustani, and Japanese, among other languages. An Italian edition was produced in Boston, and a Spanish edition appeared in New York City. Three motion picture versions have appeared, with Sewell's family receiving a modest payment for the first one, which was made in 1921.

Anna Sewell succeeded in convincing many of her readers of the importance of "kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of animals." However, while her book has certainly stood the test of time, notes one writer: "The book has lived; the author has been forgotten."


Baker, Margaret J. Anna Sewell and Black Beauty. New York, London, and Toronto, 1956.

Bayly, Mrs. (sic). The Life and Letters of Mrs. Sewell. London: Nisbet, 1889.

Chitty, Susan. The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty: The Life of Anna Sewell. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971.

Starrett, Vincent. "Anna Sewell," in Buried Caesars: Essays in Literary Appreciation. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, reprint 1968, pp. 204–223.

suggested reading:

Montgomery, Elizabeth R. The Story behind Great Books. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1946.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.


Anna Sewell left almost nothing in the way of papers; an autobiography, essentially part of a long letter written by Sewell's mother to her grandchildren, is included at the beginning of Mrs. Bayly's book; a family friend, Mrs. Bayly has also been the main source of information regarding Sewell's journal and some of her correspondence.

related media:

Black Beauty (films), Vitagraph, 1921, Monogram Pictures, 1933, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1946.

Black Beauty (film), starring Mark Lester, Tigon British Film Productions and Chilton Film & Television Enterprises, 1971.

Courage of Black Beauty (film), Alco Pictures, 1957.

Your Obedient Servant (film), adaptation of Black Beauty, Thomas A. Edison, 1917.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois