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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Anna Sewell!

Anna Sewell. Public domain.

Today, March 30, is the 196th birthday of Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty. 

Anna was born in Norfolk on this day in 1820, to Isaac and Mary Sewell. Her mother was a children's writer. The family was Quaker, though Anna and her mother later turned to the Church of England. Because they couldn't afford schooling for two children, Anna and her brother, Anna was home schooled till she was twelve.

I wonder what would have happened if she'd continued the home schooling? But she started going to school and one day she fell over on her way, breaking both ankles. She never really recovered and had trouble walking.

Was it this crippled state that made her depend more on horses, and make her interested in them?

Anyway, she wrote the book late in her life. Because of her pain, she couldn't always write herself and had her mother write it all out for her.

Black Beauty has become a classic of children's fiction. I think I was about eight when I read it for the first time - and loved it!  I was reading anything and everything with a horse on the cover at the time and this one was a surprise, but a pleasant one. There were no girls entering gymkhanas on ponies in it, or even wild horses running through the Snowy Mountains, but the first person narrative made up for that. I was indignant on behalf of the horse and his equine friends and who could avoid a lump in the throat after what happens to Beauty's friend Ginger?

If you've missed out on it, stop right now and get it. It's available on Gutenberg - free. Go on - I'll wait.

First edition. Public domain.

Got it? Good. Now, to continue. It was not actually written for children. It was written as a protest against the truly horrible treatment of horses in the Victorian era - and she told the story from the horse's viewpoint. If she had written a pamphlet, it might have been of interest for a few years and then been forgotten.

Black Beauty goes from the pleasant meadow with his mother to life with the kind Squire Gordon and his wife, then downhill from there, with the occasional improvement, such as his life as a cab horse with the decent cab driver Jerry. In the course of the story, we read of such horrors as the bearing rain, which forced horses to hold their heads up while trying to pull a carriage at the same time.  Rich people liked their horses to look as snooty as they were themselves, it seems. After this book came out, the RSPCA was able to use it to help get the bearing rein banned. A great achievement for a novel written by a middle-aged lady who was in constant pain!

The book was published in 1877, but she only lived a few months after it came out, so it was her only book. She died in April 1878, hopefully at least having lived long enough to see its success.

In fact, it has sold fifty million copies, which makes it one of the bestsellers of all time, and has been translated into fifty languages. That's success!

Happy birthday, Anna Sewell, and thank you for giving me such joy in my childhood!

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