Sunday, February 7, 2010

Black Beauty--or The Secret History of Anna Sewell

Well, not secret so much as forgotten and obscure. I was at work yesterday and one of our used book buyers showed me an old copy of Black Beauty and this brought back some of my own memories of the book. I read it or at least some abridged version of it in my horse-obsessed girlhood. I empathized deeply with Black Beauty's plight, but being seven or eight, did not exactly read the story critically.

I must have been in my twenties when the book--again, some old, forgotten, illustrated version, maybe even the same one--resurfaced at my sister's. We spent an evening laughing, perhaps with gallows humor, at the unrelenting woe that filled its pages. And then promptly forgot it again.

What I remembered yesterday, though, was a wonderful article I'd read in The Believer four or five years ago. It was written by Paul Collins, which of course I had not remembered, and takes up the subject of Black Beauty and the life of Anna Sewell about midway through. I think I'll save the fascinating, but tragic facts he comes up with as the background of the novel, as you can read the whole thing in it's entirety here. I'll summarize for the less inclined by saying that Black Beauty is sad for good reason.

But one of the things that struck me this time, and made it a worthy subject for this blog, is Sewell's almost completely forgotten and unknown status.

Here's a taste of the article:

Black Beauty has been translated into everything from Swedish to Hindustani, and made and remade many times over in both silent and sound movies, as well as a TV series. It has also generated sheaves of sequels—including Son of Black Beauty, which sounds like a swell idea for a book until you recall that Black Beauty was a gelding. No matter: he is an unstoppable force. Nearly everyone has heard of him, many have read him, and few have any notion whatsoever of his origins.

I cannot find a single academic monograph dedicated to examining Black Beauty. The book’s critical obscurity is matched by that of Anna Sewell herself; the only full-length biography devoted to her, The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty, has been out of print for thirty years, and was more about mother Mary Sewell than about Anna herself. As biographer Susan Chitty readily admitted, Anna was almost impervious to biography: her one surviving diary is a tatty notebook of fourteen pages in length. Compare this to Sewell’s rival in the shut-in spinster-genius sweepstakes, Emily Dickinson: she, at least, left hundreds of letters behind. Of Anna Sewell we have little but what comes, so to speak, straight from the horse’s mouth.

But oh, how he spoke!

MFA scholars in search of a topic, take heed. You will be doing the world a favor.


  1. Thank you for such a wide ranging assessment of a favourite book.

    It sends me back to the text.

  2. Thanks, for stopping by here, Tales. The credit of course goes to Paul Collins--I am just a mentioner.

    No chance you're an MFA scholar in need of a thesis is there?