How Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty, the ‘hymn to a horse’ whose influence on animals is still felt today

A hymn to the horse, a comment on slavery, an ode to rural Norfolk: Anna Sewell’s enduringly popular novel is all this and more 200 years after its author’s birth, explains James Clarke.

In 2017, a rare edition of Black Beauty went up for auction in Norfolk, in aid of the local Redwings Horse Sanctuary. The fact that the title is still cherished enough to merit its listing proved a reminder of how powerful and moving Anna Sewell’s novel remains. Initially published in the run up to Christmas 1877, by Norwich-based publisher Jarrold and Co, the childhood favourite has never been out of print.

Told from the point of view of Black Beauty (Michael Morpurgo adopted the same story-telling device in War Horse), the book takes the reader on the horse’s life journey in both town and country. Despite the various locations in which the novel unfolds, including London, where Black Beauty works as a cab horse, the novel is a clear tribute to the author’s connection to Norfolk. ‘Norfolk was the county of her birth, death and family heritage,’ explains Prof Adrienne E. Gavin, author of a biography of Sewell entitled Dark Horse.

Marshes by the River Bure and St Benet’s Abbey and Drainage Mill at South Walsham, Norfolk.

Born 200 years ago, on March 30, 1820, in Great Yarmouth on the east Norfolk coast, the part of the county that would become essential to the spirit of Sewell’s iconic novel was the Bure Valley, a landscape that mixes marshland and crop fields, through which the River Bure laces its way towards the Broads.

Sewell’s family went on to live in London and then Brighton, but she returned to Norfolk in the last years of her life to write Black Beauty. The author would often visit her relations in East Anglia, too, so the landscape formed a powerful thread through her life.

Marshes by the River Bure and St Benet’s Abbey and Drainage Mill at South Walsham, Norfolk.

The expansive East Anglian countryside has long hummed with human activity and it’s this ebb and flow between people, landscape and animals that is so memorably rendered in the pages of Black Beauty.

The Bure Valley can be walked quite easily today, between Aylsham and Wroxham, but Sewell had injured her ankle as a child and it never fully healed. As a result, she would often get around using a pony and trap and it was at Dudwick House in Norfolk that she learnt to ride, during a visit to her uncle and aunt; her grandparents lived nearby at Dudwick Farm. Sewell would go on to corral her memories of these places in the service of her novel.

Anna Sewell, author of ‘Black Beauty’.

The author disliked towns and cities and Black Beauty captures the unease that found a voice during the Industrial Revolution, as people became concerned about the loss of country ways and tradition. There is a realism to the novel that reflects Sewell’s knowledge and memory of both country and equestrian life, with the plot moving across rural and urban settings and situations that both test and nurture the horse. It is the novel’s first half, however, where her Norfolk soul sings out.

The village of Buxton in the middle of the Bure Valley was a place of inspiration, as was Old Catton, where she spent the last decade of her life. She and her parents moved into the Georgian White House on Spixworth Road in 1867, having returned to Norfolk to help and support her brother Philip, the widowed father of seven children. It was here that she wrote Black Beauty; she also kept bees.

Richard Denning and Mona Freeman, in the 1946 film version of Black Beauty. ©20th Century Fox/Everett Collection via Alamy

At the time, Old Catton was a village on the edge of Norwich. Philip owned land nearby, at Clare House, where he kept a horse named Black Bess. Used to pull his carriage up and down the Spixworth Road, Bess was kept in a barn that is understood to have informed Sewell’s image of Black Beauty’s stable. The barn still stands and is now the venue for the Sewell Barn Theatre.

Indeed, for anyone who wants to make a pilgrimage, a memorial to Sewell stands at the junction of Constitution Hill and St Clement’s Hill in Norwich. Ada Sewell (her cousin) erected it in 1917 — it origin-ally served as a horse trough and, today, it brims with flowers.

In part, Black Beauty is a novel that captures the feeling of having a home and belonging, as felt by Sewell when she went back to Norfolk. Bringing her life full circle, she was buried in the graveyard of the Quaker Chapel at Lammas, the village next to Buxton, amid the landscape that was so vital to her family and work.

As did her fellow East Anglian, the painter Alfred Munnings — particularly in his early work — Sewell offered a detailed and authentic sense of rural life in her writing. Another aspect she didn’t shy away from was the cruelty of some people towards their animals.

‘Black Beauty was a book to encourage sympathy for horses in a world where they were used as tools, extensions of the machinery of the time,’ explains Jenny Caynes, curator of community history at the Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell.

‘The result of the book was an undeniable impact in terms of animal welfare, of shaping ideas of the general public and influencing public opinion.’

A scene from the 1994 film of Black Beauty.

The novel is replete with pleas for an increased awareness of animal welfare — consider this passage, when Black Beauty explains ‘those who have never had a bit in their mouths, cannot think how bad it feels’. The book is, perhaps, tougher-minded than many might realise and can be seen as a striking metaphor for slavery and freedom, which didn’t go unnoticed when it was first published in America in the 19th century.

Sewell’s novel, therefore, is a powerful call to action, a hymn to the horse and an ode to Norfolk. It has a voice and a message that hasn’t diminished and, after all this time, seems unlikely to.

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