Fun facts about Black Beauty and the novel’s author, Anna Sewell
1. Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty is one of the biggest-selling novels of all time. Published in 1877, Black Beauty was a huge publishing success story from the start. Although Sewell died five months after the book appeared (the cause of her death has been attributed variously to tuberculosis and hepatitis), she lived long enough to learn that she had written a bestseller. The book has sold over 50 million copies in total, making it one of the bestselling books in English. It was Sewell’s only novel. Sewell died in 1878, but had been an invalid for much of her life; she was confined to her family home for much of her life.
2. Black Beauty is described on its title-page as ‘translated from the equine’. Sewell’s unusual conceit was to tell the story from the perspective of the horse rather than have a human or impersonal ‘omniscient’ narrator. This makes it the ancestor of – and a possible influence on – some notable later animal-narrated stories, such as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Maltese Cat’ (1895), which centres on a polo match told from the perspective of the ponies.
3. There is a story that the book was banned in South Africa during the Apartheid era. There appears to be some debate about whether this is true, however. The story goes that the South African government disliked the book’s title because it placed the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ side by side. Robert Ross, in his A Concise History of South Africa, states that Black Beauty was banned. Numerous other histories of South Africa also repeat this fact – but is it a fact or a myth? Claire Datnow, in her memoir Behind the Walled Garden of Apartheid: Growing up White in Segregated South Africa, writes that this fact was a ‘reigning joke’ among her circle of friends, invented to make fun of the ‘ignorance of the censors’ – the idea being that Black Beauty had been banned ‘because the censors thought it referred to a black woman.’ So it appears as though it may be a myth (though we’d welcome further evidence on this).
4. Anna Sewell’s mother was also a successful author. Mary Wright Sewell (1797-1884) wrote a number of juvenile bestsellers, and was a successful poet as well as an author of children’s fiction. Among her biggest-selling works was Mother’s Last Words, ‘a story of two boys kept from evil courses by their mother’s last words‘, which sold over a million copies. However, her daughter’s attitude to her one novel was quite different: Anna Sewell did not write Black Beauty specifically for children. Rather, she wished to highlight the plight of animals and the way horses were treated in Victorian England, but did not single out children as her readership. As she died young, Anna Sewell (1820-1878) was actually survived by her mother, by six years.
5. Perhaps surprisingly, Disney have never adapted the novel. The story of a horse’s adventures, suffering, and hardship would seem to be the perfect source-material for a Disney film, but a movie has never been made – though in 1966 Disney did release an audio adaptation of the novel. The book has been adapted for film and TV on numerous occasions, however: films have been made in 1921, 1946, 1971, 1987, and 1994, with a popular TV series (made by LWT) running in 1972-4. The earliest adaptation was a 1917 film titled Your Obedient Servant. A preview of the 1921 film can be seen here.
Image: Still from the American film Black Beauty (1921) with Jean Paige and James W. Morrison, published on page 53 of the April 1921 Photoplay magazine (Vitagraph Company of America), via Photoplay, Wikimedia Commons.