Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) & other writers appreciated too late

Famous and appreciated … too late

Yesterday I tweeted a short piece on Anna Sewell (1820-78), author of Black Beauty on the anniversary of her death. She was an English novelist, the author of Black Beauty. Born in Norfolk, England into a devout Quaker family.

Anna Sewell photograpgh and mini biog.

“It is good people who make good places.”

It would be impossible for most people to read about Anna Sewell’s struggle to write Black Beauty without being moved. The mention of ‘1984’ (see date in the tweeted mini Anna Sewell biography above) reminded me that George Orwell also wrote part of his last novel (1984) in bed, struggling with tuberculosis (TB). At least both authors experienced, before they died, a hint of the transition to come, from relative obscurity to great fame.

Anna was a talented author, but sadly never able to enjoy the full fruits of her work. Here are some other authors who became famous and appreciated too late.

Alphabetical order (by surname)

Anne Bronte (17 Jan 1820 – 28 May 1849)
Emily Bronte (30 July 1818 – 19 Dec 1848)
Thomas Chatterton (20 Nov 1752 – 24 Aug 1770)
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 Oct 1400)
Phillip K. Dick (16 Dec 1928 – 2 Mar 1982)
Emily Dickinson (10 Dec 1830 – 15 May 1886)
Anne Frank (12 June 1929 – 1945)
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924)
Stieg Larsson (15 Aug 1954 – 9 Nov 2004)
H.P. Lovecraft (20 Aug 1890 – 15 Mar 1937)
George Orwell (25 June 1903 – 21 Jan 1950)
Sylvia Plath (27 Oct 1932 – 11 Feb 1963)
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC)
Edgar Allan Poe (19 Jan 1809 – 7 Oct 1849)
Anna Sewell (30 Mar 1820 – 25 April 1878)
Henry Thoreau (12 July 1817 – 6 May 1862)

“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.”

It is worth mentioning that Anna’s mother (Mary) was a popular children’s author herself. Black Beauty was published in 1877, and Mary Sewell lived until 1884, so the mother lived long enough to see some of her daughter’s amazing success and influence. Though, as the copyright had been sold for a one-off fee, she was not able to profit from it.

I once went to hear the novelist Mary Wesley speak at the Bath Literature Festival. She published her first serious writing, aged 71, in 1983 –  and went on to have 10 bestsellers in the last 20 years of her life – including TV adaptations. Someone in the audience asked the question “Do you regret that you weren’t published until so late in your life?” She replied “Oh no, certainly not. I might never have been published at all.” And I suppose that’s the attitude that many other writers and artists might take.

According to The Times (UK, 29 Feb 2008), Black Beauty has sold c.50 million copies so far. A glance on Wikipedia (so it must be true!) tells us that’s the same number as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte’s Web and Watership Down. Just two years after Black Beauty’s release, one million copies were in circulation in the United States alone. It is said (I haven’t found a quality source for it yet) that animal rights activists distributed copies of the novel to horse drivers and stable workers – also that Black Beauty had some responsibility for animal anti-cruelty legislation becoming a serious topic in the English-speaking world.

“If they strain me up tight, why, let ’em look out! I can’t bear it, and I won’t.”

You might be surprised that I see no problem with Anna Sewell sitting alongside Plato and Emily Dickenson in a list (see above), but I’m as happy to peruse a “thumping good read” as a “great” book, both are life enhancing in their different ways. In addition Black Beauty had influence beyond pure literature. There are also surprising things to be found in Black Beauty if you look carefully.  I have a Quaker background myself (despite not having been to Meeting for years) and I couldn’t help noticing that some passages from Black Beauty, are distinctly Quakerlike. If you want examples you’ll have to wait for my book review (keep ’em keen, I say).

Black Beauty illustration 1894
Black Beauty, 1894 illustration.

I’ll finish this post with something that might bring a tear to the eye of some of you. The glorious TV themes (slightly different) used for the 1970s and 1990s versions of The Adventures of Black Beauty (LWT) and The New Adventures of Black Beauty (Isambard Productions Ltd).  In the last 2 or 3 years both series have been shown in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

BELOW: TV theme to London Weekend Television’s, Black Beauty (1970s)

BELOW: TV theme to Isambard Productions Ltd, The New Adventures of Black Beauty (1990s)

BELOW: Anna Sewell on Pinterest (via The Long Victorian)


18 thoughts on “Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) & other writers appreciated too late

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  1. I can still remember the thrill of watching Black Beauty in the 70s and the power and beauty of the animal. Sadly, I have never read it but know it to be one of the first novels to ever be narrated by an animal. I can see how Sewell would have imagined the movement and speed of the animal whist being house bound herself. I might put a little post on the OGOM blog and link to this as we have followers interested in animal studies .
    Thank you for reminding we why I loved BB so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to have reminded you of Anna Sewell’s lovely story. 🙂 After 140 years it probably still has something to tell us. I shall keep my eye on the “Open Graves, Open Minds” blog for whatever pops up.


  2. I never knew this about Anna Sewell, or anything really….I definitely need to reread “Black Beauty”. I remember it has beautiful passages but I think I’d get much more out of it as an adult. Really brilliant idea–to write story about freedom and kindness and struggle from a horse’s POV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s hard to think of many classic animal stories … The Wind in The Willows and
      Watership Down come immediately to mind, after that I struggle. Animal Farm is not really an animal story, more a story about humans. Tarka The Otter – but never read that one. Struggling to think up any others. I feel a post coming on!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha! Yep, definitely if we want. But I think of animals in fables as being there to illustrate human thoughts/situations/morality – The Hare and the Tortoise, Androcles and the Lion, Animal Farm (a modern fable). Not really attempting to get inside the head of animals. Full marks to any writers that take on that tricky task!


  4. Hello there, Unfortunately the photograph of Anna Sewell in your article is not Anna Sewell , the writer. Rather, it is the renowned US astronomer Anna Sewell Young.

    Liked by 1 person

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