Sunday, June 11, 2006


Black Beauty Rides Again

Given my interest in obscure lit, I get asked occasionally -- what's the single most overlooked book I've ever come across? My answer remains the same as it was in The Believer a couple years ago: Black Beauty is the most neglected major work in the English language. (The entire article is on The Believer's site.)

Anna Sewell's 1877 novel was the cultural precursor of the animal rights movement, and far more radical than its bowdlerized modern versions -- early editions were subtitled The Uncle Tom's Cabin of Horses, and included illustrated instructions on how to humanely shoot a downed horse. Try putting that in a modern children's book.

In the early 1970s Black Beauty was estimated to have sold 30 million copies worldwide in dozens of languages; there's no telling how much higher the total is now. In my Believer article I compained that there was not a single scholarly study of this book -- not one -- and the last bio of the author, a slim and obscure volume, was three decades ago. That, happily, was changing even as I wrote. Adrienne Gavin's biography Dark Horse came out just a couple months later. It's still a novel calling out for scholarly attention, though.

Antiquarian collectors, at least, are more clued in than academia has been. The BBC reported this week that an extraordinary first edition of Black Beauty -- inscribed by Sewell (who died just three months after it was published) to her mother -- sold this week at Christie's for £33,000, more than four times the presale estimate.

I hope the buyer loans it to the British Library, and I hope it goes on permanent display. It's about time.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?