Heart: The Story of Anna Sewell
by Jen Longshaw
"I am never afraid of what I know"
The author of one of literature's best-loved classics was born on March
30 1820 in Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. Anna Sewell's mother was a well-known
and popular writer of juvenile best sellers and her father a respected
bank manager. The family were devoted Quakers who lived by a creed of
love for all and compassion for those in less fortunate circumstances
and this also extended to the animals that shared their lives.
England in the 19th century was an unequal society that saw great poverty
existing alongside the wealth of the aristocracy and burgeoning middle-classes.
The Industrial Revolution saw the growth of towns and cities as the rural
population migrated into urban slums to work in the factories and mills
needed to supply the British Empire with the necessities of life. The
horse played a vital part in this Dickensian nightmare working in coal
mines as pit ponies, pulling barges along a vast network of canals, helping
plough the fields and also providing transportation.
However, these noble animals were treated miserably. Often beaten by
their owners, made to pull over-loaded wagons and carriages, many died
of exhaustion where they stood in their harness. There were also some
extremely cruel fashions of the time including the docking of the horse's
tail to "improve the appearance" which not only caused them immense pain
but prevented them swatting away annoying flies causing them to be stung
and bitten. There was also the bearing rein which was used to pull the
horse's head in towards the chest in order to give a pronounced arch to
the neck. This was considered a very desirable look much sought after
in carriage horses but it meant that the animal was unable to breath properly
and would later develop respiratory problems. Not only this, the method
meant they were unable to look from side to side and found it difficult
to pull their loads properly.
Anna and her mother were appalled at the sight of any mistreatment and
often remonstrated with the horse's owner. However, their efforts usually
resulted in the women being threatened with a beating themselves! Their
Quaker beliefs ensured they were opposed to tormenting animals for pleasure
or hunting for sport. After reading an essay on animals by Horace Bushnell
Anna declared that she wished "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding
treatment of horses".
At fourteen years of age Anna suffered a fall in which she injured her
knee. This never healed but left her unable to walk without the aid of
a crutch. Subsequently over the following years she became increasingly
disabled. However, she learned to drive a horse-drawn carriage and took
great pleasure in taking her father to and from the station on his way
to work. An extremely skilled driver she was known for her ability to
control the horses by the sound of her voice alone. She often drove with
a very loose rein and certainly never used a whip.
During the last years of her life Anna Sewell became confined to her
house due to failing health. She spent this time writing a story about
a horse that drew on all her memories of the abusive treatment she had
seen. This fictional autobiography gave readers a unique insight into
equine life as the horse described his happy beginnings as a foal, his
adventures with both good and bad owners through to his eventual retirement.
This book was "Black Beauty".
The character of Beauty was based on her brother's horse Bessie and "Merrylegs"
was based on Anna's own much-loved little grey pony. Although at the time
it was published it only earned Sewell twenty pounds the book was instrumental
in eventually abolishing the macabre bearing rein and awakened an awareness
of the need for a more humane approach in the treatment of animals.
Unfortunately she never saw the eventual success of her book. On April
25 1878, just three months after Black Beauty was published, Anna Sewell
died. Ironically at her funeral her mother noticed that all the horses
in the funeral procession were wearing bearing reins and insisted that
they be removed which they were.
Today critics consider Black Beauty to be overly sentimental and slightly
patronising, an accusation all too often levelled at literature of the
Victorian era. However in the nearly 125 years since its publication the
book has sold over 30 million copies. It has truly earned its place in
the hearts and minds of all animal lovers everywhere. But more amazing
still is the true story of the gentle heart behind it, a woman who demonstrated
that there was strength in kindness and compassion and that the written
word could change the world.
"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".
2001-2006 Please do not copy in any manner, print or electronic,
without permission from the author.
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ARTICLES BY JEN LONGSHAW