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.
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