Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty
Soon after Anna’s birth, the family moved to London, although her father’s business was soon in trouble, leading to further moves. Anna’s education was firstly at home, given by her mother, and then at a day school between the ages of twelve and fourteen. While running home from school one day in the rain, she slipped and fell, injuring both ankles. The treatment she received was not good, and she never really recovered from the injury, suffering from permanent lameness that, at times, made it difficult for her to walk or to stand for long periods. She also suffered from general poor health for much of the rest of her life, and spent a great deal of time trying various “cures”, at Brighton and elsewhere.
It was while visiting relatives in Norfolk that she became acquainted with horses and learned to ride and drive. This gave her a freedom of mobility that she would not otherwise have had, and she grew to love and respect horses as a result.
Anna never lived apart from her parents, and became very close to her mother, working with her in charity ventures and also assisting her literary efforts as editor and critic. She shared her mother’s high moral convictions, and, although she had religious doubts at times, she retained her faith, although she abandoned Quakerism at the age of 18.
However, the driving force of her life (no pun intended) came to be her campaign against animal cruelty, particularly as inflicted on many horses by owners who were more concerned about the appearance of their horses in harness than the animals’ health and comfort.
As she drove the family carriage, particularly in later life in Norfolk when she took her father to the railway station, she saw many examples of horses which were forced to hold their heads unnaturally high by the use of a bearing rein (also known as a check rein). This rein runs from the bit, over the top of the horse’s head, and attaches to the surcingle or girth (the strap that runs around the horse’s body, just behind the front legs). The idea is to prevent the horse from nodding its head and to keep the neck as vertical as possible, but if the bearing rein is too tight, the horse’s breathing will be affected, it will be unbalanced, and extra strain will be placed on the neck and the spine. In Anna Sewell’s day, this was the case with many horses which, for the sake of fashion, were rendered unfit for work, and virtually crippled, long before they were ready to retire.
There were other practices that Anna saw as causing distress to horses, such as the wearing of blinkers, especially at night, the docking of tails, and the use of whips. She herself never used a whip when driving, and used voice commands rather than a tight rein.
On reading a pamphlet by an American writer, Horace Bushnell, on the abuse of animals, she conceived the idea of writing a story that would illustrate the effect of cruel practices on horses, seen from the horse’s point of view. This became “Black Beauty”, her only novel, composed between 1871 and 1877. Her stated aim was “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”.
The slow progress with the writing was largely caused by her increasing disability. At first she dictated the words to her mother, and later on she wrote in pencil on slips of paper, which her mother later transcribed. Eventually the book was published, in 1877, by her mother’s publisher, under the title: “Black Beauty: his grooms and companions; the autobiography of a horse ‘Translated from the Original Equine, by Anna Sewell’”. She was paid 40 pounds for it.
The story concerns a horse which receives both kindness and abuse during his life, and witnesses various cruelties inflicted on other horses. These include the use of bearing reins and whips, poor feeding and overwork. There is also an adventure story built into the narrative, with Black Beauty saving the life of his owner at one stage. The story works at several levels, one being as an allegory of how kindness between humans also has its rewards.
Anna did not live the see the full success of her book, as she died within five months of its publication, possibly from hepatitis, on 25th April 1878 at the age of 58. Ironically, the horses that drew her funeral carriage were fitted with bearing reins until Anna’s mother insisted on their removal. She was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Lammas, near Norwich in Norfolk.
“Black Beauty” was not intended to be a children’s book, but that is the market that ensured its overwhelming success, particularly with girl readers. It is still a best seller, and has been reckoned as the sixth most popular book in the English language. There have been several movie versions, the most recent being in 1994, starring Sean Bean and Alan Cumming. However, the legacy that will have most pleased its author is that the use of bearing reins and tail docking have long been abolished in the United Kingdom, although the practices are still found in some other countries.
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