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November 4, 2010

Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History: Anna Sewell

This is the cover of the first edition of Black Beauty, published in 1877 by Jarrold and Sons. Courtesy of wikimedia commons.

"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." Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, 1877.

Of all the books in the world, I would imagine there’s one that nearly every horse-crazy girl has read over and over again. I wonder how many collective hours we have spent greedily soaking up the poignant words of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a book that has sold more than 30 million copies since it was published in 1877.

Sewell was born on March 30, 1820, in Yarmouth, Norfolk, England during the Industrial Revolution, a time where major changes in agriculture, mining, transport, manufacturing and technology drastically impacted the culture of the United Kingdom, then spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world. This time period saw huge growth in towns and cities as the former rural population left the countryside in order to work in the factories and mills.

The horse was still an integral member of the work force during this time period. Horses worked in mines, pulled heavy loads via carriage and barge, provided transportation, and of course, represented wealth. Horses were often mistreated, though, and many died from exhaustion and other injuries and ailments that simply went untreated. Sewell and her parents were Quakers, and part of their belief system revolved around showing love and compassion for those in less fortunate circumstances, which included animals. Sewell’s mother, Mary, was an author of children’s books, and her father, Isaac, was a banker. She had one brother, Phillip.

Anna and her mother were very close, and Mary home schooled Anna and Phillip. Anna got an early start in writing by editing her mother’s books. Mary’s books were very popular during the era but have faded into obscurity since.

The Sewell family moved many times due to financial strains, but Anna and Phillip often returned to Norfolk to stay with their grandparents at their Dudwick Farm in Buxton, where Anna first learned to ride. When Anna was 14, she slipped and sprained her ankle. The ankle refused to heal, and Anna was unable to lead a normal life due to the severe pain. Adrienne E. Gavin, who wrote Dark Horse: A Life Of Anna Sewell, sought out medical opinions when writing Anna’s biography and concluded that she might have had Systemic Lupus Erythematosis, a severe form of the autoimmune disorder where the body attacks its own organs. Because Anna had such trouble walking, she learned to rely on horses for her needs and became a competent rider and driver.

Anna used her knowledge of horses, as well as her abhorrence for cruel methods of horsemanship, namely the bearing rein that is a focal point of Black Beauty, to write her novel. The bearing rein runs from a point on the horse’s back over his head to the bit. Although the modern bearing rein or overcheck is a piece of safety equipment, during Anna’s time it was used to keep carriage horses’ heads up—producing a desirable look. Often adjusted painfully tight, the horses could not always breath properly and would sometimes develop back and spine problems from trying to pull with their heads up. The bearing rein also hindered the horses’ vision and balance.

In addition to the bearing rein, horses in that era were often beaten and forced to pull extremely heavy loads. Many horses had their tails docked, which supposedly improved their appearance, but left them vulnerable to insects and infection.

It was these practices that inspired Anna to write her book, and she combined her knowledge of horses with her compassionate beliefs to give voice to the horses she saw suffering nearly every day. She often said she wrote the book to “induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding [of the] treatment of horses.” She began writing Black Beauty in 1871 and worked on the project for six years as her health deteriorated and kept her confined to her parents’ home. As she weakened, she often dictated to her mother, who transcribed her words. She completed the book in 1877. Jarrold and Sons, who purchased her story for a single payment of 20 pounds, published it later that year.

Black Beauty is written in the first person and narrated by the title character, a stunning, yet gentle black horse who tells the story of his life with elegance and poise, often speaking on the nature of a horse’s life with simple sentences that still ring true today. Beauty lived through many owners, good and bad, and he witnessed all aspects of the treatment of horses during his lifetime. The book was a major reason that the bearing rein was abolished.

Anna never saw the profound impact her book had over the world, as she passed away on April 25, 1878, shortly after Black Beauty went to print. True to her lifelong advocacy of the fair treatment of horses, her mother insisted that the horses in Anna’s funeral procession have their bearing reins removed.

Black Beauty has become one of the best selling novels ever written. Animal welfare groups, such as Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, endorsed the book and distributed thousands of copies to stable hands and drivers. The book has been translated into dozens of languages and is often compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Black Beauty is credited as having the greatest effect on the treatment of animals of any publication in history. The book paved the road toward legislation protecting horses and changed the public’s attitude toward fashionable trends and practices that hindered a horse’s welfare.

Black Beauty’s theme of treating our horses with kindness and respect is one that has carried over the decades and remains a relevant topic in our relationship with horses.

For that timeless message of compassion, we thank Anna Sewell for putting into words what our horses could never say out loud. 

"We don't get to choose the people in our lives, for us it's all chance." - Black Beauty

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!

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