From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Compassion, Thy Name Is Anna

I have been writing a little book, its special aim being to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses.

From Anna Sewell’s Diary

While growing up in nineteenth century Victorian England, Anna Sewell often saw people abusing their horses in the city and countryside. Horses were brutally whipped, underfed and asked to cart loads that were much too heavy. These animals worked in sweltering heat, freezing cold, driving rain and heavy snow—often seven days a week, year after year—until they died from exhaustion. As a devout Quaker, such abuse was extremely distressing to Anna. These injustices left her with a lifelong fervor to right the wrongs done to those powerless and noble animals she loved so dearly.

It began with a dream: to persuade adults to treat horses with sympathy and compassion. To try and accomplish her desire, Anna decided to write a “little book.” Black Beauty— the only book she ever wrote—was conceived as fictional autobiography of a gentle and well-bred horse. Written as a powerful moral tale, Black Beauty became one of the most popular and best-loved children’s classics in the English language.

The mistreatment of horses in England was perhaps best symbolized by the bearing rein, also known as a checkrein in the United States. Used on horse-drawn carriages and carts, the bearing rein was connected from the animal’s bit to the harness. It kept a horse’s head high and gave the neck an unnatural graceful curve, having no purpose other than to improve the fashionable appearance of the animal. Horses forced to use the bearing rein suffered serious respiratory problems, reduced vision and loss of balance, which often resulted in pain, illness and death.

Anna hated the bearing rein and wanted the practice ended. Often Anna’s outrage and fiery temper led her to confront full-grown men from all walks of life and to admonish them on the use of the bearing rein. The reason for acting on such injustices was perhaps best articulated by one of her characters in Black Beauty—a gentleman who intervened when he saw a carter brutally punish his horses with a whip and rein. “My doctrine is this,” said the gentleman to his friend, “that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”

Anna Sewell was born March 30, 1820, in the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, to strict Quaker parents who used the biblical forms of “thee” and “thou.” Her mother, Mary, taught Anna and brother, Philip, the virtues of honesty, industry, thrift, self-reliance and self-denial. She also instilled in them qualities she practiced, self-sacrifice and helping the poor. Anna and Philip were also taught to be kind to animals, an important article of the Quaker code.

Anna was a pretty child with dark curly hair. At an early age, she showed artistic talent and a gift for languages. At the age of fourteen, she had an accident, which changed her life forever. Coming home from school one day, Anna was caught in a heavy rain storm without an umbrella. While running up the sloping carriage drive leading to her house, she fell, twisting her ankles so badly, she could not stand.

Anna’s ankles never healed. For the rest of her life, she was a semi-invalid, who never married and lived at home. By 1845, Anna’s health deteriorated and she had more difficulty walking. Forced to drive a pony and chaise to get around, she soon learned to understand the nature and habits of her horse.

At the age of fifty-one, Anna was struck by a disease, the exact nature of which has never been determined. Poor health confined her to her home where she rested on the sofa most of the day. An entry in her diary for November 6, 1871, showed she had begun Black Beauty. She wrote: “I am writing the life of a horse and getting dolls and boxes ready for Christmas.” Over the next five years, except from time-totime when a few portions were dictated to her mother, Anna’s poor health did not allow her to read or write. When Anna’s health improved somewhat, she wrote more often. Mary afterwards took her writing and copied it. At other times, when Anna was not well enough to write, she told her tale to her mother, who wrote it down.

With her mother’s encouragement, Anna completed Black Beauty in 1877. The book was the story of a gentle black horse with one white foot and a white star on his forehead that told his own story from youth to old age. By writing Black Beauty as a horse’s autobiography, Anna wanted the reader to hear about the joys and sorrows of Black Beauty and his friends—Ginger, Merrylegs, Justice, Sir Oliver and Captain— in their own words. The plea for understanding and compassion came from the animals.

Foremost, Anna wrote Black Beauty as a primer on what to do and what not to do in caring for a horse. However, its charm and appeal was the story. Black Beauty opened with the horse recalling his early home, a place of tranquility and comfort. Black Beauty was sold at four years of age, beginning a life’s journey of good and bad times that depended on the temperament of his owner.

Anna wrote of good and caring people such as the master, the Squire and Mrs. Gordon of Birtwick Park, the coachman John Manley and stable boy James Howard. She also wrote about Black Beauty’s cruel owners, who because of ignorance, ill temper, alcohol or neglect caused Black Beauty pain, serious injury or near death.

Capturing the imagination of children and adults for generations, Anna presented many dramatic and unforgettable scenes. There was the excitement of the moonlight gallop to fetch the doctor for the Squire’s wife, the story of the flooded bridge, the fire in the stables at the coach’s inn and the sad and tragic encounter years later between Black Beauty and Ginger as lowly cab horses in the drab streets of London.

Anna Sewell’s death came five months after the publication of Black Beauty. After a long night of painful breathing and incessant coughing, a nurse called Mary and Philip to Anna’s bedside in the early morning hours of April 25, 1878. When the end was near, Philip offered final prayers.

On the day of Anna’s burial in the family plot at Lammas in Norfolk, Mary Sewell looked out of the window of the upstairs drawing room as the horse-drawn funeral hearse drew up to the door. Her friend and neighbor Mrs. Buxton was present. Appalled by what she saw, Mrs. Sewell exclaimed, “Oh this will never do!” and ran down the stairs and out of the house, ordering the carriage driver to remove the bearing reins from all the horses in the cortege. Anna’s beloved animals would never again suffer the widespread abuse and pain she had witnessed in her lifetime.

Fred Glueckstein

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