ANNA SEWELL (1820-1878.)
I have tried to read Black Beauty several times but I have never got beyond the first few pages. However, in order to write this blog, I have downloaded the complete work, and now at last I have completed the task. This essay is the result of actually reading Black Beauty.
Anna Sewell was a Norfolk-born woman and a Quaker – her family were bankers, not an unusual career for members of their faith. She was in a long tradition of nonconformity, and a concern with animal welfare was part of that tradition. For example, a member of the Gurney family (also Norfolk Quakers and bankers) was the first president of the RSPCA. One nonconformist lady in the early 19th century was so kind to animals that, when she had to have a pig killed for her family’s sustenance, the only way she could do it was to feed it so much that it died of over eating! Anna Sewell was not so precious as that; in her opinion, when the pony Merrylegs was too old to work, he should be shot – the kindest way to end his life.
I had always assumed that Black Beauty was a mare’s name, but i was wrong; the horse in the novel was male. My first reaction to the story of the horse comes from the very start; class distinctions appear even in the world of animals! In her opinion cart horses are rough and uncouth, while thoroughbreds are gentle and refined. I know very little about the equine world, but what information I have rather goes against this view. The Suffolk Punch is a ‘Gentle Giant’, while racehorses are highly strung and rather unreliable. But as I say, who am I to argue with the greatest writer on horses there has ever been? And in spite of this difference in their social class, she treats all animals as deserving equal respect.
From others’ reports I had expected the story of Black Beauty to be a true-to-life account of a horse’s day-to-day existence. It is that certainly, and told by someone who obviously knew and loved horses, but I had not expected it to be so anthropomorphic. I now realise that I was being rather foolish; although not originally written for children, it has been popular with them since it was first published, and that should have suggested to me that it has a prominent human side. Most notably the horses talk to each other, and you can’t get more anthropomorphic than that. You must understand I have nothing against this sort of writing; and Anna Sewell handles it very well.
She was very advanced in her opinions on the treatment of animals. She was against blinkers being put on horses, and check reins (which keep the animal’s head unnaturally high). Even the wearing of bits troubled her. Although she saw the necessity of bridles and bits, she desired that they be as gentle in their action as possible. It was not only horses which she empathised with; on the subject of dogs she was opposed to the docking of their ears and tails – something which has only very recently been banned in the UK and which still exists in other jurisdictions. Even flies got her sympathy, and little boys who pulled their wings off received her condemnation.
Each chapter handles a different aspect of a horse’s life. One covers a fire in a stable, one an exhausting gallop to fetch a doctor and another the sad break up of a household when the owners sell up. Besides the horses, this story gives an illuminating picture of mid-nineteenth century life in general. Steam trains cross the countryside and animals travel the rails in horse boxes; the roads the horses have to travel have deep muddy ruts. This was before the roads were surfaced with tarmac, and even in the towns only some roads were paved with cobbles or granite setts. The loose stones were a constant danger to the horse’s hooves.
After many different experiences illustrating the various kinds of ill-usage that horses could suffer, the book ends with Black Beauty living out her days in a pleasant stable with a little gentle exercise pulling a carriage for an elderly spinster and her sister.
There are several reminders of Anna Sewell in Norfolk. A picture of her birthplace appears at the head of this page. The Sewell Barn Theatre in Norwich was once part of her brother’s estate, and is said to have housed a horse who provided some features which later appeared in the character of Black Beauty. My wife Molly has a relative (the mother-in-law one of her nieces) who lives in the old Quaker Meeting House in Lamas. This village is twinned with Buxton and the two villages are between Coltishall and Aylsham. It is in the surroundings of the building that Anna Sewell lies buried. We had a family gathering there one summer several years ago. It was a pleasant enough occasion, but I am not sure I would be entirely at ease if my back garden were a graveyard, even one with so eminent an occupant as the author of Black Beauty.