On March 30, 1820, Anna Sewell was born in Norfolk, England. A fall at the age of 14 made her very lame and for the rest of her life she could not stand or walk for any length of time. Anna Sewell was what is called an autodidact, meaning that she was responsible for the most part for her own education, although her mother was an author of children’s books and Anna helped her with editing.
Her opportunities to learn grew when she was sent to receive treatments for her disability at a European spa frequented by a number of writers, artists and philosophers. She set her mind to something of which her injuries had made her acutely aware, pondered it over the decades, and in her fifties, as she sunk into her final illness she dictated a memoir which begins like this:
The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside; at the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook overhung by a steep bank.
While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.
As soon as I was old enough to eat grass my mother used to go out to work in the daytime, and come back in the evening.
That’s right, Anna Sewell’s memoir is told from the perspective of a horse, what a horse might write if it could write its own autobiography. But why did Anna Sewell choose this subject?
It was because her own injuries had so lessened her mobility that even when she had to travel short distances, she relied on carriages. She spent much time waiting for others to complete errands she could not join, watching the bustling street scene of horse-drawn conveyances from her carriage window. Her own difficulties with the ordinary movements that most people take for granted made her acutely aware of bodies and how they moved, especially the bodies of horses. She observed horses carefully. She learned to recognize how they looked when they were tired or overworked. She could tell when they were shy of something, or were skittish at a new situation, or when careful handling had made them confident.
She watched how the animals worked. She saw how they would balk and perform awkwardly for an insensitive driver, and how they would throw themselves into pulling for a kindly driver with a gentle hand. She observed the effect on horses of a cruel, but popular, practice. In her day it was considered fashionable to rein the horses head in place so that the head would be held high, especially when there were teams of horses pulling a fine carriage. With Anna’s sympathetic imagination and attention to movement she saw how this afflicted the poor burdened beasts. Imagine that you were trying to pull a heavy object. You would naturally want to lean forward to throw your weight into the work. Now imagine that you were given that same work to do but your head and shoulders were strapped so they were held back and your head was tilted backwards. That is what was being done to the horses in the name of a fashion fad.
The idea began to form in Anna’s mind that people would treat horses better if they could understand what things were like from the horse’s point of view. What Anna Sewell wanted to tap into was the empathy of her fellow men. God did not give this world with its animal creation to the care of angels, but to human beings, who in their own bodies share the physical urgencies, constraints, and hazards animals do: hunger and thirst, illness and injury, the need for rest and exercise.
From out of the limitations and suffering of her own life, imposed upon her by a youthful accident, Anna wrote her story for the adults who worked with horses. It broke all sales records and — in that mysteriously graceful manner that redemptive suffering works in this often cruel world — put a permanent end to the callous practice of “reigning in.”
In our time, when we are no longer so dependent on horses for transportation, it has become known as a childhood classic. It is, of course, Black Beauty.