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Anna Sewell: a woman who changed the world


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198 years ago today, a woman was born whose sole novel led to a change in legislation and policies both in her native England and across the pond in the United States. That novel was to become one of the top ten best-selling books for children of all time.

Silhouette of a galloping horse 15th March
Yet we perhaps don’t consider the importance of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, first published just over five months before Sewell’s untimely death at 58. Indeed, many people have never even read the original book, relying on films or TV for a vague comprehension of what the story is about. So for those you who are unclear, here’s a quick run-down of what goes in the novel.

It’s told from the horse’s viewpoint, whose first given name is Black Beauty. It follows him from birth throughout his life as he works as a carriage horse, a horse for hire, a London cab horse and a corn-dealer’s horse. Along the way, he meets other equines who have been mistreated, from having their tail docked, to literally being worked until they die. Whilst Beauty has a happy ending with owners who love him, so many of the other animals do not.

Hansom cab and driver outside Somerset House 
As you can see, it’s not exactly cheerful reading, and whilst it's considered the forerunner of the kind of stories pony-mad children have cluttering up their shelves, it has also been linked to much more important books. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the book of the American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln is even supposed to have said of Stowe, ‘"So this is the little lady who started this great war.’ To compare the American Civil War to a revolution within animal rights may seem a little crass. However, what Black Beauty shows, like Stowe’s novel, is the power of words.

Take, for example, the case of the bearing-rein, or check-rein. It’s a piece of equipment which you have probably never heard of. A leather strap which runs over a horse’s head and down the top of its neck, it was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries to rein it tightly to lift a horse’s head up artificially high. I’ll let Black Beauty explain why this is a problem as he tries to pull a heavy carriage uphill:

“Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs.”

Diagram of a bearing rein 15th March

Sewell goes on to detail the effect upon Beauty and other horses, whose health and well-being is harmed by the fashionable use of the tack. After reading the novel, the public were so outraged by the pain and suffering of their equine-hero, that there was an outcry and the check-rein was eventually banned in Victorian society.

This might seem to be a tiny win in a world where animal-cruelty continues to be an issue nearly two centuries after Sewell’s birth. What you have to remember is that Sewell was no politician. She came from a poor Quaker family, received no formal education until she was twelve, and was unable to walk without assistance from the age of fourteen until her death. Even with education and good health, she was a woman in a society where her sex were largely ignored and dismissed. Yet, though this little book, she changed people’s minds and made horses’ lives better. Looked at like this, it’s a huge deal.

And Sewell is not alone. So often, books we now consider to be ‘for children’ have had a huge impact upon our behaviour. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol not only influenced how we celebrate Christmas, but raised awareness of the shocking poverty so many people lived in at the time: there’s a reason we give to charity at Christmas, and Dickens is kind of it.

Similarly, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird showed a white man urging his children to sympathise and root for a black man wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. Atticus Finch’s claim that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” is the best encouragement for empathy I have ever seen, and for generations, it is this lawyer who has made them change their minds.

The most influential books in the world are often considered to be political, religious or scientific, and yes, I can completely see why The Communist Manifesto, the Bible and On the Origin of Species repeatedly make up lists entitled ‘books that changed the world’. But what about books like Black Beauty that have changed real, tangible things for ordinary people? I think it’s time that they had their day as well.

What’s more, the changes brought about by Black Beauty, A Christmas Carol and To Kill a Mockingbird, to my mind, all come down to one thing: being kinder. I think that’s something we could all benefit from.

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