Age fourteen is rather a hard time to lose the ability to walk, but Anna Sewell fought to make the best of it. Her best friends, horses, stepped in literally and became her “new legs,” carting her to the station and back again and depositing her in health spas across Germany and Spain. Unfortunately, the spas didn’t heal her ankles, but on one such trip, they did drop her directly in the pathway of Lord Alfred Tennyson.
However, Lord Tennyson wasn’t the first writer Anna came in contact with. Mary Wright Sewell, Anna’s mother, was a successful children’s writer, and Anna edited her work, learning from it, and eventually turning her own hand to writing near the end of her life.
Born on March 30, 1820 in Great Yarmouth, England, Anna had a heart for society’s “dumb,” those who didn’t have words to ask for help. In her mind, she was referring to the animals around her, especially the horses who suffered under cruel conditions, including tail docking and bearing reins.
“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.” — A. Sewell
Anna declared their pain was not lessened because they could not speak, but her duty was heightened because they could not cry out for help.
“My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” — A. Sewell
Beauty, the main character in Black Beauty, became Anna’s voice as she remembered her brother’s horse, Bessie, and her own dear little gray “Merrylegs.” This children’s novel, published three months before Anna’s death, only earned Anna twenty pounds, but over the next 125 years, 30 million copies sold, forging a headway for humane animal conditions.
On April 25, 1878, Anna Sewell passed away. At her funeral, tight bearing reins lashed the horses’ heads up and back, and her mother, seeing the reins, demanded the procession halt and not continue until they were completely removed. Anna’s stilled voice could almost be heard . . .
“Now I say that with cruelty and oppression it is everybody’s business to interfere when they see it.” — A. Sewell
Today this children’s story is sentimental and patronizing, or so the critics say, but it is well to remember this book was written in the 1800’s with a Jane Austen era writing style, and though the vocabulary may be antique in comparison to today’s culture (who can’t speak at all, I might add), the book’s moral and Anna’s heart are still as true today as they were then.
“There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.” — A. Sewell