I'm thinking a lot about writing at the moment - I'm in the final stages of writing my next book, with my friend Debbie Duncan, on the subject of Kindness. I think I've told you that before.
And as a result I've been thinking about some of the books that have influenced me and that captured my imagination so much that it made me want to write.
One of the those is a brilliant book called Black Beauty ... by an amazing author - Anna Sewell!
And it was on this day - November 24th - in the year 1877 that the book was published.
If you've never read it ... spoiler alert ... it's the story of a horse, told from the animal's perspective. It's as if the horse is talking to us about his life, starting in the idyllic countryside as a carefree foal playing in the fields with his mother and other horsey friends, and then, being sold on and sold on and having all sorts of experiences - hardships as well as kindnesses - before, as he grows older and less attractive and less useful to human owners, eventually ending up as a cab horse in London.
I remember reading that part of the book especially - the terrible treatment of the horses, but also the horrible lives of the cab drivers. I remember actually shedding a tear when Beauty recognises his friend from years ago in happier times - Ginger - and then seeing her broken body being hauled away to the knackers yard ... as the toil of being a cab horse catches up with her. And I remember crying again when Beauty is finally recognised and taken back for a happy retirement in the countryside.
'Black Beauty was actually Anna Sewell's only book ... amazing! She was obviously a beautiful writer and a true observer of life .. how else might she have written the descriptions, especially of the cruelty to animals in mid-Victorian England?
I read Black Beauty first as a child, and it's always been considered as a children's novel, but I've learned that Miss Sewell did not write it for children. She is quoted as saying that her purpose in writing the novel was "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses". She'd apparently read an essay on animals by Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) entitled "Essay on Animals" and that obviously deeply affected her.
Her story stirred the conscience of a nation who began to recognise the plight of working animals ... in fact Miss Sewell is said to have been instrumental in the abolition of the cruel practice of using the checkrein (or "bearing rein"). This was a strap which was used to keep the horses head high which fashionable people loved ... it was a trend ... but unfortunately it really damaged the horse's neck. Oh, and Black Beauty also mentioned the use of blinkers on horses, suggesting that this could cause accidents at night because it interfered with "the full use of" a horse's ability to "see much better in the dark than men can."
Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse (to give the book it's full title) was actually written in the final years of Miss Sewell's life. She had been ill and an invalid since she was sick at the age of 14, and she never married. She was originally from Norfolk, in Eastern England, one of my favourite places on earth ... I lived there for quite a few years. Anna moved and lived in a few different places (including Bath in Western England ... another of my favourite places ... I went to university there) but eventually returned to Norfolk.
By the time she was completing Black Beauty she was living in Old Catton, a village north of Norwich ... I have friends who live there! She spent about six years perfecting the book during which time her health really declined. I've learned that she was often so weak that she was confined to bed, writing became a challenge and in the final years Anna dictated her story to her mother or wrote on bits of paper when she had the energy, which her mother than transcribed.
And, in fact, Anna Sewell died just five months after the publication of Black Beauty, but fortunately it was an immediate success so she did live to see how well her book was accepted. With fifty million copies sold, Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time, but I'm so pleased that she knew how much she was appreciated.
While its theme of of animal welfare is paramount in the book, Black Beauty also teaches how to treat people with kindness, sympathy, and respect. And that has to inspire us all, surely?
I could have presented you with lots of different Anna Sewell quotes today - there are lots to choose from - but this one really captured my imagination, as her book did so many years ago. Knowing how she suffered in her life and yet was still able to write such a wonderful story is just so inspirational. She used her time well and wisely, even though she was so ill!
Anna Sewell gave a great gift to the world and left a wonderful legacy. And she was a wise woman.
And she inspires me today to make sure I don't waste time on ... nothingness ... or bother, worry, anxiety.
To make the most of every moment!