This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Compassion comes with age, with experience, with having walked the writer’s path over many years. But in the best sense, compassion is also profoundly, if paradoxically, simple. One spiritual tradition after another has pointed out that if you can give the external trappings of identity (house, car, job) no more meaning than they deserve, you can discover that you are just one container for a greater energy, a greater common ground of being you share with other creatures too. John Keats, that most famous young artist, wrote that “the camelion Poet” is “always filling some other body,” curious to experience reality as other beings understand it and to render it into art. His alert and precise observation extends the grounds of artistic vision – or compassion – to animals: “I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass,” he wrote in a letter of 1819. “[T]he creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”
Like Keats, and like that other 19th-century female recluse, Emily Dickinson, Anna Sewell (1820-1878) possessed a spiritual curiosity that pushed her imagination beyond the boundaries of bodies, even species. “The Victorian invalid” has become a cliché, yet Anna Sewell really was. From an active young womanhood, she declined into a state of dramatically poor health after breaking an ankle, eventually dying from symptoms resembling lupus. Her only book, Black Beauty, was written in painful fragments and dictated to her mother (with whom she lived her entire life), then published six months before her death at age 58. Yet in considering her life, I think of a favorite line from another writer who lived at home with her mother, Eudora Welty: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within.”
Consider this: Anna Sewell, spinster invalid, wrote one of the most influential and original books to come out of Victorian England. Influential? Original? Think about how omnipresent this book has been in your own life (as a child) or in the lives of children you know. Think about how writing such a book now would be equivalent to writing from the point of view of your Subaru — the transportation mode with a semblance of mechanical “life.” Now think about the radical twist of compassion, the Keatsian, world-opening change that happens (as it happens in childhood) when you realize that other beings are as real to themselves as you are to yourself, that, for example, the color orange as you see it might or might not be the same orange someone else sees. We need this realization, often. We need to be reminded that the world is bigger than just ourselves. And because Black Beauty is so simple — short chapters, limited-first-person narration “translated from the equine” — it’s easy to forget how radically it reminds us of just that.
In an essay for The Believer, Paul Collins places Black Beauty beside slave narratives, and another Victorian tradition: The Autobiography Of [insert overlooked object, person, or mysterious other here.] Among the “autobiographies” were those of lumps of coal—which takes me to George Orwell’s reflection, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), on his harrowing tour of a coal mine:
It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
Poor drudges, black bodies, blackened to the eyes: to a Victorian, this could describe coal miners, dirty housemaids, and the slaves freed throughout the Empire only in 1833, on whose working shoulders all of “civilized” life depended. It might describe horses, too, who are lower even than such lower people, because they lack language and reason. Or so we might think, until we read Black Beauty.
The genius of Sewell’s simple conceit — what would you learn if the horse that pulled your carriage every day could speak to you? — is that it upsets adult prejudices by returning us to the moral and imaginative porousness of childhood, where empathy wasn’t a conscious effort at all. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual, then, for your favorite stuffed toy to speak, because you were also secretly sure your cat or dog could understand everything you said and, in its own way, could talk back. As a bookish farm kid, I was convinced that horses and cats and dogs had their own personalities and systems of justice and love, inarguably better than bewildering human cruelties and rules. Black Beauty was confirmation of what I already knew, in my heart: people were mean, and they hurt the good and forbearing creatures around them every day, without knowing it. Sometimes those animals were horses. Sometimes they were pudgy preteen girls, locked in bodies that seemed as far from humanity as anything that neighed or barked or curled up at the foot of the bed, purring, to sleep. Black Beauty was vital therefore in igniting a sense of justice, the basis for which was already there: the strong may hurt the weak, but the weak never, never lose the right to say this is unfair and hope that someone else will hear.
Black Beauty does not speculate about human motivations, which are unknowable to him; he only reports what he feels, hears, and sees. Sometimes these are lyrical evocations of the English countryside:
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.
Sometimes these are his own sensations, defamiliarized:
Every one may not know what breaking in is, therefore I will describe it. It means to teach a horse to wear a saddle and bridle and to carry on his back a man, woman, or child; to go just the way they wish, and to go quietly. . . He must never start at what he sees, nor speak to other horses, nor bite, nor kick, nor have any will of his own, but always do his master’s will; even though he may be very tired or hungry; but the worst of all is, when his harness is once on, he may neither jump for joy nor lie down for weariness. So you see this breaking in is a great thing.
Black Beauty’s reportorial narration is simple, and factual, and yet the reader feels a stirring of unease at how simply such obedience may be exploited, and how ambiguous is that word “great” — to the Victorians it’s “significant,” not necessarily good. There is life before and life after “breaking” — Black Beauty goes from childhood to adulthood just as his readers must, and he’s surrounded by a constellation of other equine characters whose circumstances determine their “breaking” just as they do for people.
Chief among these is the mare Ginger, a consistent foil to the stoicism of Beauty (who’s a gelding, although the castration is not described.) Like some of her human literary forbears — the reformed prostitute Jemima in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman (1798) or the abused wife Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) — Ginger is a sensitive and high-spirited female, literally beaten into apparent obedience by men. Her resistance becomes the occasion for more punishment, and the novel leaves little doubt that men’s brutality — uncomfortably resembling rape — has formed her into the rebel she remains throughout the book:
But when it came to breaking in, that was a bad time for me; several men came to catch me, and when at last they closed me in at one corner of the field, one caught me by the forelock, another caught me by the nose, and held it so tight I could hardly draw my breath; then another took my under jaw in his hard hand and wrenched my mouth open, and so by force they got on the halter and the bar into my mouth; then one dragged me along by the halter, another flogging behind, and this was the first experience I had of men’s kindness, it was all force: they did not give me a chance to know what they wanted… You know yourself, it’s bad enough when you have a kind master and plenty of coaxing, but there was nothing of that sort for me.
Yet in the same kind home where Beauty finds himself, Ginger “grew much more gentle and cheerful, and had lost the watchful, defiant look that she used to turn on any strange person who came near her.” One wonders how such kindness might work on any of the other defiant “creatures” we now see as “problems” — schoolchildren getting arrested, for instance?
Good fiction nudges us to see that which we would prefer to forget, and often draws parallels between ourselves and apparently different others. It enlarges the aperture of our moral vision (which the daily textures of our own comforts and concerns always threaten to narrow) in a way that encourages us to follow that morality into social awareness, and into action. In Anna Sewell’s time, as in ours, “Christianity” as a term is politically much-abused and deliberately manipulated, especially by those “Christians” who should know better. Yet as a Quaker, Sewell is part of a tradition of activism, in her time and ours — a tradition which reminds us that our comfortable lives are cushioned by the labor and sacrifice of human and nonhuman others, and that if we do not find ways to honor these others, we commit injustice: we transgress what she would have respected as God’s creation. As I’ve written elsewhere, antislavery and animal rights were linked to one another in the 18th and 19th centuries by just this view. Jesus’s promise of social disruption and reversal (the last shall be first, and the first shall be last) and his focus on the meek, the poor, and the disenfranchised, opened the door for women (socially “meek,” legally disenfranchised) to follow their training and beliefs as “good Christians” into activism on behalf of others, human and animal.
We hurt and rely on and remain willfully ignorant of those around us all the time, every day, rather than giving them – in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt — “a claim on our thinking attention.” Victorian industrial processes alienated worker from product and consumer, alienated worker from other human beings. But socially, they also alienated those who labored or produced from those who enjoyed the fruits of that labor, even as they came into daily contact, sometimes living under the same roof. Servants, animals, and women were all considered different “species” from the dominant male — despite the servant sweeping ash from your fireplace or the horse trotting along in front of your carriage, in plain view, every day. Ditto the wife whose body was at once an intimate, domestic presence and — when you waited anxiously in the parlor while your children were born upstairs — a near-total mystery. Yet as Anna Sewell is still helping readers and writers to learn, from childhood on up, imagination and compassion will help you cross that gap.