The pony book, its cover frequently evoking sunny gymkhana summers, rosettes and pony-mad girls, is a standard of children’s fiction. However, there’s more to it than that. When Jane Badger, already an experienced writer, blogger and researcher of the genre, set out to write Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, she had little idea of just “how many more titles I would uncover.” The books are not only about wish-fulfilment and ambition, but also about dedication, loss and the cost, in every sense of the word, of turning a dream into reality. I talked to Jane about her work and the history and influence of the pony book.
Miriam Bibby: First of all, welcome to History on Horseback, Jane. The pony book has been a popular genre for young people (and girls in particular) for decades. It’s likely to have played some part in the formative reading of anyone with an interest in the history of the horse and I’m sure that many of us recall the experience of our first pony book. Tell me about yours. How did you respond to it at the time?
Jane Badger: Thank you for having me on your blog! I read anything and everything as a child, so in the scramble to cram in as much as possible, I’m not 100% sure what my first pony book was. I’m fairly certain it was Diana Pullein-Thompson’s Riding with the Lyntons, which is certainly the first pony book I owned. It was the Armada edition with the Mary Gernat illustration and the dung brown cover. In retrospect, it’s an odd book to be completely hooked by, as it launches fairly early on into the death of a pony in the road, and the ostracism of the heroine by her new found friends, but I didn’t care. I read it, and re-read it. My father died when I was small, and I can’t ever remember not knowing that, so death had always been part of my world and so didn’t disturb me. I knew it happened. What I do remember being absolutely enchanted by was this marvellous world where people actually had a pony of their own. I didn’t know anyone who had a pony of their own, so to step into the world of someone who did was heaven.
MB: Your book Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction traces the development of the pony book from 18th century animal story precursors, with the first “pony-narrated” text that you’ve found dating to 1800, long before Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). Some recognisable pony book themes began to emerge in this early book, The Memoirs of Dick, the Little Poney (Supposed to be written by himself…) Can you outline a few of these?
JB: Ah Dick. I can recommend reading Dick, who’s freely available on the internet. He has a voice all his own. Dick starts his story from foalhood, through his capture and breaking in, and then on through several different owners (some good, some not) until he ends up as a happy child’s pony. There’s a strong moral bent in a lot of animal literature: its aim is didactic. It wants to teach the reader how to treat the narrator animal well, and that certainly happens with Dick, who has some fairly grim experiences at the hands of a young and selfish master. Dick is of course saved by the good graces of humanity, as many pony-book ponies after him were. It’s something that’s remained true of most pony literature; the power of humanity over the horse’s fate. Interestingly in the 20th century you do get the odd story where the horse breaks free and forges its own way (H M Peel’s Jago for one), but it’s rare. Dick’s experience, where it’s humanity’s responsibility to care, is the norm.
MB: People with a little knowledge of the pony book might think that the books are about upper crust gels who go to boarding school and attend gymkhanas. In fact, as your book clearly shows, that’s simply the over-worked – hackneyed – end of the genre. Themes of class, money and status are, in fact, often developed in ways that people might not expect.
An archetypal image? Illustrator Geoffrey Whittam specialised in pony books. His work extends from the idyllic, such as this, to the dramatic and adventurous.
JB: Yes, that’s true. Diana Pullein-Thompson was particularly keen on showing characters who had money but were still human beings, who didn’t deserve the opprobrium thrown at them because they were wealthy. Her Christina, in Three Ponies and Shannan, has stacks of money; large, beautifully done house, three lovely ponies, a groom, and anything material she wants. It’s Christina though, who’s the heroine; the poverty-struck child, Charlie, child of the vicarage is unkind, thoughtless and a bully. As well as subverting the accepted mores, you get authors who take a good look at what it’s actually like to have very little money and to try and get a pony. There’s Veronica Westlake’s Ten Pound Pony where the children have a real, hard, slog to get a pony, and probably best of all, K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night. Her heroine Ruth lives in a family where there is no spare money whatsover, but Ruth buys a pony with her sparse savings and then tries to keep it in her back garden. It’s the best of the books which aims to show that the pony book dream may be achievable, but it won’t be without a cost.
MB: I must say the matter of “pony book poor”, discussed in your book, did make me laugh out loud. It seemed to be a case of: “Down to our last pony and we have to move to a draughty rectory with only three acres on the edge of town – poor us!” That’s definitely not the whole story though. Which writers do you think stand out in the development of the pony book in unique and challenging ways?
JB: K M Peyton and Patricia Leitch. Patricia Leitch is a much under rated author. Her The Magic Pony, reissued last year by Catnip can be read as a (very good) straightforward pony story and a study of what it’s like to die in today’s society. K M Peyton’s characters are always arrestingly real.
MB: I’ve always thought that two important – and undervalued – themes of pony books are egalitarianism and feminism, though that’s perhaps not a word the protagonists would use. They simply get on with what they want to do. However, in your book, Stacey Gregg, successful 21st century pony book author, describes Ruby Ferguson’s heroine Jill Crewe as “funny, feisty and unapologetically feminist.” We can learn a lot from our horseback heroines about independence, responsibility and resourcefulness, amongst other qualities. Are horseback heroines feminists? What else do the books (and the ponies in them) teach us?
JB: I suppose that depends on what your definition of feminism is: if your definition of it is that you get on and do what you want to do, and don’t let yourself be defined by stereotypical ideas, then yes, a lot of them are. I’ve already mentioned the strong thread of morality that’s present in most horse literature: indeed in most animal literature. Caring for the animal properly is paramount; unselfishness – putting the animal’s needs before your own – is key.
MB: Many avid followers of Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” felt seriously let down by the disappointing end to the series, when, at the end of the book, Jill apparently gives up her dreams and ambitions to work with horses, and to write, in order to become a secretary. Despite the fact that she’s been successfully doing both as a younger teenager, neither is seen as appropriate for her as an adult. Even after fifty or sixty years, it’s clearly something that still rankles with many readers. Why do you think Ferguson took this final course for her upbeat and inspiring heroine?
Jill, Ruby Ferguson’s heroine on horseback, was an inspiration to many; but ultimately the disappointing ending to an otherwise satisfying series is “a puzzle”, says Jane Badger. Illustration by Clifford Caney.
JB: Jill’s a puzzle, or at any rate the situation Jill ends the series in is a puzzle. All through the series, Jill is the girl most pony mad girls want to be. I think it’s because Jill is the quintessential wish-fulfilment figure that it’s such a shocking blow when she gives it all up to become a secretary. Yes, I know you can say that she’s an author, as she’s nominally writing the books, but that’s not the point of the scene in Pony Jobs for Jill when Captain CC tells Jill and Ann it’s time to stop mucking about with horses and buckle down to real life and train as secretaries. It’s the sensible career that’s the focus. No one says to Jill “Oh, and of course you can continue your writing and your job will help you survive.” It’s the conventional job that is the whole point of that last scene. Writing, and indeed working with horses are entirely left behind.
Whilst I can see something in the argument that this might have led some readers to question the beliefs that made Jill act the way she did, I think readers react to Jill too personally to start questioning her actions in that way. For them, she’s not a symbol of oppression, or otherwise: she’s a character for whom the reader cares. It’s astonishing to the reader when Jill happily agrees with the plan of doing a secretarial course. Secretary to the PM! says Jill, in a rather pathetic echo of her earlier career aspirations: a few books earlier she wanted to be an MP.
I think there’s an argument for saying that Pony Jobs for Jill is the rather uneasy intrusion of the authorial voice into a series which was classic wish fulfilment. It’s like Harry Potter giving up defeating Voldomort to be an accountant or going into management at Sainsbury’s. Harry doing a realistic job isn’t the point of the books for the reader, and the same is true for Jill.
MB: It’s interesting that the rise and rise of the pony book heroines paralleled the rise of the motor vehicle and the collapse of the working horse population in general. If Enid Bagnold’s 1935 National Velvet hadn’t “given voice [to].. the great galloping passion” of girls for horses, as you vividly describe it in your book, it might almost appear that girls were inheriting a box of outgrown toys from an older brother who has lost interest, particularly as heroines came to dominate the genre in the 40s and 50s. However, the only writer to have explored in depth this theme of the rise of the machine versus the fall, or at least diminishing, of the horse – with spectacular success – is K.M. Peyton in her Flambards trilogy. Any thoughts on this?
Riding horses is currently seen as a mostly female activity, but there have always been attempts to balance this. Illustration by Geoffrey Whittam.
JB: I’m not sure the horse has diminished: yes, it has as a working animal, but the popularity of riding as a leisure activity has grown and grown. The focus has changed to the horse as a companion in leisure, and pony books reflect that. Your question does raise the issue of the whole position of boys and riding: there are very few, and the number who are members of the Pony Club goes down year by year. Riding’s seen as a feminine activity, though interestingly that very thing is being addressed in Victoria Eveleigh’s latest series, Joe.
MB: Leading on from the last question, there’s a case to be made for the most balanced literature in this genre appealing to both boys and girls. You discuss this balance in Heroines on Horseback through various examples. My favourite pony book (if that’s an accurate description of it), and one of the first that I read (All Change by Josephine Pullein-Thompson) is written in the first person from the perspective of Douglas, the eldest of five children, whose father’s future employment is uncertain. I found the combination of well-developed and complex characters with two believable strands dealing with secrecy and deception, interspersed with gripping dramatic episodes, very compelling; and perhaps unusually, the protagonist is male.
JB: All Change is a fine book! Josephine Pullein-Thompson was very keen that boys should have an equal part with girls in her stories. K M Peyton also has characters both male and female: it’s interesting that her heroine Ruth goes on to marry bad boy Patrick and gives up horses, turning her passion and single mindedness on a human. It’s the boys, Jonathan and Peter, who keep up with horses. Is it the same in Europe, I wonder, the pony and the pony book being seen as a girl thing? In America, horse books appeal to a wider audience, possibly because of the USA’s Western and cowboy heritage, which forms the subject for a lot of its equine literature. But yes, to return to your question, the best books show a balance, or else take a good look at why the imbalance is so very marked now.
MB: As with all fiction, pony books deal with the big questions in life: death, loss, love, change, war; and, as also, as you comment, “quite rightly, the normal preoccupations of teenagers”, that’s to say who fancies whom. Riding with the Lyntons includes references to a false murder accusation and many of the books have neglected or challenging children in them – and often these are the children of wealthy parents. I was particularly surprised to read about Dorian Williams’ Wendy trilogy, which I haven’t read, which seems to deal with exploitation and hints at abuse; aspects that are certainly found within the equestrian competitive world but rarely openly discussed.
JB: Sexual abuse I think is only really hinted at in the Wendy books: Wendy’s a young girl working away from home for the first time, and my reading of the books is that Dorian Williams was keen to give starry eyed youngsters whose greatest dream was to work with horses at least some idea of what could go on. Having said that, the starry eyed can be enormously obtuse, and I’m not sure they’d have picked up on it. Glenda Spooner’s The Silk Purse looks at the shenanigans of the showing world head on, and there are American books which take a good look at the nastier side of the horse world too. You’re right that they’re rarely discussed: in a genre which is often straightforward wish fulfilment, the flip side of the dream doesn’t often get the room it ought to.
MB: Do pony books and their heroines influence, or rather reflect, successive generations?
JB: Good question. I think it’s a bit of both. One thing that did surprise me when I started researching horse literature was the very real effect Patricia Leitch’s Jinny books had had on people who read them as a teenager. They felt that for the first time, here was someone who felt and acted as they did. If you did a survey of people who have chestnut Arab mares, I’d bet a good proportion of them read Jinny when young.
MB: The pony book is still alive and well in the 21st century, although there’s some discussion – and even concern – about the “pinkification” of the genre. Can you describe this phenomenon and discuss its implications?
JB: Susanna Forrest is very good on this in her equine memoir, If Wishes Were Horses. Some of it is down to the objectification, or even the commercialisation of the horse. When you look through vintage equestrian magazines there are of course advertisements, and if you wanted to spend shedloads of money you’ve always been able to. What’s different now is the massive, massive range of stuff that horses are supposed to need: wardrobes of rugs, pots of supplements, a thousand different grooming tools… That commercialism reflects society as a whole of course. Besides that, there’s the active decision on the part of toy retailers and publishers to market books for girls in a very specific way: the cover must be pink, the characters on it cartoons, and if you can add some sparkles in, so much the better. Of course what’s inside may not be even remotely pink and fluffy, but it all goes to mark the book out as something not for boys. Besides marking out the horse world as something exclusively for women and girls, I wonder if it also changes the way the horse itself is viewed, so that it becomes an object on which time and money is spent, with perhaps its essential horse-ness being lost.
MB: The pony book authors of my youth that I best remember – to misquote Black Beauty – are the Pullein-Thompsons, K.M. Peyton, Gillian Baxter and the two Monicas (Dickens and Edwards). The Jill books were just slightly too early for me, the Jinny books somewhat too late. However, reading the books of my own generation set me on a search for earlier ones and so I did also discover Ruby Ferguson, Mary Gervaise, “Golden Gorse”, Joanna Cannon and Primrose Cumming, amongst others. And, of course, Bagnold’s magnificent National Velvet must be a book that still has power today. Is there any sign that the current generation of “pink and sparkly” pony book readers are discovering the writers of the past? Or has the world simply changed too much for those early writers to have any relevance for 21st century readers?
JB: Well, Jill’s being republished and is selling well. K M Peyton’s backlist has been bought up by Random House, who must feel there’s some mileage in it, and of course Jinny’s being republished too. As for the earliest authors, if you have an imagination you can make that leap, and I think most people are able to do it – children in particular, as they’re not necessarily as hide bound as adults can be. There’s also the element of being able to see that years ago, other people loved the horse just as much as you do, with all the issues of continuity and difference that that throws up.
MB: And hoping for a strong future for the pony book provides a good point to conclude! It’s been great fun finding out more about the history of the genre. Jane’s book is published by Girls Gone By (GGB) Publishers and lively discussions on the topic of pony books and their authors can be found at Jane Badger Books http://www.janebadgerbooks.co.uk/