Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Suspension of Disbelief

When I did O' Level English Lit, one of the very few technical expressions that stuck in my head was suspension of disbelief. It's such a grand description for the simple act of leaping headfirst into a book and living in it until you've finished.

It is a phrase that's been nudging at me for a while recently, as I've read a few pony books over the holidays that have tried my disbelief somewhat. The main one was Jackie and the Missing Showjumper by J M Berrisford. I know it seems as if I only mention this poor woman in order to put the boot in, but stay with me. The story involves Jackie and her sidekick Babs, both of them all of 13, who are going to spend the Christmas period looking after two showjumpers belonging to a"top-of-the-charts country singer." JMB herself recognised the struggle many of her readers were going to have with the essential dippiness of her plot, and she goes to some lengths to explain how the situation has arisen: the singer can't find any grown ups willing to work over the 3 week Christmas period, Jackie and Babs have lots of experience, and there will be an adult there to keep house. "Not surprisingly, Rory O'Brady hadn't been too keen at first on the idea of anyone as young as Babs and me taking over..." I didn't have to suspend disbelief so much as leave it swinging helplessly over Niagara Falls.


But to do JMB herself justice - maybe I am looking at this from a modern standpoint where health and safety legislation and child labour laws, to say nothing of insurers with incipient heart failure mean such things are incredibly unlikely. It wasn't always like this: I was left in charge of stable at a fairly early age, though for hours not days, and the Pullein-Thompsons were running their own riding school by the time they were 14.
Judith M Berrisford's Jackie series was started in 1958, when life was very different, and what might have been acceptable then was not by 1982, by the time Missing Showjumper was written. She could hardly restrict the girls' activities as the series went on and they grew older (though by inches: Jackie and Babs are the Dorian Grays of the pony world: they never change. I would very much like to know, though, just what debauched horrors their portraits in the hay loft of Aunt Di's stables reveal).

And so we are left with an author whose plot (Jackie and Babs go off to look after ponies) couldn't cope with the modern world, but who had a very successful series which presumably the publishers were reluctant to let her change: publishers like what they know will sell. Josephine Pullein-Thompson's publishers were very unhappy with the way Noel and Henry grew older as the series progressed and forbade her from doing it in any other series. So JMB was I think the victim of time, rather than inability to put over a convincing plot.

There are other worse offenders out there: I struggle with the romance betweeen the 14 year old schoolgirl heroine of Samantha Alexander's Riders series and her 19 year old Olympic rider boyfriend. I also wonder at the astounding ability of Amy in Heartland to do it all: school, a relationship, running the stables and curing all those horses..... maybe that's why the series has sold so many copies. It's not teenagers buying them at all, it's their time-strapped mothers, desperate for hints on how to get it all done.

6 comments:

haffyfan said...

I struggled with the relationship in Riders too...but at 14 it would be the stuff of dreams to pull a georgous young (but older man) eventer. I think she knew and played on this to attract her audience.

This is my favourite Jackie book and maybe because I read it first when young never thought anything of it...again I think it is to do with young girls dreams...I mean to been given two show jumpers to look after...and by a popstar...it dosen't get much better does it? (even several years later it's pretty darn good still!). They are about 15 in Steeplechase adventure/change ponies as Jackie is too old to ride Misty in the team if you remember and reluctantly hands her over to Babs so I think they may have been a little older in this one too in JMB's defensive?


I must admit I do like JMB and although the books in the Pippa's series are better written I have a lot of affection for Jackie and why change something that works....being forever youthful is something I wish I knew her secret of!

Jane said...

Haffyfan - yes, I think you're right with Samantha Alexander. And with JMB and young girls' dreams, though I suppose a great many pony books are to do with dreams. I haven't actually read Steeplechase or Change Ponies, so I am relieved to find out they do actually age. It took them long enough. It's interesting though that those are the last in the series, and I wonder if it was for JMB as it was for JPT: when she insisted her characters age that was that as far as the publishers were concerned?

Gillian said...

It seems a shame that publishers were reluctant to let characters grow up. After all, many of the readers would be growing up with them. There would be new readers coming along, but those who had started with Noel and Henry aged twelve, would be suitably older by the time 'Pony club camp' came out.

Monica Edwards seems to have been luckier, as her characters grow from children to young adults, experince first love and are allowed to develop over time.

Jane said...

Yes, I don't know how Monica managed it! But I am sure there are plenty of people out there who do, so I will try and find out. Maybe it was because she wasn't writing fiction that fitted into a closely defined genre. Only a very few of her books can really be called pony books...

mutterings and meanderings said...

I loved the Jackie books - but then she did have a grey mare!

However, I hated Heartland - not my thing at all.

Look at Jill and her mob in Jill has Two Ponies - running the riding school over the Christmas holidays as well.

But in those days, peopel coulc and did leave school at 14 and had to make their way in the wide world ..

winnie said...

Same problem, different genre. I don't know if you are familiar with the 'Alex Rider' (A.Horowitz) series, or the 'Cherub' (R.Muchamore) series?
Alex Rider is a teenage James Bond-type character, and all his adventures seem to happen while he is about 14. The Cherub series (similar premise only with more children in it) has the characters ageing and maturing, which as they are teenagers means they get into sex etc.
There have been some concerns raised that the later Cherubs are not really suitable for young teens who enjoyed the first books. personally I prefer the more realistic approach and I think it's fun to see the characters you like getting older and changing. But then I'm not a publisher...