Monday, 1 June 2009

An early horse story: 1908

This is a curiousity, and not the sort of thing that I tend to come across very often. Amélie Rives' Trix and Over-the-Moon is a very early American horse book, written in 1908. It's not a story told by a horse, like Black Beauty; what it is in fact is a horse story with what came to be a traditional plot: girl (or woman in this case) buys tricky horse; tries to school horse; aims at showing horse successfully.


Amélie Rives, the author, was a god-daughter of Robert E Lee, and was born in 1863 She spent most of her life in America's South, on her family's estate near Charlottesville. She was married to, and divorced the wealthy John Armstrong Chanler, and then married Prince Pierre Troubetskoy, a Russian. Her first book, The Quick or the Dead, scandalised America with its portrayal of a young widow pondering re-marriage shortly after the death of her husband. Whether Trix and Over-the-Moon caused any scandal, I do not know. It would certainly pull any modern reader up short.

Trix is Mrs Beatrix Bruce, married to Sidney Bruce. They live in Virginia, where Trix achieves epics of organisation running the farm - and I mean epics. I really don't know how she does it. This is a description of her morning routine: and it's not even the whole morning:


"It was early in the morning, and yet Trix had set out three other shrubs, superintended the planting of half a dozen trees, seen to the strawberry bed, overhauled the stable and dairy and written about 50 checks. The day was yet before her, she felt, and the day would be full..... Later there would be Tim and his spelling-lesson, her new habit-skirt, the colts, the farm, that man from Barboursville to see about the contract for timber in Hickroy Mountain, her runabout to varnish - above all, the sick mare to see after."


In comparison to this phenomenon, Trix's husband does remarkably little. After some sucess writing, he has made it his career, but his latest efforts are all, as Trix points out, in the stye of someone else and hence not a success. Trix, I forgot to mention, spends much time quoting Horace, though she does not care much for any other literary works.

I have read very little other American literature of the same period with which to compare this, and I am busy resisting the temptation to start as it might be an idea if I finished off some of the many other articles I have in the pipeline, but I would be interested to know if such female phenomena are common. There is no doubt whatsoever about who is in charge of the estate: it's Trix, and thereby lies some of the problem.

The amazing Trix is of course an accomplished horsewoman, and horses are her main love. She buys a colt decended from the stallion Orion, whom she eventually calls Over-the-Moon. The Orion colts are known for their suspect temper, and everyone save Trix sees something bad in the colt, though his outrages against discipline are relatively minor.



The twin vehicles for the uneasiness about the colt are Trix's Mammy, Mammy Henny, and Sidney's nanny, Alison Stark, a Scot. Both these two talk at epic length in extraordinarily irritating dialogue meant to convey their accents:

" I 'clar' I dun'no' what you after, Mis' Stark," said Mammy Henny. "I ain done tuk away no wuds, nor put 'em in nuther."

"There's naebody sae blind as them what wunna see," said Alison, tersely; "but a' thae things ye black folk sing gar me scunner."

I find this sort of literary device quite spectacularly irritating. I know perfectly well that these two are going to have Southern and Scottish accents respectively, and I can usually fill that in for myself. When you have page after unending page of it, as much of the plot is driven forward by these two arguing, I began skipping it, only to find that in all the pages of verbiage were a couple of sentences I actually needed to have read to understand the plot. So girding my loins, I knuckled down and got on with reading it properly.

I would note in passing that Alison's attitude, as expressed in the quotation above, is roundly rebutted by Mammy Henny.

It turns out that Trix is pregnant (though she hasn't actually told anyone this). I did wonder if the way this is made very plain would have been strong meat for its time. Certainly even in Elsie J Oxenham's books about young women, published in Britain a decade of so later from Trix, one was unable to dance for a while, but that was the only clue readers had about pregnancy until the baby appeared some chapters later.

Both Mammy and Alison are full of disapproval and fear for Trix: she will, they think, be at the very least seriously injured by the colt if she rides him at a show, when the atmosphere will drive him to behave badly. Trix takes no notice, and lies to her husband when he extracts a promise from her not to ride at the local show. Eventually, Alison takes matters into her own hands. Convinced Trix will be killed by the colt, she befriends Over-the-Moon (having on him the sort of effect pony mad girls in coming decades would have longed for), but in the dead of night, she sneaks out and kills the colt by cutting his jugular, convinced this is the only way she can save Trix. She herself does not survive the killing long. She falls and spends a night outside; which carries her off in a long and rather satisfying deathbed scene where Mammy and Alison reveal the affection that has underlain their decades of battles, and Trix forgives her.



This is quite an extraordinary book: it went through many reprints so must have been very popular. The denoument took me by surprise: it actually seems quite a logical thing for Alison to do. Deathbed scenes involving horses never seem to have attracted quite the aversion that deathbed scenes involving humans do: people very rarely die in horse and pony books, but the poor equine hero does meet his end. From Ginger's pathetic hooves lolling over the edge of the cart as her corpse is taken away in Black Beauty, to Seaspray's awful struggles in the grips of Tetanus in Diana Pullein-Thompson's A Pony To School, horses die, but I can think of not a single one who is killed in order to save his mistress.

There is no authorial comment on the death, though Alison is smitten with horror at what she has done. Trix's behaviour though, is summed up thus:

"Trix shed the bitterest tears of her short, self-willed life next morning, sitting on the ground, regardless of the dreadful mess of blood, with the stark head of her favourite on her lap.

And she went through a very black and human phase of blind rage against Alison. Later on in the day, however... the sense of justice that was the backbone of her sturdy nature made her see things, differently , even touched her in an odd way."

With the exception of the Southern and Scottish dialogue, the book is well written, and is really, I suppose, a tragedy. It is a portrait of a very gifted and capable woman, who is too used to getting her own way to see that she is endangering far more than just herself, and in the end it leads to the death of her beloved horse.

If you can get hold of a copy - the book is not hard to get hold of - I'd recommend you read it. It is a fascinating example of an early horse story, and of the lengths to which humanity will go in defence of those it loves.

3 comments:

chicory cottage said...

using regional dialect for characters was somewhat of the norm for that time period. there are many books written about the southern appalachian folks (published in the late 1800s to 1910s) which include dialect of which you spoke. i, too, find it drudgery to read through.

callmemadam said...

Fascinating! The American Automobile Girls series dates from that same period. More liberated than British books of the time, I imagine but I've no idea if they contain such frankness (or horrors!).

Jane Badger said...

Thanks, Chicory Cottage (great name - I'd forgotten I used to grow chicory until I saw your name!) I wonder if, when you got used to it, that sort of dialogue was alright? Like you though, I do find it drudgery. It did give me an insight though into what it must be like to find reading difficult, and to give up because it's such hard work to make sense of things.

CMM - thank you for that. I've not heard of the American Automobile Girls series before. At least with a car there is less that can go tragically wrong with it than a horse (not in the sense of an accident I mean, but in the loss of another living being).