Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Young Entry (or at least some of them)

I’ve recently read a few books by very young writers.  Normally this is a genre I avoid like the plague.  Colonel C E G Hope, later editor of Pony Magazine, wrote when he was working for Riding: “I find that I have to overcome a certain, no doubt unreasonable, prejudice when dealing with books by children...”  I have a lot of sympathy for Colonel Hope’s point of view.  Once I made the mistake of reviewing a book written by a child, a review which I thought was basically sympathetic, but oh goodness, the flack I received for daring to say something even slightly negative (which I did, I admit, about the book’s editors).  That was the first, and only, blog piece I have ever taken down.  I have learned my lesson, and intend not to touch with a bargepole anything written by the young today.

Colonel Hope had a good deal to contend with in avoiding the book written by the child: they were not exactly uncommon in the 1930s, which is when this set of books was published.  Alison Haymonds, writing in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature described the compulsion to write a pony story as “part of the pony mad phase”, with which my own luckless English teachers would certainly agree.  I seized any opportunity to shoehorn a horse into a piece of writing while I was at school though thankfully none of my efforts ever went near a publisher.

The little crop of books I’m writing about here I hope I can write about without their authors, friends and family setting about me:  they were young in the 1930s and hopefully distance has lent objectivity.


Sarah Bowes-Lyon was a connection of the Queen Mother, and is best known for her facsimile piece, Horsemanship as It is Today (J M Dent, 1933), written when she was 12.  She also flirted with the world of fiction, producing Harum-Scarum (1934), a rather overwritten biography of a horse which she wrote at the age of 13.  The story follows the horse from foalhood to his death.  Harum-Scarum becomes an army horse, but the Regiment is called out to Egypt to “keep under control the Arab raids and riots,” and Harum-Scarum’s owner, not being an officer, is not allowed to take his horse. This is the cue for a fair bit of emotion:

“he gave a loud heart-rending neigh, as if questioning him who had just departed – there was no answer, only the faint steps grew quicker as they hurried across the cobbles; the heart of one could not bear to hear the cry of another from whom it had been torn apart.”

The quivering emotional storms in the book possibly reflected the fact its author was a teenager.  Harum- Scarum and Joe are reunited, but captured by a bad and cruel Bedouin, who purposely demands too high a ransom for the horse so that he can keep him.  Joe persuades one of his more kindly captors to shoot the horse after he has been released.

“...the stillness of the night had been broken by a shot that echoed along the distant hills, then all was still.  Joe still started out across the desert, his face was deathly white and his hands were clenched, he had bitten his lip till the blood appeared.”

It is all rather Twilight; one feels if the author had been writing now there would have been a chaste yet dangerously passionate vampire hovering near. The author was much better on the familiar ground of what to do with your pony, as was Dawn Dodd, another 13 year old who had a brief early flowering as an author.  She produced two books; John and Jerry, and Your First Pony.  This last, a non fiction title, is a brief and to the point exposition on how to look after your pony, and is infinitely the better of the two.  I loved the little vignettes about life chez Dodd:

“Do not let your mother say “Oh what a sweet little pony, you would look so nice on it”, and buy you a Shetland pony.”

And

“[always] call at the house before going to the stables if you have been out alone.  Your mother probably thinks you are dead in a ditch.”

John and Jerry is a much, much more predictable trot around a boy who acquires a pony (described as a “simple tale about a very human small boy” in Riding, December 1938). 


Yet another 13 year old, Mary Colville, wrote yet another pony autobiography, Plain Jane.  It has the rare attribute of being about a Shetland pony, but is otherwise the usual story of the ups and downs of a pony’s life.   The book’s reviewer in Riding, AP, said that “autobiographies of ponies and horses are legion”, and compliments the book for its “simple straightforward story” and its “illusive charm.”   The book’s publisher, Collins, describes the book rather breathlessly on the flyleaf as “one of the best pony stories we have ever read,” which view I wonder if the writer would still have held ten years later, after Collins had become publishers to the infinitely better Joanna Cannan and her daughters, the Pullein-Thompsons.


Collins published a much better book by a child author the same year, 1938.  My copy has not survived with its dustjacket, so I can’t say whether Collins went into similar paroxysms of enthusiasm over this author.  It is a rare child author who can manage to retain a bit of detachment from her subject, but 12 year old Katharine Harrison-Wallace manages it in Sambo and Susan, a facsimile text.  By the time I came to reading this I was having to exercise considerable self discipline not to slime off and read something else a little less turgid, or just give up altogether and watch Glee on DVD, but this book is an absolute charmer.  The author illustrated it as well, and she is a trenchant observer.  Colonel Hope when he reviewed the book described the stories as “really charming little tales... of high moral purpose, which does not in any way detract from the aforesaid charm,” and said the author had "achieved much" in getting past his aversion to the child author. The book contains three short stories, all told with the author’s unique voice and illustrated by her.

This is the only book in this section of reviews that retains the child’s fierceness of observation.  Sambo and Susan are husband and wife, but Susan’s head is turned by a handsome white horse, with whom she goes off without a second glance.  Poor Sambo is left bereft, and Katharine Harrison-Wallace handles the emotion of the moment much better than Sarah Bowes-Lyon’s more detailed description of emotional storms, simply observing that “Whenever Sambo passed a familiar place, the tears rolled down his cheeks.”  The other two stories, an interesting hunting story in which the fox gets away and lives happily ever after, and the tale of a disobedient salmon who gets his just deserts, are equally readable.

Sambo and Susan, as is the way of these things, is revoltingly difficult to find, but it is the only one of the fictional works by these junior authors I would willingly read again


13 comments:

Christina Wilsdon said...

Oh, this was an absolutely charming post! I love the look of the last book. I bought on ebay the "riding as it is today" book you mentioned, just for fun a while back, no doubt nudged by the fact that my own newly fledged teen horsegirl writes horse yarns, as did I...I still have the 50 page epic I forced upon my English teacher (all about Diablo, who as you might guess is a Wild Black Stallion misunderstood and persecuted by Man...).

I get such a kick out of remembering, and now seeing, how girls can shoehorn horses into anything. Mine drove her elementary school teachers bonkers this way.

Now of course I am dying to read the salmon story and the other one you mention!

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Gillian said...

I love the titbits of advice from Your First Pony, especially the one about calling at the house to reassure your mother that you're not lying dead in a ditch.

Christina Wilsdon said...

LOL! I have to come back here and say thanks again for writing about this topic. It inspired me to pull out the aforementioned Diablo story I wrote as a young teen and give it to my daughter, who's home sick, to read. She chuckled over some of it (especially my grandiose flourish at the end of it, in which I put "FINIS" as if it were the conclusion of "Moby Dick") but has since spent the entire day banging away on my old typewriter upstairs, creating her own equine masterpiece. Which meant I got work done. Hip hip hooray!

Jane Badger said...

Gillian - yes, they're excellent, aren't they? Worth buying the book just for those. I wonder why it is that young author's non fiction is (generally) so much better than their fiction? Despite being a far happier churner out of non fiction than fiction myself, I don't know the answer.

Christina - LOL indeed. Have you seen the epic yet? Is it another wild horse story? My own epic I remember as being a tragic story of a Ginger-esque chestnut mare. I can't remember any of the finer details at all, but I do vividly remember the disappointment when my effort got a rather low mark, and was told that to a non horse person the whole thing might come over as a little dull!

Christina Wilsdon said...

Ha, Jane! I was actually forbidden in middle school to write about horses for the rest of the school year so I know whereof you speak.

Haven't seen the magnum opus yet. All I know is, my kid wrote 2 chapters today and I wrote 5 paragraphs. As usual, I am outstripped.

Jane Badger said...

Yup, I was forbidden the literary horse too. WHAT would I write about, I thought? What on earth else was there? At this point my teacher gave me Lord of the Rings to read, which didn't quite do the trick. Didn't then, and don't now, entirely appreciate all that Middle Earthery.

Very impressed at your daughter's work rate. She's beaten me too. I managed about 500 words, and quite a lot of that was quotations.

Sue Howes said...

I would very much like to meet my old English teacher who used to sigh at my pony stories. He wrote about my 'trifling with stories' on my final school report.
Would love to tell him that I earned part of my living from pony stories for a few years.

Jane Badger said...

One of my English teachers told me I'd do much better once I'd curbed my eccentricity. Another one berated me constantly for my laziness. I thought she was talking rubbish but she was right. I was bone idle and it took me years to realise it.

Charles Harrison-Wallace said...

Nice review of Sambo and Susan. Incidentally, it is Katharine Harrison-Wallace, not Wallace-Harrison; and a tale, not a tail!

Charles Harrison-Wallace

Jane Badger said...

Noted and corrected - thank you. Are you related to the author?

Charles Harrison-Wallace said...

Are you related to the author?

Yes, and I knew her well. She sadly died two years ago: July 2009.

FrankLT said...
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