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.”
“[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