Friday, 21 February 2014

PBOTD: 21st February, Glenda Spooner - The Silk Purse

Glenda Spooner was a formidable woman, of decided opinions, strongly expressed. Here she is writing in the preface to her The Earth Sings (1950), her second book, smacking down the critics of her first, Royal Crusader (1948):
"When I wrote Royal Crusader I was told that I had "attributed to a horse knowledge of everyday human activities that a horse could not possibly have." This was confusing, because both those horse heroes, the High Mettle Racer and Black Beauty, have an astonishing knowledge of human beings. But as the book was written in an honest endeavour to help my greatest friends - horses and ponies - I considered their case was best stated by a horse. The success of the book proves I was justified."
So there. 

The Silk Purse (1963), her last children's novel, is a warts and all description of the showing world, a world Glenda Spooner knew very well. Most of the book is a look at the showing world from the jaundiced but still affectionate point of view of the teenage heroine, Gillian, but it takes a frankly bizarre detour into fantasy half way through. I haven't yet tracked down any contemporary critical opinion of the book, or Mrs Spooner's response to it, but I will keep looking because both would be well worth reading.

Cassell, 1963, 1st edition, illus Anne Bullen
 Most of the book is horribly realistic: this is not the innocent sunny world of children’s pony showing classes seen in so many pony books. The thoroughly nasty dodges of the showing world are all displayed. Ponies who do not carry their tails properly have wintergreen applied under them; ponies overheight are shod “with ballet slippers” and the judges’ shenanigans are legion.  The showing world is full of sharks waiting to gobble the unwary, and the heroine Gillian’s mother is unwary.  The pony she buys, Tommy, will never, ever win a showing class. He is always relegated to the back line where the no-hopers stand. Gillian, however, likes him as he is.

The Silk Purse appeared as a short story
She is eventually persuaded by her mother to trade Tommy in for a thousand pound proven show pony, Perle, and it is at this point the book takes off into strange territory, oddly so for a book so grounded in reality. If you, like me, remember Bobby Ewing waking up in Dallas to find the previous series had been all a dream, the Dallas script writers weren't the first to think of it. Gillian, we think, wakes up, and spirits Tommy off on an early morning ride so he is not there when the dread horsebox arrives to take him away. She goes to a blacksmith, who transforms Tommy by magic into a staggeringly beautiful chestnut pony called The Silk Purse. This fantasy lasts for a chapter or so before returning to the normal world of showing: the blacksmith has all been a dream.  In reality, Tommy is traded in for Perle, who alas, turns out to be another pup. 

Once back in the familiar territory of the showing world, the book picks up. When on ground with which she is familiar, Glenda Spooner’s acute observation and often acerbic style make her, at her best, very readable indeed.

And if you're wondering, the author Glenda Spooner banned from the Ponies of Britain show was Caroline Akrill.

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The Silk Purse was first published by Cassell in 1953, with illustrations by Anne Bullen. It made at least two later appearances as a short story: the first as The Sow’s Ear in the Ponies of Britian Magazine, vol 3, Autumn 1960, which was edited (and in large part, written), by Glenda Spooner. Part of the story later appeared in the Horse-Lover's Leisure Book in 1968, though just the conventional showing bit. I loved the story, and was delighted to find the full length book, though slightly taken aback, as I imagine are most readers, by the fantasy section in the middle.

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For more on Glenda Spooner, she has a page on my website.

2 comments:

Val said...

Fascinating post ..just enjoyed with my mug of tea. Both interesting and entertaining :0)

janebadgerbooks said...

Thank you very much! Glenda Spooner was quite something. I would have loved to have met her, though quite what she would have made of me I shudder to think!