Saturday, 31 May 2014

PBOTD 31st May: Primrose Cumming - Silver Snaffles

Writing at the dawn of the pony book, Primrose Cumming was lucky. Publishers were not obsessed with series, and were prepared to allow Primrose to experiment with writing pony books that, by the end of her career, included most variations of the genre. Her first three books shot off in completely different directions. Doney (1934) was an experiment with the horse-telling-its story format, and Spider Dog (1936) an adventure more doggy than pony. With her third book, Silver Snaffles (1937), she made a leap into fantasy to produce the ultimate dream-come-true pony story. It is still in print, and has been loved by generations. Before Silver Snaffles, many horses and ponies had told their own stories, but here ponies talk to children directly, though only in a fantastic riding school reached by saying the password “Silver Snaffles”.

Blackie, 1937, 1st edn, illus Stanley Lloyd
Only children who do not have their own ponies can enter this magical world; this “Extraordinary Riding School, ... absolutely different from an ordinary one.” Ponies teach the children. The only pupils allowed are those who have no pony - one of the major attractions of the book. It was for the unfortunate many, not the favoured few, that this world existed; the many, many pony mad children who read pony books but would never have a horse of their own; and who would be lucky if they even had a riding lesson.

Blackie, 1960s, hb
Heroine Jenny has no pony, but spends every spare minute talking to Tattles, who pulls Mr Pymmington’s carrier cart. Tattles is past his best; he is elderly and his hard life has left its mark on him – “his backbone sagged with old age like a chair that has been too much sat in”. Jenny’s father can’t afford riding lessons for her, and if he could, the local riding school is run by Mr Kelley, who has a red face and shouts, and whose ponies are thin and tired-looking. Jenny pours all this out to Tattles:

“...I must ride, soon, Tattles, I must!”
Jenny’s last words rang out in the little stable. When they had died away the stable seemed very quiet for a while.
“Through the Dark Corner, and the password is Silver Snaffles.”
The words had come from Tattles. Jenny stared at him, her surprise making her sit bolt upright on the uncomfortable edge of the manger. Tattles had opened his eyes, but there was a far-away look about them as if he were dreaming. Jenny would have been frightened anywhere else, but you could not feel frightened in Tattles’ stable with Tattles.”

And so Jenny enters the Extraordinary Riding School. It is not a world that is sugar-sweet. Primrose Cumming’s ponies do not exist in a dream world of unfeasible goodness, where every pony thinks only noble thoughts. Cock Robin, Tattles, Dragon and their comrades are distinctly tart at times: they have little time for human stupidity, as Jenny soon finds out. She learns exactly why she should start to think of things from the pony’s point of view and not just her own. Anyone who has learned to ride must have wondered quite what the horse thinks of them: every child must long for the ponies they love to talk to them. In Silver Snaffles, in simple and direct style, they do.

Knight, 1976, abridged
The Hunt is the end of Jenny’s experiences in the world beyond the Dark Corner. She is to have a pony of her own (her father, previously too poor to afford riding lessons, having presumably found money from somewhere), and so can no longer come through the Dark Corner: “it wouldn’t be quite fair to the people who haven’t ponies.”
Fidra, 2007, full text
Were ponies to teach one to ride, it is easy to believe it would happen exactly as Primrose Cumming describes it. As with so many horse stories previously, she does have her points to make: ponies should be treated properly and their feelings considered; an obsession with the car is not healthy. This pill is well-sugared in those parts of the book set in the Extraordinary Riding School and the real world; rather less so in the car-mad land beyond the Lilac Mist, but the enchantment of the speaking ponies, the appeal to the pony-less child, and the wryly observed characterisation of both ponies and people have created a book which will remain iconic.

The text of this piece originally appeared in my book, Heroines on Horseback.

~  0  ~

More on Primrose Cumming









No comments: