Pony books - did men write them?
I’m taking a bit of a detour today, having been progressing in an orderly way through the decades in my survey of the history of the pony book. Recently I’ve been thinking about male authors who write horse and pony books in Britain. This post is a quick gallop around some not yet fully formed thoughts.
The horse and pony novel in Britain today is dominated by female writers. Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse (1982), and most recently Not Bad for a Bad Lad (2010), on young offenders working with horses, and Falklands veteran Simon Weston, who has written three stories for the younger reader about a Shire horse called Nelson and his animal friends, are amongst a very small band of men writing horse books today.
Men don’t write pony books in Britain – at least not the classic child wants pony, gets one, wins prizes in the gymkhana type. In the years before Joanna Cannan wrote the book which started the girl-centric pony story, A Pony for Jean (1936), there were more male authors. I know of 38 authors writing horse stories in the 1930s: eleven are men, twenty seven women. It’s interesting that of those twenty seven women, five have names whose sex it is impossible to tell (Golden Gorse, V E Bannisdale, M E Buckingham, D Glyn Forest and C E Heanley) and one, Cecil G Trew, was a pseudonym used by C Gwendolen Ehrenborg. Was this because these women felt their work would be more easily accepted if the reader thought they might be a man? Certainly once the classic pony book started being produced in earnest, only one woman used a neutral identity: M E Atkinson, who wrote adventure stories in which ponies are, rather than classic pony books.
Male authors avoided loving descriptions of pony care and schooling; if they did touch on the subjects, they preferred to be telling other people how to do it. Captain J E Hance (Riders of Tomorrow, 1935), Antonio P Fachiri (Pamela and her Pony ‘Flash’, 1936) and B L Kearley (Let’s Go Riding, 1937) wrote books which were instruction more or less thinly sugared by a story.
Once the pony book model switched to the girl wants pony, gets pony model, men retreated. The instructional model cropped up again in the 1960s. The first of Dorian Williams’ Wendy series, Wendy Wins a Pony (1961), starts off conventionally enough with Wendy winning a pony, but Wendy doesn’t get that a charmed pony girl life. Within the first few pages, she is whisked off into the world of work. The three book series is a look at what can happen when you achieve the ultimate pony book dream; being paid to be with horses all day long. Wendy’s life isn’t straightforward. There are misunderstandings with her employers, and a strange episode where it is hinted that a male employer is interested in rather more than Wendy’s skill with a curry comb. Throughout the series, the reader is aware of the author hovering over their shoulder, pointing out the pitfalls of a horsy career.
Writing about adventure avoided having to describe equine housekeeping. Stephen Mogridge wrote a series based in the New Forest, biased more towards adventure than horses, and Joseph Chipperfield wrote stories of wild horses. Peter Grey wrote about a girl and her horse, but his Kit Hunter series was in no way domestic in scope. His heroine was a talented show jumper who had thrilling adventures all over the world. Peter Clover’s charming Sheltie series, for the younger reader, is one of the closest ateempts a man has made to write a girl plus pony story, though the series is focussed more on Emma and her pony’s adventures than riding.
Men have been responsible for the sharper ends of pony fiction. John Thorburn’s Hildebrand (1930), cursed with the ability only to eat things beginning with an “H”, which unfortunately included hens, was a world away from the noble talking ponies of Primrose Cumming’s Silver Snaffles (1937). Thelwell created the ultimate in evil ponies: Kipper. Michael Maguire wrote two manically inventive books about a robotic horse, Mylor (1976) and Mylor: the Kidnap (1978). C Northcote Parkinson’s Ponies Plot (1965) is a fantasy in which put-upon riding school ponies decide their own fate. The Ponies Plot ponies live in a riding school, and lead a dreary existence. No sooner have they taught a child to ride decently than it leaves the school when it gets a pony of its own. When the riding school is to close, the ponies decide that they will excercise their talents in finding new owners. Mayhem results.
Probably the best male author of horse stories is Vian Smith, who wrote about teenagers and horses, and the challenges of growing up. He is far better known in American than in England: American librarians were still happy to recommend horse stories to their readers in the 1960s and 1970s and Smith’s books were widely stocked by American libraries. Smith wrote about meaty topics: gang culture and the difficulties of escaping it in The Horses of Petrock (1965); disability and parental over-protectiveness in King Sam (1966). He is one of the few authors who gets under a horse’s skin as well as under its rider’s, and the only male author to write male and female characters with equal authority . My own favourite of his books is Come Down the Mountain (1967), in which awkward Brenda, the butt of the Grammar School boys’ teasing, is brave enough, and determined enough to fight against not only them, but a entire village when she decides to rescue a sick and neglected Thoroughbred horse. The horse is owned by the family, on whom most of the village depend for both a living and a home. If Brenda rocks the status quo the whole village might suffer. Vian Smith’s book is as much a depiction of a people waking up to the loosening of social shackles as it is a horse story.
As men have retreated from riding – the Pony Club’s male membership this year (2012) is around 389 out of a total of 31,395 – so they have retreated from the horse story. Michael Morpurgo’s stories are about the strength of the bond between men and horses; but these are working horses; farm horses and army horses. His human characters are on the cusp of adult life. Will there be, anytime soon, a male author who writes about the relationship between children, of whatever sex, and ponies?
If you'd like to read more of my posts on the history of the pony book, this is what's appeared so far:
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