Mary Gervaise

There were bits of my book which ended up on the cutting room floor, and some of them I was quite fond of.  Mary Gervaise was one author whose section was cut quite considerably. Anyone read pony books in the 1970s will remember the Armada paperbacks of her Georgia series, with photographic covers, and rather alarming bright blue spines.

These photographic covers, with their casual, Seventies children, were a world away from those depicted in the books. Georgia, Susan and Gerry seem irredeemably lodged in a version of the 1950s where women don't work, the family is central, and everything always does seem to work out. Other pony stories written at the same time, like Ruby Ferguson's Jill books, don't seem as firmly lodged in time and place. Ruby Ferguson, whatever her real opinion on careers for girls, always left you with the sense that Jill was going somewhere. Georgia, although a decent enough character, was forever stuck in early teenagerhood. When I read the books, only 20 years after they were written, they already seemed part of a fantasy world, albeit an attractive one.

The Mary Gervaise books were never amongst my favourites: I always felt there wasn't quite enough pony, though I did enjoy the Kane family, as I think I was supposed to. The family is the nurturing centre of the books: always accepting, always kind, it's an idyll for the dispossessed. Looking back at the series now, I think that Mary Gervaise was far happier portraying families than she was ponies. For her, as I suspect for other authors, ponies were something she included to keep her books being published. She started off her writing career as a school story author, and a pretty prolific one, with a liking for a florid first name: Nepeta's First Term (1936) and Tiger's First Term (1928) are just two.

In the 1950s, she started writing the G for Georgia series. Heroine Georgia is worried and upset by life generally in A Pony of Your Own (1950), but one of her major fears is horses. She manages to overcome her fears enough to help a man and horse who have an accident outside her house, but the experience isn't a turning point for her: she doesn't suddenly develop a love of horses and charge off to the gymkhana. Georgia’s family are well aware of how badly her life is affected by her fears, and decide to send her off to The Grange, a new small school where pupils ride as well as learn. Georgia is appalled by the thought, and at first, almost sinks.

“Miss Primrose smiled and sighed at the same time. This girl baffled her. Georgie was terrified of horses, yet she had gone to the rescue that frosty night and had probably saved Firefly’s life...Matron had told Miss Primrose privately that Georgie came in for a good deal of ill-natured teasing from Barbara and her friends, and the headmistress was sorry to hear that this difficult girl was quite unable to stand up for herself.”

But slowly, with the occasional prompting of friends and staff, Georgia grows in self confidence. It's not a straightforward process, and much of the interest in the first book comes from wondering whether she will manage to overcome her fears. However, in true school (and pony) story tradition, she does - fortunately, as it would have been tricky to have sustained a long pony book series where the heroine was too scared to go near a pony.  

Once Georgia has joined the majority in the school who ride, that left a gap for an author who liked an outsider. They crop up in her school stories, and in her other pony series. Georgia is an outsider because she does not share the other girls’ enthusiasms, but other characters suffer because they don't have the happy family life Georgia does. Susan Walker, Georgia’s great friend, rarely sees her parents, who work abroad, and lives with an academic uncle. Georgia’s cousin Gerry lives with the Kane family as her own family are in Singapore, and seem to want little to do with her. Both girls find a harbour (even if they do not like it much at times) with the Kane family.

Fellow pupil at The Grange, Patience, was brought up in a loving but constricted atmosphere with a guardian whose ideas of child rearing would have been perfectly acceptable to the Victorians (Ponies and Holidays, 1950). When Patience arrives at the Grange she says: “We’ve led a very quiet life, and I’m afraid I shall find this youthful atmosphere extremely trying at first.” She does. Poor Patience, hauled out of the last century and thrown into this:

“A strange house is horrid, just at first,” said Georgie, very sorry for her. “I know what you feel like—“
“You don’t.” Patience spoke in a desperate little whisper, quite unlike her usually sedate tones.”No one can possibly know. You see, I’ve never been inside a real home before, let alone stayed in one... It makes me feel—odd.”

Outsiders crop up in Mary Gervaise's other pony stories too.  Perhaps the best of them is Belinda. Belinda is a pony book character you either love or loathe. There is something of the Fotherington Thomas about her: when reading the books, you do rather expect her to dance off singing "Hello sky! Hello trees!", but I like her despite this. She is portrayed right from the off in the first book, A Pony for Belinda (1959) as an outsider and oddity: she is going through agonies at a tea party. The other children are dressed in jeans: she's in a frilly dress. They go to school: she is educated by her grandmother and the Vicar. They are easy in each other's company: she sees almost nothing of other children and sees no reason why she should. Then Belinda, that stiff little person, is thrown into a modern family. It does not go well.

Mary Gervaise benefited hugely from the popularity of pony books. Without her Georgia series, she would probably have faded from view in the 1950s, remembered for her school stories. In a period when Collins were keen to reprint anything with a pony in it in order to shore up their Armada paperback imprint, she was lucky.

Mary Gervaise's books in full and glorious colour on my website

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My book, Heroines on Horseback, is out in April/May 2013.
Pre-order from me - if you'd like the book signed, please add this in the Special Instructions section
Pre-order a copy from Waterstones


Anonymous said…
Really interesting. Are there more bits like this?
I like the litmus test of "not enough pony." I remember feeling cheated as a kid by books that advertised themselves as horse books but didn't really have enough pony in them. Though as you note, a really great set of human characters could often win the reader's forgiveness.

(Our local library helpfully stuck horse-head-shaped stickers on the spines of all the horse-themed books on the shelves--I recall that as a particularly lovely touch of that branch.)

That "Pony From the Farm" cover creeps me out. Like something from a surreal subtitled film that everyone else in the theater fathoms but I don't.
Jane Badger said…
Anon - yes, there are. I just need to work them up into pieces!

Chrstina, yes, this is the series from my childhood which really challenged the pony litmus paper. I know what you mean about the Pony from the Farm cover. You feel that in the next instant, the picture is going to swing wildly out of focus, and then something very, very nasty is going to happen.

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