Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Adventure classics -- Girl, horse, steeplechase!

National Velvet

by Enid Bagnold


Some little girls play with paper dolls. But Enid Bagnold’s secret passion was a stable of paper horses, “cut from sporting magazines,” biographer Anne Sebba writes, “shut up in a box when not in use and shared by no one except, thirty-five years later, her fictional creation Velvet Brown.”

Bagnold grew up to become a writer, to marry Reuters’ media magnate Roderick Jones, and have horse-crazy children, most notably daughter Laurian. By the early 1930’s, the Jones children were eager participants in the horseback competitions known in England as gymkhanas. After Laurian won a cup on her first pony, the Joneses bought a string of horses, including a black and white spotted piebald jumper called The Pie.

Fascinated by her daughter’s enthusiasm, Bagnold began to write a book about the collaboration between a girl and her horse that would grow into her most famous novel, 1935’s National Velvet.

In it, butcher’s daughter Velvet Brown wins a piebald rogue of a jumping horse -- The Pie -- in a raffle. With the help of a retired jockey , Velvet trains the horse as a racer and masquerades as a boy to enter -- and win -- England’s Grand National steeplechase. Although an accident reveals Velvet’s charade and her win is disqualified (women would not be allowed to compete in the Grand National for another forty years), it’s hard to imagine a more perfect fantasy for a horse-loving young girl.

Appropriately, Bagnold dedicated the book to Laurian, who provided line drawings for the original edition, “much to the anguish of some future publishers,” Sebbe reports in Enid Bagnold: The Authorized Biography. Polo magazine illustrator Paul Brown would undertake drawings for the 1949 U.S. edition.

I have qualms about any biography titled “authorized,” much less one that includes the subject’s genealogy, as this does. But Sebbe’s is too much fun to miss. Among other eccentricities, Bagnold was an inveterate social climber and early proponent of Hitler. Late in life, she would give up wearing shoes, appearing barefoot for a shopping spree at posh jewelers’ Bailey, Banks & Biddle.)

Bagnold’s National Velvet was selected as a Book of the Month in England in April of the year of publication. In May, it got the same designation in the U.S.

Of course, there was a movie, and the search for a suitable actress to play Velvet was the English equivalent of the search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in the U.S. 1930’s blockbuster, Gone With the Wind. In coincidences stranger than fiction, English actress Vivien Leigh nabbed Scarlett’s part; a girl living in America -- then almost-unknown Elizabeth Taylor -- was cast as Velvet.

Although Sebbe writes that Bagnold was a stickler for authenticity, most race horses are thoroughbreds, and spotted thoroughbreds are only slightly more common than hen’s teeth. Taylor’s movie co-star was a chestnut whose nom de cine, The Pie, was explained as a nickname for “Pirate.” The 1960’s U.S. TV spin-off would change the horse’s name to “King” to get around the whole piebald issue.

Of course, I wondered -- are there actually spotted racehorses? I found, to my surprise and delight, that there are, and have been, spotted thoroughbreds for centuries. For more, info, check out “Coloured Thoroughbred Breeders Association,”

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics’ February of animal adventures does back to back horse stories with Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.)

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