Jill’s Gymkhana. Of course!
[This post is was sponsored by the nice ladies at VBS who took one look at me this morning and said, go back home and get some rest. I signed up to do my volunteer day so my nieces could attend; their charity once again overwhelms me.]
Harry Kennedy (Richard Armitage) welcomes two odd visitors into his cottage in Vicar of Dibley: The Handsome Stranger. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Book synopsis, from the 1980 edition: “Jill’s dream is to have a pony of her own, but the nearest she gets to this is feeding the piebald pony in the nearby paddock. When Farmer Clay, Black Boy’s owner tells her she can have him for twenty-five pounds she knows it’s still an impossible dream. Out of the blue, Jill’s mother has a windfall and the dream does come true. Having become the proud owner of a pony of her own Jill still has to find a way to earning money for his upkeep, and improving her riding, particularly as the gymkhana gets nearer.”
What a cliffhanger! She does get to go to the gymkhana (I put this link here because I didn’t know what the word meant, so don’t feel alone if you didn’t, either). So I won’t tell you how it works out for her, although I will comment that on the whole, this story doesn’t rely much on drama to maintain the reader’s attention.
I’d been curious about this title for awhile, but it’s not the kind of book you find in the average U.S. academic library, and I didn’t want to pay for it. It wasn’t in our public library. I’m a member of paperbackswap.com, however, so I put myself in the queue for it, and finally a few weeks ago someone mailed it to me. (I’ve had really great experiences with this service, incidentally– there’s nothing I’ve wanted that hasn’t come to me eventually in decent shape.)
Many little girls love pony books, which according to wikipedia began to appear in the 1920s and supposedly treat the desire for friendship with an idealized companion. It’s a reading phase that appears in about second or third grade and ends by fourth or fifth. I confess that I myself was not much into these. I read Black Beauty (1877) and Misty of Chincoteague (1947), because as classics of children’s literature, they guarded the shelves of our school library, and along with several others less memorable that I can no longer recall, but I didn’t long for a pony. My uncle still had horses when I was a girl, and if I had wanted to ride, I could have done so almost any weekend. I saw horses as big, sweaty, smelly, frightening animals — much more unpredictable than cows — and not as potential friends.
I am certain, of course, and particularly after reading this book, that this was entirely my loss and that horses are great friends. One thing that I do remember about the pony books I did read in my childhood, however, is how focused they were on manners and kindness. Treating the horse the way it had to be treated was a sort of microcosm for developing a personal moral code and using it to deal with the world, and this may be why so many of them have been written in particular for that age group.
Jill’s Gymkhana is no different in that regard. I read a ton of moralizing children’s literature as a child, but I found this book at times deafeningly so. There’s a certain irony to this stance, as criticism of the books says that they were less moralizing and sweet than most children’s literature of the time (supposedly Ruby Ferguson is thumbing her nose at Enid Blyton when the heroine, Jill Crewe, makes fun of her mother’s children’s books), because Jill repeatedly confesses her faults to the reader and insists that her story is not a stuffy one. But this text is full of all kind of moral statements:
Of course you can do it, you can do anything if you’re patient and obedient and willing to learn and don’t get the idea that you’re marvellous as soon as you can make a pony obey your aids (p. 26).
… all sensible people know that really messy manual labour is one of the jolliest things in the world, when you are dressed for it and it doesn’t matter how filthy you get (57).
I jolly well had to make myself stick it, but my pride was such that I wouldn’t slacken off, and after about the first fortnight I got my second wind and felt as though I could go on for ever. I did enjoy the work, and i learned stable practice as it should be learned and how to do things for horses in the professional way. It made me much quicker and defter with my hands. I also picked up lots of new ideas about equitation and schooling. And the money each Saturday came in jolly useful too (pp. 117-118).
I knew that I’d had a lot of luck and that this was the sort of day which only comes to a person once in a lifetime. And I have written this book to show what a quite ordinary person can do with a quite ordinary pony, if he or she really cares about riding (157).
To me, this book read very much like a product of the place and time where it was written — the immediate postwar in Britain, with some rationing still in effect and the need for everyone to pull together to repair the things that have been lost. The person who teaches the clueless enthusiast Jill about her pony and how to ride him is a paralyzed RAF veteran, Martin Lowe, who describes himself with (stereotypical?) British understatement as having been “careless enough to fall out of a plane” (p. 24), so that he can no longer ride himself. The story tells us not only that Jill feels no self-consciousness about Lowe’s wheelchair, but also that Lowe shies away from the pity and sympathy of former friends and only really feels comfortable in the company of people who didn’t know him before his injury. Another signal of the war in the immediate past of the book is Jill’s father, who died on a business trip to West Africa. Though he’s not a casualty of the war itself, his absence potentially stands in for the generation of Britons who lost family members during the conflict.
A final sense in which the book reads like a relic of the immediate postwar is the sense in which equestrianship functions to establish and re-establish new social patterns. Jill’s ability to mix with the horsy set — and her mother’s nervousness about incurring obligations to the better situated Lowes — stands in a bit for the uncertainty about changing class relations (although it’s more complex than that). The negotiation of class issues comes very much to the fore, with an emphasis in the book that although riding is an expensive hobby, success at it stems from the virtue and industry of the rider rather than from her access to expensive horses or equipment. Susan Pyke, Jill’s bête noire, struggles at some gymkhanas despite her father’s purchase of ever more impressive animals to improve her chances; in the end, Jill’s accomplishments are attributed to her ability to learn, practice, and get along well with others. Jill (almost) never pities herself for her relative lack of resources; instead, she’s all about thinking of ways to earn money to equip herself and her pony approprimately, even as the story forces her — repeatedly — to embrace the idea that money isn’t everything.
Jill’s Gymkhana is a very short read, and there are eight further books in the series, although all are not currently in print, and thus may be harder to obtain outside of the UK. If you like pony / horse stories, or did as a child, this series should be on your list. Be aware that the books have changed slightly in different editions, and like much twentieth-century children’s serial fiction, the editions of the 1980s were updated to increase accessibility of the narrative to later generations and to excise potentially objectionable matters like cigarette smoking and casual racism. The edition I read gets plus points for keeping the original slang: when Jill really likes something, she and her friends say it’s “wizard.”
I’m going to try to teach my nieces to say that and see if I can replant the slang, here. I think “jolly” is probably a lost cause, though.