Jill’s Gymkhana. Of course!

Harry Kennedy (Richard Armitage) welcomes two odd visitors into his cottage in Vicar of Dibley: The Handsome Stranger. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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At Geri and Harry’s first meeting, they discuss their favorite books, and Harry Kennedy makes an ironic (I assume) remark to agree with Alice about Jill’s Gymkhana (1949) being one of his favorites.

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.

~ by Servetus on July 26, 2012.

34 Responses to “Jill’s Gymkhana. Of course!”

  1. Loved books of these genres. Growing up in Canada when childrens’ Brit Lit was widely available – girl and pony, Girl Guides adventures, girls’ boarding-school and ballet school stuff (and of course, the Famous Five), I devoured them. All now hopelessly outdated – yes, some racism, but very redolent of the post-war (also inter-war) somewhat impossibly ideal periods. Slices of history…sort of.

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    • the racist moment in this book is apparently the name of the horse: “Black Boy,” which was changed to “Danny Boy” in some editions. That wasn’t completely obvious to me, but racism in the US is different than in the UK, I’m sure.

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    • In a moment of nostalgia, I googled Jill’s Gymnkhana. I had no idea how many 50-something year olds were out there sharing the experience. I also read all the Silver Brumby books and loved them. Thowra was my soul mate and had I not found a human alternative I would have lived happily with him for ever, I now live with my human substitute of 33 years, my equivalent of Black Boy and Rapide, aka Rupert and Henry and a gaggle of assorted animals. I have to confess to using the word ‘jolly’ jolly frequently, and there’s nothing I like better than “lashings of ginger beer”

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      • thanks for the comment, Helen, and welcome. Wow, “lashings.” I do like ginger beer. Glad you enjoyed the post (and somewhat astounded that Googling the title of the book brought you here).

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  2. Alice from Dibley – “On Beauty” Well Geraldine, the title says it all – Black Beauty…

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  3. I read those books when I was a child in the 70s! I loved all those British Pony stories. The Pullein-Thompson sisters books were the other favourites. Wizard and Jolly are so very England-of-that-era aren’t they.

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    • Thanks for the comment and welcome, fionats. I ran across a lot of references to Pullen-Thompson while writing this post, indeed!

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      • There were three Pullein-Thompson sisters, who all wrote, so if you were pony-mad, as I was, and a bookworm, there was lots of material to choose from! (I remember Christine Pullein-Thompson being the “jolliest” of the three – would you agree @ fionats? Diana and Josephine P-T I remember as being a bit gloomy – but it is a very long time ago…)

        Have you come across the “Brumby” novels of Elyne Mitchell? Wonderful Australian novels for children about wild horses; I know they have travelled well because my daughter enjoyed them in the last couple of years as much as I did in the early 70s.

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        • my nieces are entering that stage now — but they have a horse at home, so it will be interesting to see if they get as excited about these sorts of books.

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  4. I never read any books about horses when I was young, although I did grow up around them — rode them, fell off them (even under them) and always got right back on them. Now they just scare me. But I did read books about girls spending their summers at the lake. And what you wrote the other day about the Great Lakes region reminded me of those books. I always envied those girls who got to spend their summers at the lake where it was always cool. Nothing like my summers where it was always hot and sticky –riding horses that were half wild.

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    • I don’t think we ever spent a whole summer at the lake, but certainly weeks, fortnights, weekends. And yes, it was cool and breezy. I loved it.

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    • sloan, why is it that horses scare you now but didn’t before?

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      • My dad bought a lot of horses when I was young and being tamed/trained wasn’t necessarily a requirement. And the older I got the more afraid I was to ride those wild a— horses. I guess it has to do with being less fearful when you’re young. Horses just make me nervous now because I’m always expecting them to haul off and bite, kick or step on me. We didn’t have many gentle horses. But I still romanticize horses and love to see RA riding…very sexy. And I like watching movies with really great riding scenes like The Man from Snowy River. I went to see Brave recently and there’s a great riding scene in that movie too, actually a great horse in that movie. Your nieces might like Brave if they haven’t already seen it. I loved it.

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        • Brave is also very pro-girl. Nary a Prince or Knight in Shining Armor in sight. Not that I’m against princes or knights in shining armor — it’s just good to see a movie where the heroine is completely independent.

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          • unfortunately there’s a discussion going on about whether Merida is an appropriate role model for girls — because since there’s no man in her story she might be gay. I’d like to take the nieces but fear bro / SIL will disapprove.

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            • Well, that’s a shame. I thought it was a great lesson for girls because to me it was more about being self reliant and allowed to make your own choices and the fact that there was no man was to emphasize her independence. I think it’s strange that people interpret no man/woman in your life to mean you have a certain sexual orientation. But people have assumed the same thing about me for the same reason, so I’m not surprised.

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              • we seem to be living in one of those cultural moments when people are extremely sensitive to issues of sexual orientation. I personally don’t think we need to be signaling anything to little girls about their sexual preferences. But obviously people are worried about it (sigh)…

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        • he is especially sexy when he’s riding as Guy — though i wonder how Thorin is going to come across. 🙂

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  5. As a child, I dreamt of horses as if they were old friends, but I was never “horse-mad.” The books didn’t have that much appeal. Yet I still think of my first mount with great affection and fondness. He was so strong, so gentle; he looked after me and knew what I wanted before I did. (What a man … uh, horse.)

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  6. 😀 You were so lucky Leigh!……I was so bruised…..naughty, naughty pony!.;)

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  7. Hi Serv,
    Thanks for the info about this book. I’ve long wondered if it was a real book or made up for the Dibley show.

    One thing I loved about these types of “teen girl books to read” was that they usually placed the female teen character in the center of the action. And although, she might have some angst and growing pains to endure, she eventually became the agent of her own change. So for me, Nancy Drew and other books were very empowering for me as a young girl.
    Cheers! Grati ;->

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    • with Nancy Drew, the books were really heavily rewritten for different editions. The original books, written toward the beginning of the twentieth century, emphasized Nancy’s agency very heavily. She plans and executes mostly on her own or with Bess and George, with Hannah Gruen and Ned Nickerson only making occasional interventions. As the twentieth century wore on, the character was “weakened” and made less independent.

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  8. I seem to recall that the Nancy books also had a succession of writers? Or was that the Hardy Boys? For some reason, Blyton’s Famous Five remain with me. Adults were invisible, magically providing ginger beer, and apparently having no worries about the children being out all day in nature, unsupervised. The stronger characters were Julian, the eldest and George (Georgina) the tomboy. George is a not unusual female character of the 1920’s/30s – I suppose a cultural construction. George had to be a tomboy wishing she were a boy…Anne was the domestic, stereotype of femininity (boring). And I suppose Dick was just too young to be memorable. Anyway, the series was an enjoyable read for a pre-teen. 😀

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    • yes, they did — it depends a bit on the rights situation, who owns the rights to the mss. and the characters. A lot of US teen fiction was actually written by ghost writers — the character was owned by the press who published the books. There was no Carolyn Keene (the “author” of Nancy Drew) — it was originally written for $125/book by a series of ghostwriters who did it as contract work and surrendered their copyrights.

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    • I was just reading about this on the web. Apparently Blyton’s books have also been edited in reprints to update their racial attitudes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_blyton#Dated_attitudes_and_altered_reprints

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  9. Am I the only one who googled the book on watching that episode of VOD? Snap! Servetus, now I’m waiting for an extensive post on “The Mole who knew it was none of it’s Business”. 🙂 That’ll be an interesting read!

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    • I actually had already read that one — it was popular in Germany in the mid-1990s. I think I gave it to a friend as a birthday present. 🙂

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  10. […] not too bothered (yet) what Richard is recording, be it Hamlet or Jill’s Gymkhana but I have a feeling Shakespeare is going to be our homeboy from now […]

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  11. […] Alice’s favorite book? It was a tossup between Jill’s Gymkhana (which I wrote about here) and Werner Holzwarth’s The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business […]

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  12. […] our discussion of Jill’s Gymkhana (Alice’s favorite book in Vicar of Dibley)? On the significance of horse […]

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  13. […] For more about this important literary work, check out my post here. Wonder if he’s read […]

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