Sep 10, 2009

"National Velvet"

by Enid Bagnold

This is a story set in a small English village in the 1920's. Its protagonist is a teenage girl named Velvet, the local butcher's daughter. Although her father does well, she has lots of siblings, so there isn't enough money to indulge in her dreams- owning a horse. But when a horse considered a local nuisance- a black and white piebald with one blue eye who is constantly jumping fences and running about the streets- gets puts up for a raffle, Velvet wins. In another stroke of unexpected luck, an elderly gentleman becomes aware of her love for horses, and leaves her five ponies in his will. Now Velvet is the sudden owner of six horses. She and her sisters ride the ponies in small local gymkhanas, with various success. Then, inspired by a comment of her father's assistant who is an ex-jockey, Velvet gets the idea to train and enter the piebald in the most difficult and competitive equestrian event in the country- the Grand National steeplechase. There are several problems to overcome: her horse is wild and untrained, she's too young to enter the race, and at the time only men were allowed to participate, as it was considered too dangerous for female riders. Velvet is determined, though, and won't let any of these things stop her from pursuing her dream.

National Velvet is one of those books I almost missed falling in love with. It sat on my shelf for five or six years, and twice I tried reading it, giving up within the first twenty pages, finding it dull. But I think it just takes the right mindset and appreciation, for the third time I picked it up I fell in love with the story. It's not just about a girl who loves horses, it's also a story about growing up, about living in a large family, about life in a small coastal English village. Velvet's family is full of interesting characters and family dynamics. The sisters squabbling, keeping secrets, banding together against outsiders (or their parents). The obstinate little brother who makes the funniest remarks, so like any toddler with his fits of tears and fury. The solemn authority of their mother- who once won a medal for swimming the English channel but obscures her former glory in bustling housework. The at-first mysterious figure of Mi, the butcher's assistant, who doesn't speak of his past until the sudden influx of horses into the butcher's field can't help revealing his interest and knowledge of them. And besides her involvement with horses, Velvet has other trials- she's prone to fits of nerves and anxiety, she has to wear a gold bar wedged between her teeth to correct something (I had braces for six years, how I could relate!).

This is a wonderful book, and I wish I could find more reviews to point you to. Most of the ones I came across online were of various film adaptations, which changed the story somewhat- making Velvet an orphan, making the piebald her only horse, or a beautiful well-bred horse instead of the awkward unruly creature he was (potential hidden in an unlikely form!)

Rating: 4/5 ........ 288 pages, 1935

More opinions at:
Puss Reboots
The Brick Post
anyone else?


bermudaonion said...

I always avoided this book because I thought it was all about horses. You've made me rethink reading it. By the way, I knew someone named Velvet when I was growing up - she was named after the character in this book.

Anonymous said...

I've read this before! A long time ago, when I, too, was obsessed about horses and bonding with animals. What a nice memory you have stirred up about this little story.


Jeane said...

Bermudaonion- when I first read the book, I remember thinking Velvet was such an odd name. For the longest time I searched through the book for a hint if it was a nickname. Nope. How funny that you knew someone named Velvet after this character!

Alwaysdream- It's nice to refresh someone's memory about good books. I have a worn copy on my shelf so I was able to thumb through it and passages jumping out reminded me of many things in the story.

Jenny said...

See, this is one of the things I completely missed out on by never going through a horse phase in my youth. I had the opposite - I read Black Beauty and I was all, HORSE STORIES ARE DEPRESSING, which launched me solidly into my anti-horse phase.

But this sounds really good actually!

TheBlackSheep said...

You've made me want to read this now. I'd always avoided horse stories because they're usually sad and I just couldn't deal with all the pain of watching horses suffer, so this one went unread. You might have changed that.

Jeane said...

Jenny- I think I might have got that sentiment if my first introduction to horse stories was Black Beauty, too.

BlackSheep- You will be glad to know that I can't recall a single instance of animal suffering in this book! Not sure that there aren't any. But none that loomed in my mind.

Bybee said...

I started this when I was a kid, but had some trouble with the dialect. Maybe I'll try it again.

Jeane said...

Bybee- that was my first trouble, too. It's written more the way people actually talk, with awkward pauses and clipped off words, than smooth sentences I'm used to reading. Takes a bit of adjustment, but it's worth the effort (IMHO).

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

A wonderful book! And a rare well-made book-into-movie, as well.

SFP said...

I loved this book when I was a kid and I should reread it since I still have my copy.

It's weird the random details called to mind when I think about it--I remember Velvet's little brother found a worm in his cabbage at supper one night. I certainly haven't needed that memory for 40 odd years!

Jeane said...

That's funny, I don't remember the worm in the cabbage scene. But I recall one where he kept questioning on and on in circles stuff about why an ant had died that he'd stepped on or something.