Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Pony jobs for Jill...or not? Are pony books pro or anti-feminist?

As with many of my musings, this topic has been inspired by a discussion on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum. Now, I always thought that compared to other books of that era aimed at girl readers, pony books were fairly empowering. Unlike the many of the adventure books, especially those by Enid Blyton, both girl and boy characters in the majority of pony books were on a fairly equal footing. (Compare for example the escapades of the female characters in the families of the Pullein-Thompson books to the way that Dinah and Lucy-Ann in Enid Blyton's 'Adventure' series were always left to do the boring stuff by the boys, who had all the exciting adventures.) However when these independant pony-girls began to grow up and enter the job market, things seemed to change for them. One of the biggest disappointments of my pony book reading career (and that of many other similar readers) is at the end of Pony Jobs for Jill by Ruby Ferguson, when Jill is persuaded to give up her dreams of pursuing a horsy career. After a series of unappetitising horsy jobs, she almost seems to welcome the suggestion by Captain Cholly-Sawcutt that she keep her riding for a hobby and get trained for a 'proper job.'

Far more satisfying were the characters who defied their parents and convention to stick with a horsy career. We have Janet in Janet Must Ride, Rennie in Rennie Goes Riding, Fiona in Clear Round, Sarah and Ginette in Ten Week Stables, and many more.

A lot of books followed the Pony Jobs for Jill theme of the horsy job as being deadly hard-work, under-paid and disappointing: which as we all know it can be. And of course not pursuing a horsy career is not necessarily giving up the fight for equality and independence. However as another forum member pointed out, how come the non-pony choice of job always seemed so un-intellectual? The older pony books offered a selection of secretarial or domestic jobs, more recently modelling has been offered as an alternative to the horsy career. Where were the degree courses, the careers in science, law or teaching? Were these books actually saying that the pony mad girl was anti-intellectual and that horses and brains could not be combined? I am still wracking my brains for books where the heroine left the world of horses to pursue such a job.

So are pony books pro-feminism or do they conform to the old stereotype of women as intellectual inferior and fit only for motherhood or unchallenging jobs? It is sad that many authors allowed their creations only a short period of equality and freedom before
they were expected to conform, and that many were not allowed to show any intellectual capacity at all. Especially so as most of the authors of the genre were female and many were highly educated. On the whole however I think compared to other books of the 1940s-1960s era, they do come down on the side of empowering female characters. For every Jill who allows herself to be moulded into what society would like her to be, there are ten Janets and Rennies who pursue their independance despite the odds. Certainly no girl in any pony book I have ever read bemoaned the fact she was a mere girl and tried to turn herself into a psuedo-boy, as did George in the Famous Five! They may have had their problems but in general, their gender was not one of them!


PONY GIRL said...

I agree that the end of Pony Jobs For Jill was very disappointing. Well, the whole book was really. This could have been the start of a proper pony career for Jill, but I guess Ruby Ferguson didn`t want to write about a more grownup Jill. And I suppose the charm of the books was that we were seeing them from the point of view of a young girl.

Having fairly recently discovered that Ruby Ferguson also wrote adult novels, I have a theory that Jill`s Gymkhana was meant pretty much as a one-off, rather than the start of a series. But then it was so popular she was persuaded to write more. Thank goodness! I also think that towards the end she was getting somewhat fedup with them. Jill`s Pony Trek, in particular, is not written nearly so well as the earler ones. It has a `just churned out` feel to it.

Despite my screen name, I do not and have never owned a pony, much though I wanted one as a child. I am very much an armchair rider and have just been vicariously enjoying jumping the cross-country course at the Burghley Trials.

Claire said...

It wasn't only that it was disappointing, it didn't even seem well thought out. If we compare the end of Caroline Akrill's Eventing trilogy where the heroine Elaine has similar doubts as to whether to pursue a horsy career or not, we are made to understand that Elaine is questioning the reasons she wanted an equine career in the first place, and whether those reasons were really valid. Jill, however, seems to give up her dreams just because someone tells her its more sendible to do so. It just does not seem realistic at all, and so is not only a disappointment in terms of the female role model figure of Jill letting us down, but also in terms of the quality of the plot.

PONY GIRL said...

Interesting to compare Jill to Elaine. I only managed to read halfway through the Eventing Trilogy, but I shall definitely have another go at it.

I think that the most annoying thing about Captain Cholly-Sawcutt telling Jill to find a `proper job` and give up `playing with ponies` is that in Jill Enjoys Her Ponies ( I think ) he told Mrs Darcy ( overheard by Ann ) that anything less than a pony career for Jill would be criminal. Ruby Ferguson seems to have forgotten that!

Strangely enough, I have recently reread Pony Jobs For Jill and really enjoyed it. Apart from the ending, obviously. Perhaps the reason that RF made it full of quirky, comic jobs was because Jill had already done most horsey things in the previous books. She helped to run Mrs Darcy`s Riding Stables twice. And even ran her own Stables.

I think Pony Jobs could still have worked if only the Captain had said that Jill must stop playing with odd little jobs and start her horsey career seriously. If he could not offer her a job himself, with his wealth of connections, he could have given her some contacts.
This would have been a much more satisfactory conclusion to a great series.

Claire said...

Yes that ending would have worked really well. I can't help thinking that perhaps Ms. Ferguson was reacting to the dreaded heavy hand of the publisher. Could it be that they felt that this was a message they should be giving out to the young female readers? It would certainly not be the first time, books (especially children's books) have been shaped by editorial rather than authorial input.