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National Velvet

2018 October 26

* Spoiler alert - the review reveals much of the book, however I recommend that you skip the book anyway.

National Velvet, written in 1935 by Enid Bagnold, is considered a classic horse book for children. I devoured horse books as a child, but somehow never read this one. After reading it yesterday, I feel fortunate that I missed it in my younger days.

Most horse people are probably familiar with at least the book's concept, if only from the movie version. Fourteen-year-old Velvet Brown receives an outcast, piebald horse, the Pie, which she trains to race in England's Grand National steeplechase race.

But, you won't come to that until halfway through the book. The Brown family consists of Velvet's sisters: Edwina (17), Malvolia (16), Meredith (15), and her brother Donald (4). One of the sisters is preoccupied with her canary birds mating. There is lots of talk about a gold plate Velvet must wear in her mouth to correct her buck teeth. The girls are all forced to say a rushed "prayer" at each meal. "F'whatayave received thank God." In general, there's a lot of random conversation that makes no sense at all.

Mrs. Araminty Brown is described as "…an enormous woman who had once swum the channel. Now she had become muscle-bound." (elsewhere in the book she's called fat)

Mr. William Brown runs a slaughterhouse that is on the other side of the family's sitting room wall. Mi Taylor, son of the man who had trained Mrs. Brown for her swim, works in the slaughterhouse for Mr. Brown.

I've seen reviews that state Velvet prayed for a horse, however they left out who (or what) she prayed to.

Velvet, alone, saw the new moon. She bowed three times, glanced round to see that no one saw, then standing in the shadow of the stable door she put her hands like thin white arrows together and prayed to the moon—'Oh, God, give me horses, give me horses! Let me be the best rider in England!'" (p. 21)

Later in the book Velvet isn't sure she believes in God.

"Well, I'm putting you in history. See? Like my old Dan (Mi's father) put Araminty Potter. It's a foreseen thing. Like God might a thought of. Believe in God, Velvet?'"

"'Yes and no,' said Velvet. 'yes and no,' and sighed."

There's a surprising amount of profanity in the book. A sampling:

"'Blast and blast and hell…' said Mi softly. He had caught his finger in the rat-trap. 'Hell,' said Donald softly in the doorway." (p. 27) B-word twice on p. 40. God's name used in vain frequently, D-word, Hell "'Oh, Lord,' said Mally, 'oh, dear, oh, damn!'"

The unruly piebald horse is to be raffled at the fair because the horse doesn't like to be kept enclosed. He jumps over his owner's fence at night and runs through the town. Velvet and her sisters each purchase a ticket.

"He'll be meat if you get him."

(Mr. Brown's response to his daughters informing him they'd bought tickets for the Pie)

There's a mysterious scene in chapter five that I had to read several times to make sure I had understood it correctly. An elderly man (who seemed to come out of nowhere) showed Velvet his stable of five horses. He then wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to her.

"The old gentleman rose and Velvet followed him out into the sunlight of the yard. 'Take that paper,' he said to her, 'and you stay there,' and he walked from her with his coat on his arm. He blew himself to smithereens just round the corner. Velvet never went to look."

What?? The man committed suicide.

Shortly after that, Velvet's sister arrived home with the news they'd won the piebald horse in the raffle.

"'Mr. Cellini's dead,' whispered Velvet. 'Just round the corner.' Mally stood transfixed to the floor. 'They're bringing the piebald home,' she said, staring. She (Mally) could not be bothered by the death of Mr. Cellini."

Velvet first wins a race on Sir Pericles, one of the horses left to her by Mr. Cellini. Then, Velvet determines to win the Grand National with the Pie. But, the race is only open to male riders. About halfway through the book, Mi becomes the dominant character. He helps Velvet with her plan to enter the race. James Tasky is the identity Velvet will assume for the race, a Russian jockey who speaks no English.

When the two finally tell Mrs. Brown about their plans, Velvet's mother pays for the race expenses with the gold sovereigns she'd been awarded for swimming the Channel. Mrs. Brown tells Velvet she will inform Mr. Brown about the race.

"In meeting a hard, but as it turned out a brittle, opposition from her husband, Araminty rose like a sea monster from its home. After her years of silence she grunted with astonishing anger, and William, powerless and exasperated, stung like a gnat upon a knotted hide."

For the race, Mi dyes Velvet's hair white and cuts it short. James Tasky enters the changing room and sees naked male jockeys.

"'They're nak…' gasped the little man (Velvet), sitting down. 'Tscht!' muttered Mi, standing over him." "Two of their charges (other jockeys) with hard red faces and snowy bodies were standing naked by the nursery fireguard. 'Keep yer eyes on yer knees,' Mi muttered fiercely." "'Who's your lady-friend?' said one of the naked midgets, turning round to warm his other buttock."

Once the race starts, the reader sees it from Mi's perspective. The Pie wins, but Velvet faints and falls off shortly after crossing the finish line. When treated by medics, it's discovered that "he" is a girl.

I don't see anything positive to recommend about this book. On top of it all, the Grand National race, begun in 1839, has long been considered the most dangerous race in Britain. At a distance of four miles, the race contains thirty jumps.

More than fifty horses have died in the race since its beginning. The Becher's Brook jump has the highest number of deaths (14).

Becher's Brook Grand National jump

Becher's Brook is jumped twice during the race. The ground level on the side the horse approaches the jump is higher with a steep drop on the other side. The horse cannot see or prepare for that drop. After two horses died at Becher's in 1989, protests from animal rights groups resulted in modifying it. Initially, the jump had a 6' 9" drop. Its current height is 5'.

Women have competed in the Grand National since 1977 with Katie Walsh finishing the highest at third in 2012.

List of the race's fatalities on Wikipedia.

 

 

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