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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 112-122
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The Dark Horse:
Ruby Ferguson and The Jill Pony Stories
Ruby Ferguson, whose Jill pony stories were published between 1949 and 1962, attracts few accolades. She rarely appears in directories of British children's authors and is largely ignored by texts that discuss the children's literature of the postwar years, despite the fact that many of her Jill titles were, until recently, in print. Like the pony story genre that has "...been relegated firmly to the sidelines" (Haymonds 360), Ferguson appears to have been all but dismissed. However, while the Jill series seemingly typifies a genre that is frequently deemed idealistic, "...cater[ing] for those typical fantasies of perfect friendship with an idealised companion" (Tucker 161), to categorize the Jill books purely in this way is to disregard their individuality and simultaneously overlook their potential realism. Located within a "...rural Arcadia" (Tucker 162) and featuring a young protagonist who succeeds in a number of equine endeavours, the stories are manifestly wish-fulfilment fantasies, yet a latent interpretation of Ferguson's work reveals it as subtly subversive. The Jill stories can be perceived not merely as stories of "...poor-pony-girl-makes-good" (Cadogan and Craig, You're A Brick, Angela! 354), but as a social critique of postwar Britain that explores concepts of girlhood, exposes the potency of gender ideology and ultimately invites redefinition of the female role. Moreover, in presenting Jill as an author who clearly disdains idealized images of the child, particularly those of her writer mother, Ferguson reappraises the role of the postwar children's author and asserts a style of literature grounded not in adult constructs of childhood, but in the experiences of the child herself.
It is, perhaps, Jill's abhorrence of sentimentalized images of childhood that clearly identifies Ferguson as a postwar writer and aligns her with those who sought a revised society in the wake of global conflict. The climate of the late 1940s was one of eagerly awaited change and [End Page 112] improvement, particularly for women, and although Jill's debut in Jill'sGymkhana (1949) predates the teenage culture that emerged fully in "...the turbulent world of the1960s" (Townsend 171), Ferguson's protagonist is patently an embryonic teenager of the postwar period. It was after the Second World War that "...children and adolescents began to demand a voice in the organisation of their future" (Cadogan and Craig, Women 293), and Jill frequently strives to do so, although, as an adolescent, she typically lacks assertiveness: "I had made up a speech about the three things I wanted to do...being [a Master of Foxhounds] and [a Member of Parliament]...but when I came to the point all I could get out was 'I want to run an orphanage,'" she confesses in Jill has Two Ponies (142), published in 1952. As a child of the 1940s, 1 Jill is still influenced by Victorian notions of the feminine ideal although she bears little resemblance to her nineteenth-century counterparts. At the end of the 1800s, "...children in children's books were for the most part beautiful, innocent and the source of every kind of salvation" (Reynolds 35), but Jill is fully aware that she is flawed: in Jill Enjoys her Ponies (1954) she comments, "Don't get the idea that I am a Noble Character, in fact if you have read my other books you will already be saying 'Far From It'" (44). Jill is the fledgling "new" girl of postwar Britain. She has yet to establish an audible voice but she is nevertheless poised to sever connections with her mild-mannered Victorian equivalents
While Ferguson's Jill may represent a departure from the mild, angelic heroine of the Victorian age, she is also considerably distanced from her prewar predecessor. Although Ferguson forbears to acknowledge Joanna Cannan's A Pony for Jean (1936), the similarity of plot clearly identifies Jill's Gymkhana as a response to Cannan's pony story prototype 2 and as such implicitly draws a...