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More than the National
on 24 June 2013
National Velvet is a book about those who dream; and for those who dream "great, galloping passion(s)" as one critic has described it. Many people will be able to relate to young Velvet Brown, a dreamer of a child who wears braces on her teeth. She cuts pictures of racehorses from newspapers to create her own stable of imaginary horses. Her creative mind makes them live for her - and the reader - as she holds them in front of her as she gallops along the Downs, and polishes them until their paper bodies take on the sheen of real horse coats. The reality is that she lives in an ordinary, working family whose members have nevertheless dared to dream big, passionate dreams. The author is able to play with, and blend, reality and fantasy in a truly magical way to make the so called "ordinary" quite extraordinary. The curious coincidences in the book - Velvet dreaming so hard to get a horse that she ends up with several, for instance - are simply what happens if people have big enough dreams, if they believe in them totally and devote themselves to their quest. That's one of the messages of the book. But dreamers need people who are grounded in reality; and It's Mi, the former stable lad, who provides the practical knowledge to support Velvet in her aim to ride in Britain's most famous race, the Grand National.
Reading Enid Bagnold's work makes connections with other authors. I've always found the book reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, with its odd yet functioning family. Velvet's mother, like Gertrude Groan, looms monstrously but lovingly in the background. In the place of Gertrude's cats and birds, we have Velvet's sister and her canaries: the little birds are kept in cages and represent the dreams of the family at night in a way that reminds me of Under Milk Wood. Mrs Brown, having achieved her own personal moment of fame as a cross Channel swimmer in her youth, has given up her own dreams to have children and grown fat in the process; she warns her tiny daughter, whose hands on the reins are like "piano wires", to never get fat. Donald, the son of the family, is a strange but totally believable little boy. Their father is a butcher, his character more indistinctly expressed than those of the rest of the family, and so he is more remote to the reader; but clearly he is a provider and carer for his children, a stable point that enables the family to function and dream. Even Miss Ada, the strong-willed pony, is part of the family dynamics.
The book is really about the manifestation of dreams, how dreams are made into reality. It's a book that set the standard for hundreds of inferior examples to miss; but some genre writers, inspired and enthralled by the sheer audacity of Bagnold's theme, have risen to the challenge. The other thing that occurred to me when I re-read it recently is that it's very British, it's very working class (despite, or perhaps because of, Bagnold's wealthy background) and it could be usefully categorised amongst the working class social novels which flourished from the 1920s to the 1960s. The life it presents can be grotesque and appealing at the same time. Its significance may have faded as women have set and achieved more and more goals in every area of life; but if you put it into its historical context, the reason for the book's lasting fame becomes clearer.