Enid Bagnold

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Harriet Colby

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In no sense a fantasy, ["National Velvet"] is still the kind of book which it is best not to try to resist; it should be allowed to cast its spell with the full consent of the reader. Rightly and high-handedly allowing no room for quibbles as to whether the events described were probable, the author merely gives them a lucid actuality—saying take it or leave it, here it is. Wise readers will take it and like it….

Velvet does not walk or run; she trots or canters. Her love for horses has the huge single-minded concentration of genius, revealing itself in a passionate concern for the most minute and technical details of care and equipment. It is a fever and a dream….

So fierce a love as Velvet's demands something more substantial to feed on than daydreams and paper horses; Miss Bagnold's obliging world provides it in the shape of the wild and restless Piebald…. On the day of the raffle [for Piebald] she goes to deliver meat to the squire, and something of her consuming passion communicates itself to the tired old man. He shows her his stables, asks for paper and pencil and Velvet's signature, retires behind the corner of the barn and blows his brains out, leaving Velvet heir to five horses. Sick with excitement, she goes home to find she has won Piebald.

But this is too much, you say; this is fantastic. It is only the beginning, and as final argument against all improbability there is the author's inspired matter-of-factness and there are the Browns themselves. Here are no pallid figures of the imagination but characters so vividly alive as to give reality to whatever they experience. In the midst of lovely incongruities they persist in a humorous normality. Velvet is indeed a child of fourteen, on whom the excitement of a dream so suddenly and abundantly realized has its natural effect: she is sick. Mrs. Brown, stalwart and unsurprised handles the situation with immemorial calm. Mr. Brown pursues his patient, obscure existence, mildly asking, now and then, why a man who left five horses to a butcher's daughter couldn't have left something to keep them with.

But Velvet … has begun to have a larger dream, terrifying in its enormity. It is the Grand National, nothing less, for The Piebald, a vision of glory not for Velvet but for the horse, a fulfillment of his splendid destiny. Her efforts to realize this dream bring mystery, conspiracy, sick excitement into the story. And when the roaring dies away Velvet is just what she was before—a little girl with a horse.

"National Velvet" is no wistful story of a child's world. There is in it no false tenderness, no maudlin "understanding." Its realism is sustained, uncompromising and completely adult. Unforeseen in subject and manner, it is full of small, quick surprises—in the uneven rhythm of its prose, in the crystal, tonic freshness of its language, in its unique and irrepressible humor. Sudden and lovely, it breathes and lives in the unexpected.

Harriet Colby, "A Girl and Her Horse: A Sudden, Lovely Book," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation: reprinted by permission), April 28, 1935, p. 5.

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