Mistress of the children's pony story
Wednesday 07 December 2005
Christine Pullein-Thompson, children's writer: born London 1 October 1925; married 1946 Julian Popescu (two sons, two daughters); died Norwich 2 December 2005.
Christine Pullein-Thompson, together with her twin, Diana, and her older sister, Josephine, was for years synonymous with the traditional British pony story for children. Writing over a hundred titles herself with sales in the millions and translations into 12 different languages, she gave pleasure to thousands of young readers, most of whom would know ponies only from fiction rather than from real life.
Born in Wimbledon in 1925, Christine was the last of four children. Her father, Captain H.J. Pullein-Thompson, known in the family as "Cappy", became a refrigerator salesman after only just surviving a tough First World War. Her mother, Joanna Cannan, was a successful mystery writer. Home life was later affectionately recalled in the sisters' collective autobiography, Fair Girls and Grey Ponies (1996).
Growing up in the Oxfordshire village of Peppard near Henley-on-Thames, all three girls were obsessed with horses to the extent that they were banned from discussing this burning topic during mealtimes. Christine started riding when she was seven, attending school only for mornings and leaving at the age of 14. By now she and her sisters were already looking after horses, opening their own riding school in 1939.
Infected herself by such dedicated enthusiasm, the girls' mother had by now produced her own story, A Pony for Jean (1936), followed by two equally popular successors. Spurred on, as it were, by this example of maternal success, in 1941 the girls wrote their own first joint book, It Began with Picotee, published five years later in 1946. Still written from the rider's vantage point, eschewing the Victorian tradition of having the horse itself telling the tale, this and all future books also contained passages of no-nonsense equestrian advice.
Christine Pullein-Thompson's first solo book, We Rode to the Sea (1948), was about a pony-loving family's riding holiday in the Highlands. Two years later she moved to Virginia, where she found employment as a professional rider. On her return to Britain she married Julian Popescu, a fellow writer she met at the riding school she continued to run for years afterwards. From now on, she also produced at least one book a year while bringing up four children, not to mention assorted dogs, cats and bantams. All her children had ponies too, and were members of the Pony Club.
Her novels often took on current riding controversies, such as the argument about whether British show jumpers hoping for international success should now abandon the backward seat, suitable for hunting, in favour of the continental forward seat familiar today. Any character "who still uses the backward seat!" was usually made to repent of his or her ways by the time their story finished.
As a former whipper-in of hounds for the Woodland Hunt, Pullein-Thompson often brought field sports into her stories. In We Hunted Hounds (1949), the headings for Marcia Lane Foster's illustrations give a flavour of a now lost world of fiction: " 'Our idea is to start a pack of foxhounds,' said Andrew"; "Laurence and I were cleaning Daystar's tack in the kitchen", "You killed the blighter, then?" But there could be some surprises too. In Ride by Night (1960) a pair of twins on a pony trek in western Scotland rescue two Romanians on the run from the Russian fleet.
A brief lull in the 1960s at a time when pony books became out of fashion saw her turning to writing mysteries for younger readers as well as stories about the family dog Jessie. But ponies eventually came trotting back into popularity in the next decade, with Pullein-Thompson now turning her hand to information books too, such as Good Riding (1975) and Riding for Fun (1979). Collaborating with her sisters again, there was a prequel and then five sequels to Anna Sewell's classic novel Black Beauty.
In 1970 Pullein-Thompson moved to Suffolk, where a bad back eventually forced her to give up her beloved riding. But she remained full of energy, setting up a bridleways group and becoming chairman of the parish council. She was also much involved with the charity Riding for the Disabled, helping to found two of its branches. As a long-time member of the British section of Pen, whose president at one time was her sister Josephine, she also took an interest in politics. In 2005 she was one of the signatories to an open letter addressed to the Home Secretary raising objections to the proposed Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill.
In 1998 the three Pullein-Thompson sisters posed for a portrait photograph taken by Sam Barker, now part of the National Portrait Gallery's collection. Smartly made up, they shelter from the rain under one large black umbrella: the sisters' continuing happiness with each other as well as with their own productive lives is clear to see.
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