“ Enid Bagnold was... determined from an early age to have it all: literary acclaim, social success, motherhood, marriage and lovers.”
Enid Bagnold was born in Kent in 1889, the daughter of the Commander of the Royal Engineers. She spent her early childhood in Jamaica, and was then educated in England and Switzerland. She then plunged into bohemian life in Chelsea, studying at Walter Sickert’s School of Art. She worked as a journalist with Frank Harris, with whom she had an affair. During the First World War she was a nurse at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, and wrote of her experiences there in Diary Without Dates (which was so critical of the hospital that she was dismissed.) She continued with her war work as a volunteer driver in France.
In 1920 she married Sir Roderick Jones, the head of Reuters. They bought North End House in Rottingdean, Sussex, and it was here in 1935 that National Velvet was written. The couple also owned a racing stable, and it was their involvement with horses that inspired National Velvet.
Enid Bagnold was also a popular and successful playwright, and in 1970 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She died in 1981.
National Velvet was one of the earliest pony stories, and a powerful examples of wish fulfillment. Velvet Brown wins the Grand National, still something no real-life female has managed to do, on her raffle prize piebald horse, The Pie, trained by butcher’s assistant Mi. The brilliance of Enid Bagnold lay in her convincing the reader that everything that happened in the story was entirely possible. She was not seduced so far by the starriness of her tale to make Velvet win and keep the National: Velvet is disqualified, but we know that she was the real winner.
Enid Bagnold’s children had a piebald horse who was a particularly good jumper, and it is easy to suppose that he was the inspiration for The Pie. Mi Taylor was based on the Jones’ groom, Bernard McHardy, and the Browns were inspired by the Hilder family, local butchers, as well as the daughters of General Asquith, who rented The Elms each summer (The Elms, once owned by Rudyard Kipling, had been bought by Sir Roderick Jones).
Laurian Jones, Enid’s daughter, illustrated the book. I have always liked these powerful little line drawings. (As I have always had difficulty with horse’s feet myself, I do wonder if that is why Laurian Jones’ horses never have any.) National Velvet was made into a film by MGM in 1944, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, and it inspired a film sequel International Velvet, made in 1978 and starting Tatum O’Neal.
Finding the book: first editions with dustjackets are very expensive. Most of the other printings are readily available and reasonably priced.
Sources and Links:
East Sussex County Council, Local History
Anne Sebba’s website
Enid Bagnold, Anne Sebba, 1986