Joanna Cannan is a name that many people may not know now: when pony books are discussed Jill will be brought up: depending on your age, The Saddle Club, and of course, the Pullein-Thompsons. Joanna Cannan was not only the Pullein-Thompsons’ mother, but arguably one of the first, and best pony story authors. Fidra Books are re-publishing Joanna Cannan’s pony books, and so far We met Our Cousins and London Pride are in print.
Joanna Cannan’s Pony Books
Before Joanna Cannan wrote A Pony For Jean, pony books were generally a story told from the pony’s point of view. There were earlier books which took off in a totally different direction, like Hildebrand and Plum Duff and Prunella, which explored a fantasy world of horses who could talk, and do quite a few other unexpected things as well. Mary Oliver wrote of holidays with ponies, but Joanna Cannan’s stories started with Jean and were written from her point of view. Jean coped with a country world new to her, cousins who scorned her, and an almost uncanny ability to lose things and generally get into a muddle.
Joanna Cannan was always interested in the contrast between town and country (and was firmly on the side of the country). In A Pony For Jean, Jean’s family hit financial difficulties and have to move from London to the countryside. We Met Our Cousins looks at the clash between town and country: its heroes are town children, sent to Scotland, where they slowly learn to unbend. In the sequel, London Pride, the two Scottish cousins, Morag and Angus visit London and all four children treat London much as they did the Scottish Highlands. The later They Bought Her a Pony features an utterly urban child who finds the freedom of the countryside, and its attitudes, alien. There is hope for Angela Peabody (to stop her newly rich mother throwing away her horsy ornaments she buries them in a windowbox), but she expects money to solve all her problems. The horse-mad family she meets, the Cochranes, have no money but endless resourcefulness, in which I suspect they were like the Pullein-Thompsons. Eventually Angela realises that she is going to need more than money to get what she wants.
I Wrote A Pony Book was published in 1950, and was Joanna Cannan’s answer to the massive proliferation of pony books. Her heroine is away at school, where she cannot ride; she is awkward and independent and does not fit in with the school ethos at all. She doesn’t fit in particularly with the standard pony book plot either: there is no loving description of her pony’s schooling. Indeed, unlike her daughters, Joanna Cannan does not tend to concentrate on the schooling of pony and rider: Dinah, in Gaze at the Moon, says “I will not describe how we schooled Air Frost because it is all set out in books on how to school horses and really it was very simple.”
Gaze at the Moon, Joanna Cannan’s last children’s novel, is different. Probably my favourite Joanna Cannan, Armada published this as a paperback in the 1960s and my copy is still with me, though now in separate pieces. Dinah, the heroine, and her family live in the country but have just been moved to a new council house in a nearby town. Dinah’s stepmother and stepsister are distinctly urban in outlook: Judy, the sister, wants to be a hairdresser, and none of the family understand Dinah’s ambition to be an artist. Dinah loves her family despite their differences, and quietly, but with utter determination, she goes her own way. Dinah’s stepmother says: “Gaze at the moon and fall in the gutter.” Dinah’s reply is “I think you should gaze at it - if you do fall in the gutter you can get up again and at least you’ve gazed.” - an accurate summing up of Joanna Cannan’s attitude to life.
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Joanna Cannan was born Joanna Maxwell in 1896. She was the daughter of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity College, Oxford, and his wife Mary, parents who lived their lives separately from their children: Mary in fact preferred adult company. Apart from school three mornings a week, Joanna and her two sisters relied on each other for company and amusement.
At 18, she thought that free love and painting in a Parisian garrett would be her lot, but she met and married Captain James Pullein-Thompson in 1918. Although he had a commanding presence, and a fine war record, he found earning money difficult and Joanna had to do something to supplement the family income. Perhaps her childhood taught her self-reliance: she certainly scorned convention. When her twins Diana and Christine were born, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” She replied: “Good God, I hope not.” At any event, she began writing, and her first book, The Misty Valley, was published in 1922.
She carried on writing for adults while her children were small. Family tradition has it that the monthly nurse said “Put away that scribbling Dear, Baby’s coming,” as Josephine made her entrance into the world. Her writing was well-received, and the family (Denis, the eldest, Josephine, and the twins Christine and Diana) were able to move to the country. They lived at The Grove, in Oxfordshire, a square white house with stables, and later, ponies.
Here Joanna carried on writing, while her children developed their own writing careers. She died on 22 April 1961, reciting Landor’s ‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife”. Her eldest daughter, Josephine Pullein-Thompson, said: “We were lucky to have a lively and witty mother; who, though often critical, was never boring and never nagged.”
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Finding the books
The paperback We Met Our Cousins and London Pride are still in print. Hardbacks of both these titles tend to be expensive. All of the Jean titles tend to be expensive, particularly with dustjackets. The Knight paperbacks are less expensive, but still not usually cheap. They Bought Her A Pony is easy to find in its compilation printings. Gaze at the Moon is pricey, and even the paperback is now becoming difficult to find. I Wrote a Pony Book is now becoming expensive in any printing. Hamish is very easy to find as a Cavalier paperback: as a Puffin it is usually reasonably priced, though can be hard to find in good condition.
Sources and Links
Pullein-Thompson, Josephine, Christine and Diana: Fair Girls and Grey Horses, Allison & Busby 1996
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Persephone Books have reprinted some of Joanna Cannan’s adult works.
Clarissa Cridland has a little about Joanna Cannan in her pony book article for the Collecting Books and Magazines site.
Many thanks to Susan Bourgeau, Dawn Harrison and Lisa Catz for supplying many of the pictures in this section.