McElwee, Patience

Patience McElwee (1910–1963) wrote three pony books, and several adult novels. Her pony books alas seem to have sunk without trace: they are hard to find, but they are extremely good. They are aimed at an older readership than Ruby Ferguson's Jill books (both authors were published by Hodder & Stoughton), and certainly I think much of the biting observation about snobbery reads better with an adult audience. Having met the books as an adult, I enjoyed them very much indeed. Patience McElwee’s books are about the manoeuverings of the adult world, contrasted with the more straightforward needs and desires of the children. Living in the country, without much reference to good form or what the world thinks is best, is portrayed as by far the best way to live.

Dark Horse has an impeccably drawn grandmother; concerned mainly with being smart and scoring points over her 'friends', unlike her orphan grandchildren, who long for a more scruffy and bohemian existence, as lived by Shamus and Tim O’Brien, blissfully unconcerned with the finer things of life. The Merrythoughts is about a television family; portrayed as perfect. They are prisoners of that perfection, and the children yearn for a less organised country existence.

Match Pair is about the twins Adam and Jane Howell, and how they, coming from America to live with their uncle, experience a wildly different way of life in contrast to their hyper-organised American existence. When I read this book, I thought that Patience McElwee must have had dealings with the Pony Club: her portrayal of the machinations of the children and mothers is so well observed. Patience McElwee’s daughter, Harriet kindly wrote to me and confirmed this:

' ... it was my experience of the Pony Club that she used – particularly for Match Pair. The ex-cavalry colonels proliferated and I can remember exactly what the model for Miss Duff looked like. Uncle William though, was her standard hero – bad-tempered and taciturn. Versions of him appeared in all her ten adult novels which were very well-written, but now too dated for revival. It was thought that the humour in her pony books was too adult to be really successful with children, but I still read them with great pleasure.'

Patience McElwee was married to the author William McElwee, and their daughter, Harriet, was born in 1942. The family lived in Buckinghamshire, in the house where Capability Browne lived when in part charge over the gardens at Stowe (William McElwee was history tutor at Stowe). Harriet said:

'My parents were an eccentric pair who decided that a formal education was unnecessary for girls. I never darkened the doors of a school, but more or less grew up on the back of a series of dicey ponies graduating to rather better tempered horses. My father and I both hunted most weeks and my mother would come to the meets, but she was terrified of horses and never willingly had direct contact with one. She did however, know a lot about the racing world and could talk horse brilliantly. She was also a superb walker of foxhound and beagle puppies. [Patience’s hobby was puppy walking for the Grafton Hunt, and she walked the winning couple at the 1952 Puppy Show.] I gave up serious riding when I was 18 and only rode casually from then on.

Sadly, my mother died of breast cancer in 1963 and her books are long out of print... Her writing remains an important solace to me as her voice comes through so clearly.'

Finding the books
None of the books were reprinted, or appeared in paperback, so they are very hard to find indeed. How much you will have to pay really seems to be pot luck: in the few I’ve seen available, the prices are anything but consistent.

Sources and links
Patience McElwee’s daughter, Harriet Hall
Dustjackets of the books
Further reading: Harriet Hall: Bill and Patience (The Book Guild, 2000)