K M Peyton: the girls, the horses, the passion

K M Peyton, MBE, died this week at the age of 94. She won the Carnegie medal for The Edge of the Cloud, and in over forty horse books, captured completely that passionate obsession girls have for the horse. Her characters were Romans, Victorians, Edwardians and thoroughly modern day. What they shared was a clear-sighted ability to see the world as it was, and fight for their place in it.

Peyton’s first book was written when she was nine. Like its seven successors, it was never published. That had to wait until 1948, when she was nineteen, and Sabre, the Horse from the Sea, was published, under her maiden name, Kathleen Herald.

She had no pony of her own. When she did have was over 2000 imaginary horses, and a capacity to absorb the technical horse books she read and turn them into completely believable stories.

I just thought up a new horse or pony every day, imagined how it looked, how it behaved, and wrote it down in my book until I had over 2000 … I devoured technical horse books from the senior library—Henry Wynmalen, Sam Marsh … so I knew a lot of theory, but not much else, never laying a hand on a real horse, apart from three riding lessons a year on Wimbledon Common, saved up for from my pocked money, all I could afford—five shillings an hour.

interview with K M Peyton

Kathy did not work with horses, but trained in art. She went to Kingston School of Art and then Manchester Art School, where she met her husband, Michael Peyton. It is her illustrations on the covers of Fly-by-Night and The Team and several of her other books. They share a wiry quality; thin characters with steel.

When I went for lunch with her with a group of authors, I walked past an embroidery and stopped and said, “Oh, how lovely!” She turned round and said, “Oh yes. I did that.” And changed the subject. It was the piece used for the Blind Beauty cover.

Her first books as an adult were written with her husband, Michael (he was the ‘M’ in K M Peyton) and were about his obsession, sailing, because, she said, ‘that’s what we did all the time’. And then—‘I had a great yen to go inland and write about my first love, horses.’

The result was the Flambards series, one of which, The Edge of the Cloud, won the Carnegie medal in 1969. She was shortlisted for seven other books: Windfall, The Maplin Bird, The Plan for Birdsmarsh, Thunder in the Sky, Flambards, Flambards in Summer and The Team. This series has been in print ever since it was published.

Vanessa Robertson of Fidra Books, who republished Fly-by-Night and The Team, remembered the enchantment of the Flambards series when it appeared on television.

I was nine years old and allowed to stay up late to watch it because I was pony-mad and there were horses in it. The story captivated me and I recall spending my birthday book tokens on the three novels with the TV tie-in covers. At that age, lots of the romantic aspects probably passed me by but I’m willing to admit that Mark Russell was my first crush and that even at that age I was cynical enough to know that the marriage between Christina and Dick that ended book three was never going to work!

K M Peyton went on to write over forty horse stories, though had to wait until adulthood before she had her first horse. The family’s first pony was Cracker. He was unbroken, and the traumas of breaking him in and of being a Pony Club parent found their way into Fly-by-Night and many of her later books. ‘He broke us in,’ she told me, ‘rather than the other way round.’

When I think of a Peyton heroine, it is their passion I remember; their grit, their refusal to be bowed down by convention. Christina in the Flambards books is transported from life with her aunt to the brutal male household at Flambards. But she flies.

The same is true of heroes. Patrick Pennington, Peyton’s bad boy pianist, was an icon to generations. Dangerous to know – after all, didn’t Ruth give up her great passion, horses, because of her great passion for him? Perhaps that’s why I never really took to Patrick. But it was her portrait of obsession that did in fact ring true: the obsession that shuts other things out almost entirely, just as much for music people as horse people, and sometimes for those who love.

But there are differing degrees of obsession, and most of the women and girls in Peyton’s world combine it with a recognition of others’ humanity. Clara of Small Gains, though she adores her horse, is only too aware of the fragility of her family. Christina eventually moves back to Flambards to take care of the estate. Jonathan Meredith’s mother, a difficult and demanding woman, stands by Iris and her baby while Jonathan is off, burying his head in the sand about his child. Ruth has a child of her own.

Peyton characters move on.

As a pony-obsessed teenager, I had only read one Peyton novel, Fly-by-Night before I decided that I really ought to put pony books behind me. But she made an impact on me, did Ruth, the girl from the housing estate, scrabbling to keep her pony. I’d never found another heroine like her when I first read the book all those years ago, but I understood how Ruth felt. I had been that child skulking at the edge of a field where the Pony Club rally is taking place. Ruth’s desperate need to be near a horse was my experience, not the Pony Club rallies and the endless rounds of gymkhanas.

She half expected to be told to leave by one of the cold adults, but she was ignored. The girls on the ponies looked at her without expression. This suited Ruth very well. She did not want to be noticed. She only wanted to look at the ponies.

Fly-by-Night

Like Ruth, in later life I put off pony things, but unlike her, I came back. I found pony books, and horses, again, and a whole world of K M Peyton books I had not read. I devoured all those books that had appeared while I was off doing other things. When I first read Blind Beauty, the dog went unwalked, and children had to forage for themselves.

And what a courageous writer she was. In The Team, Ruth is off to a major event with her pony, but she is felled by the first day of her period. Curled up in the box in misery, she cannot go on. She is physically incapable. When my periods started, I thought my life had ended—at least my life as I knew it. No one talked about it in the horse world. No one talked about the indignity, the sheer bloody inconvenience, the torture of white and beige jodhpurs. When I could not ride because I like Ruth was curled up in agony, I had a stomach ache. Or a migraine. Never told the actual truth.

K M Peyton told the truth. Her girls never let themselves be bound by circumstances. True heroines.

May she rest in peace.


K M Peyton’s website


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13 responses to “K M Peyton: the girls, the horses, the passion”

  1. Sue Sims avatar
    Sue Sims

    A lovely obituary, Jane – many thanks. I knew her personally but remotely because of her friendship with Antonia Forest: they used to exchange their books when they were published, and their correspondence takes up a fair amount of space in my AF filing cabinets. (I still have the books she sent to AF, which replaced my previous copies.) When AF died, I wrote to her, and we kept up a spasmodic correspondence for some years.

  2. Joanna Ware avatar
    Joanna Ware

    I discovered Flambards aged 14 and devoured it. it wasn’t as easy then to source books and I didn’t think to ask in the library. many years later I gave my pony mad daughter Flambards and she was equally gripped and went on to read many more of K.M.Peytons books.

  3. Julia avatar

    How wonderful to find your article today about K M Peyton.
    I was a pony mad kid and devoured every pony book I could find. the Flambards trilogy, looking rather battered have followed me through my life and my sister and I loved the tv series too. I have spent my life with horses and it’s certainly not been easy but being able to read about strong female characters like Christina, as a girl helped me believe that anything was possible and you just have to try!

  4. Carol Winkler avatar
    Carol Winkler

    Thank you so much for your personal thoughts about her books. As a youth librarian in the U.S. I was so fond of her books but had a hard time matching them up with young readers who would appreciate them. Inner urban children could not relate to sailing and horses. But you are so spot on about the characters. Their responses to the challenges in their lives are so true and as an author she was not afraid to let those characters show unexpected kindness despite those difficulties. I am astounded to learn that she did not have a lot of personal experience in riding because I have yet to find another author to make riding seem so authentic. (If you know one please clue me in.) Of all of her books that I have read, my personal favorite and the one I reread almost annually is “Prove Yourself a Hero”

    1. admin avatar

      She came to riding a little late, but she certainly made up for it – I believe she had a lot to do with the local pony club where her daughter rode. Do entirely agree with you about Prove Yourself a Hero. A fine, fine read.

  5. Patrick Effiom avatar
    Patrick Effiom

    Sad news.I loved Prove yourself A Hero and A Midsummer Nights Death as well as The Patrick Pennington Novels.RIP

  6. Tom Barney avatar
    Tom Barney

    What is this about Jonathan Meredith and a baby? I’ve read Prove Yourself a Hero and A Midsummer Night’s Death – so there is a third one? Please tell me more.

    1. admin avatar

      Free Rein! It’s the next in the series. Jonathan is in his last year at school when it happens. It’s an excellent read.

      1. Tom Barney avatar
        Tom Barney

        Thanks for this. It appears to be very rare, judging by the prices quoted for copies on Abebooks. And not even the British Library appears to have a copy, although its catalogue is not all it should be at the moment, as you may have heard. They have several copies of Prove Yourself a Hero and A Midsummer Night’s Death, some of the latter said to have ‘an afterword by the author’. I wonder what she had to say?

  7. Rachel Mason avatar
    Rachel Mason

    I am so excited to come across this website! I was the pony-mad Ruth in Fly-By-Night, the agony and ecstasy inseparable. The jealousy I felt which consumed me. So much so that I left school at 16 and started work in libraries. This gave me access to my two greatest loves, books, and (money to get) horses. it’s been so all my life. I adore KM Peyton’s books. I’ve never forgotten Ruth and Fly-By-Night and I was overcome with nostalgia on seeing those much-loved book covers! Thankyou for your website!

    1. admin avatar

      Thank you – I love them too. So glad to hear you got to combine riding and horses. Two of the best things.

  8. Anne Hawkins avatar
    Anne Hawkins

    So sad to hear of k Peyton’s death, I actually just finished reading a midsummer nights death. I loved the Penningtons books too and I still have them. I remembered reading them has a child and searching through the library for them.

  9. Karen Heap avatar
    Karen Heap

    How lovely to read about the wonderful K M Peyton’s books I adored as a teenager in the 70’s. Although sorry to hear she has recently died I’m so glad she lived to 94 and achieved at least some of her dreams with ponies.
    She was an exceptional writer with huge empathy for the countless pony mad girls struggling to live their dreams. And she understood teenagers, particularly those who didn’t quite fit in, not to mention that rollercoaster of emotions around first loves.
    Sadly many of my old books are long gone, but I’ll be hunting some down if I can.
    Thanks for reminding me. 💖

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