Marjorie Mary Oliver (1899–1976) and Eva Ducat (1878–1975) wrote some of the earliest pony books, with stories that focused on children and their adventures rather than telling the story from the pony’s point of view.
The three books they wrote together – The Ponies of Bunts (1933), Sea Ponies (1935) and Ponies and Caravans (1941) – portray childhood as something that was better lived in the country, as free as possible from restrictions. All the books open with children who are restricted in some way, either by where they are living or by who they are living with.
Eva and Marjorie themselves both had happy childhoods, which perhaps explains the glow of kindliness that the books exude. The only problem that may affect an Oliver and Ducat childhood is the evil of too much town living. Marjorie was brought up in London, and like her heroes and heroines, she escaped, in her case from a luxurious, though perhaps stultifying, existence. Marjorie’s daughter Diana described her as being “a pampered child, looked after by four nursemaids in the nursery and photographed at three-years-old wearing an ermine cape and huge silk picture hat with egret plumes.”
When she grew up, rather than live the conventional debutante life expected of her class, Marjorie went to live with an eccentric female member of the Scrimgeour stockbroking family who lived in railway carriages at Selsey, where she kept over a hundred Dartmoor ponies. Marjorie then moved to live with another Scrimgeour sister in an Elizabeth house at Midhurst, with yet more Dartmoors. Every year, just like the children in Ponies and Caravans, they would travel down to Chagford in a horse-drawn vehicle to buy still more Dartmoors, which Marjorie would break in.
The Scrimgeour sisters provided a rich source for the adult characters in the books. Miss Rhoda in Sea Ponies lives a similarly wild existence (though with rather fewer ponies) to Miss Scrimgeour in Selsey, and Miss Fairfax of The Ponies of Bunts was based on Miss Scrimgeour of Midhurst.
Marjorie had a good model to follow as an author: her grandmother was Gertrude Kent Clark, who went to Oxford and then became a writer. Under the presumably more-likely-to-sell name of Kent Clark, she wrote boys’ school stories, including the wonderfully titled The Werewolf of Whispers School (1923).
Marjorie’s co-writer, Eva Ducat, was born in 1878. When her mother died tragically soon afterwards, Eva went to live with her grandmother, Emily Ducat, as her father was a serving officer in the army. This worked well for everyone: Eva’s memoir, My Victorian Benefactors (1980), describes her happy childhood growing up in a busy Victorian household filled with relations.
Eva was passionately fond of music. She studied piano with Mimie Shakespeare, who had been taught by Clara Schumann. Eva recognised that she would never become a concert pianist, but she wrote about her musical experiences in Another Way of Music (1928), which became an Evening Standard book of the month. Her musical expertise was well enough known for the poet W B Yeats to appoint her as his unofficial musical advisor in 1919.
Eva and Marjorie knew each other through Eva’s friendship with Marjorie’s mother, Gertrude. Eva’s godson, Richard Oliver, writes:
“Marjorie was twenty years younger than Eva, but loved horses almost as much as Eva loved music. So the partnership worked, as Eva’s practised writing skill helped to illuminate Marjorie’s large equestrian know-how.”
The Bunts books all end in a glorious sunlit world where everything has worked out (and everyone lives in the country). There is no poignancy to the books’ happy endings. Nevertheless, Marjorie Oliver and Eva Ducat were pivotal figures in the development of the pony story. They were writers for whom the pony was a means to a better life, emphasised by the use of photographs as illustrations: the wonders of the countryside were so evident they didn’t need the possibly fanciful interpretation of an illustrator. Freedom allied to the countryside could only do good.
Eva and Marjorie wrote no more together after the three Bunts books, but they remained close friends. Eva put on musical soirées at her Holland Park house in London, where she would invite musical friends to play. Over the years, the soirées grew to events of forty of more people, sometimes with world-class performers such as the Hungarian String Quartet. Eva died in 1975, at the age of 96.
Marjorie married schoolmaster Harry Turton in 1935, and had two daughters. She and her husband set up a tutoring college for boys who had been expelled from public school, set in a house with sixty acres of parkland on which they kept horses and ponies. Marjorie wrote seven more books, most of which featured the ponies she loved so much. She died in 1976, a year after her friend.
All three of the books Marjorie Oliver and Eva Ducat wrote together have now been released worldwide on Amazon as eBooks.
Photographs © Richard Oliver
Sources: Richard Oliver and Diana Turton.