Lorna Hill (born Durham, 21 Feb 1902, died August 17, 1991) is not a classic pony book author: she is far better known for her Wells series, about the trials, joys and aspirations of a group of characters who go to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. All her books, whether set in Northumberland or Skye, have a very strong sense of place. Most of her books are set at least in part in Northumberland, and anyone who loves the county will recognise her descriptions of its wildness and beauty.
Besides the Wells series, Lorna Hill wrote another ballet series (the Dancing Peel series) about a dancer called Annette Dancy. I prefer this series to the Wells books: Annette isn’t the most instantly attractive character, but Lorna Hill does an excellent job of portraying the obsessive nature needed to succeed in dance. My favourite of her series is the Vicarage Children. It has the huge advantage of a character who is sympathetic and self effacing, and the difficulties of life in a poor parish are sensitively described. Lorna Hill wrote from experience: she met her husband, a clergyman, at University in Durham, and one of their parishes was the remote Matfen, in Northumberland, where Lorna played the organ and ran the Sunday School.
Lorna Hill’s first two series, about Patience and Marjorie, are her pony books. She said: “My ‘pony’ books, set in Northumberland where I lived for most of my life, were written for my daughter Vicki when she was small.” [20th Century Children’s Writers, 3rd edn]. These stories, in notebooks illustrated by her own watercolours were seen by a publisher’s reader came to stay with the family. He sent one to an agent, who submitted it to the publishers Art and Educational. They asked Lorna to send them the rest of the books. She replied that she could not afford the train fare, so the publishers advanced her £50 and down she went to London with the rest of the books in her suitcase. When Art and Educational went out of business, Harold Starke, the publisher, moved to Burke Publishing and took the books with him. Burke later published the Patience series.
The fourth title in the Marjorie series, Northern Lights was published by Girls Gone By after they visited Lorna Hill’s daughter, and saw the book, then unpublished, amongst Lorna Hill’s notebooks. It was written as Vicki’s Christmas present in 1941, but was not published as it featured the Second World War, which the public no longer wanted to read about by the time the books were seen by their eventual publisher.
Although the Marjorie and Patience series are classed as Lorna Hill’s pony stories, they are not pony books in the classic sense: loving descriptions of schooling they are not. They are far more centred on the characters of the children who ride them than the ponies themselves, including the controversial Guy. Lorna Hill obviously thought Guy a splendid figure. I would be interested to know how he was regarded when the books came out, but 50 years later, Guy, with his penchant for physical punishment and stern and unbending ways seems rather strong meat.
The Patience books form a shorter series, but I think a much more endearing one. Patience is a character with considerable charm. I’ve only read two of the books but I far prefer them to the Marjorie series (Marjorie causes me more problems than Guy!)
Note: The order of the Marjorie series in the box to the right is the correct reading order: Border Peel was not published with the other books. It is, however, the third of the series despite its publication date.
Jim Mackenzie has very kindly provided the synopses for the Marjorie series, and Diane Janes for the Patience books, and I am very grateful to them both. Many thanks too to Jim Mackenzie and Susan Bourgeau for providing pictures of the books.
Finding the books:
The books are all findable, though first editions with dustjackets will be expensive. The paperbacks are cheaper. If you can find them, as all bar Border Peel are out of print, the Girls Gone By reprints are well worth seeking out. They include the original illustrations Lorna Hill did for the books when she wrote them for her daughter Vicki.
Sources and links:
Clarissa Cridland: Collecting Books and Magazines
20th Century Children’s Authors, ed Chevalier, 3rd edn 1989
Other information on Lorna Hill
Jim Mackenzie: an article on the Wells series
Jim Mackenzie: a review of Castle in Northumbria
Frederick Lewis: Dancing Across the Border: An Adult Reading of Lorna Hill
Jim Mackenzie: Journey to the Hidden Kingdoms, Powdene Publicity, 2004 - contains much information on the geographical background to Lorna Hill’s books, as well as many other authors who set their books in Northumberland.
This article (written by Jim Mackenzie and Clarissa Cridland, and edited by Alan Myers) has some more biographical information and some information on the geographical background of the books.
A Sadler’s Wells books quiz