Thursday, 7 March 2013

March 2013: Mary Treadgold's 'We Couldn't Leave Dinah' and our April book

This month we finally - and for some of us, reluctantly - got round to reading a "pony" book; but in an attempt to find something rather more complex than the standard "gymkhanas-and-jodhpurs" stories, we chose Mary Treadgold's Carnegie-winning We Couldn't Leave Dinah (1941), brilliantly illustrated by Stuart Tresilian who also illustrated some of Enid Blyton's later books.  

Set in the summer holidays on the fictional island of Clerinel, somewhere south of Plymouth during World War II, We Couldn't Leave Dinah appears to draw on Treadgold's own childhood holidays in the Channel Islands, with the story echoing the de-militarisation by Britain and their subsequent German occupation.  'It combines evocative landscape descriptions with a gripping adventure story, giving a powerful and moving account of the complexities of divided loyalties, collaboration and threatened relationships in an occupied country, seen through the analytical eyes of teenagers.' (Oxford DNB)  Sadly, despite its award-winning status, it is out of print and quite difficult to find.

Born in 1910 into a comfortably well-off home (her father was a member of the London Stock Exchange), Mary Treadgold was educated at the famous St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith before graduating with an MA in English Literature from Bedford College, University of London in 1936.  She became a children's editor at Heinemann but, dismayed by the 'staggering number of manuscripts about ponies and pony clubs ... the majority quite frightful', decided 'I could do better myself!' and resigned to write her own.  We Couldn't Leave Dinah was developed during time spent confined to air raid shelters in the last months of 1940, and was published by Jonathan Cape in 1941.  Mary joined the BBC in 1941 where she spent 20 years, editing and producing Books to Read before becoming editor of the West Africa service.  She worked briefly with BBC propagandist Eric Blair (George Orwell) who was also at the Overseas Service between 1941 and 1943, and may even have shared his office, the notorious Room 101.  She published eight books for children amongst other works: her final novel, (Journey From The Heron) appeared in 1981.  Mary died in 2001, aged 95.  She never married.

Most of us really enjoyed We Couldn't leave Dinah, and there was a lot of laughter when  we met to talk it over.  However we agreed that - whatever Treadgold's intentions - it really isn't a traditional "pony book" at all.  It may not be her best work either, but it's a page-turner of a thriller, combining adjective-rich prose with breathless feats of derring-do; focused on a tiny island community's response to invading enemy forces in a story where the ponies turn out to be useful props, rather than central to the plot.  With mother conveniently out of the way in Africa, and their father and younger brother evacuated to ghastly cousins in London's Eaton Square, Caroline and Mick are accidentally left on Clerinel with their ponies, and become involved with the Resistance.  Interestingly, we felt that the Melendy children in far-away New York in The Saturdays (1941) were more acutely aware of the war's impact on London than the children on Clerinel in We Couldn't Leave Dinah.

Unsurprisingly propagandist, and - perhaps more surprisingly - in need of a little prudent editing, with some flat-footed racial stereo-typing ("bullet-headed" Germans, plucky English children, phlegmatic and possibly collaborative French-speaking locals), occasionally inconsistent characters, some poorly constructed German sentences and unlikely plot points (would the head of an invading force really bring along his grand-daughter and her maid?), it was nevertheless a compelling read, with human interest as well as humour.

The book invoked memories of other much-loved island and pony stories including Pat Smythe's much-loved Three Jays series (my favourite was Jacqueline Rides for a Fall, 1957); the Pullein-Thompson sisters' many horsey books; and Enid Blyton's Scottish island jaunt, The Adventurous Four, also published in 1941.  Someone mentioned narrative echoes of John Buchan, while Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Disney, 1971) based on Mary Norton's The Magic Bedknob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945), also sprang to mind.

One of our group had purchased a copy of We Couldn't Leave Dinah which was inscribed as a gift for Christmas 1944 to a little girl called Evelyn: we wondered how Evelyn must have felt to be reading the story while the Channel Islands were still occupied and war was  raging across the world.

Has the "pony genre" improved since Mary Treadgold was so despairing in 1940?  Our view is most definitely not.  Recent publications we've read are more shallowly plotted, with overmuch attention being paid to grooming and schooling rather than any more interesting action.

And finally, with apologies for the plot spoiler, we found that Caroline "Could Leave Dinah" after all ...  

Our next book is one from our "Books to Get Round To" list: Mrs Molesworth's morally instructive The Cuckoo Clock (1877).

3 comments:

  1. "We Couldn't Leave Dinah" is one of my all time favourite books. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to come by a copy. Do you have any leads as to where a copy could be found?

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  2. "We Couldn't Leave Dinah" is one of my all time favourite books. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to come by a copy. Do you have any leads as to where a copy could be found?

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    1. Hi Alison, thank you for your message. I think this book is currently out of print, but second hand copies are available to purchase online.
      In Canada, I found two copies for sale, on abebooks.com. There are also copies listed on Amazon (USA) and Ebay, if you wanted to order one from outside Canada.
      Best wishes
      Isabelle

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