Velvet Brown is a hot mess of teendom. She’s 14, that fulcrum age of angst and maladjustment. Her three sisters are perfect, “all exactly alike, like golden greyhounds,” blonde, muscular, supple. Her toddler brother is a god in the making. But as for Velvet, well, she has “short pale hair, large, protruding teeth, a sweet smile and a mouthful of metal,” and she knows it.
Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) knew a little something about being an outsider. The child of a peripatetic army officer, she inhabited the sub rosa fringes of Edwardian society, working and sleeping with the legendary naughty-book writer Frank Harris before settling into respectability. Her brother, Ralph, meanwhile stayed on the edges of the empire, a noted desert rat who confounded the Afrika Korps during World War II and pondered the movement of Aeolian sand in his off hours. The Bagnolds were eccentric—and they spoke openly, and they didn’t know their place in the elaborate pecking order that was the English class system of yore.
And so it was with Velvet, the young heroine of Enid Bagnold’s best-known book, National Velvet, which was published 80 years ago, in 1935. Like Enid, Velvet Brown is awkwardly liminal, true, but also a young woman of great inner resources, an inheritance of her mother, who, though now mired in morbid obesity and the misery it causes, was once a champion swimmer. Mrs. Brown, huge and weary, lives a bittersweet interior life, “innocent a nd savage,” the stuff a Freudian analyst could feed on for decades. Her accomplishments are real, but, weighted down and frayed, she lives through Velvet and her other children.
Think King Lear in petticoats and with an added daughter who sorts things out for herself through a happy confluence of self-reliance and dumb luck. Velvet inherits a herd of horses and wins another, and though she is gawky and uncertain of herself, she teaches the piebald to become a champion: “The animal followed her, flashing and jaunty. He had a white mane, a long white tail, pink hoofs, a sloping pastern, and he struck his feet out clean and hard as he walked.”
The mount is a happier sight than the rider, in other words, but Velvet merges with him heart and soul, a process anyone who loves horses will understand. And when she wins a national racing cup, her accomplishment is immediately placed in doubt—for how, after all, could an ungainly teenager with braces, the daughter of a country butcher, be an agent of history?
Before Seabiscuit, before Misty of Chincoteague, there was National Velvet. On one level, it is a book about a girl and her horse. On another, it is a book about triumph over unhappy circumstance. More than that, Bagnold shows us, Velvet, “a person to whom things happened,” is a winner off the field as well, shunning the blandishments of fame to settle down into exactly who she is, contented to go on “with her real desires sharp and intact, the ascending spirit with which she was threaded unquenched by surfeit.” The real work of the self is never done, in other words—a lesson that National Velvet imparts to its young readers at just the right time.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.