Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story – Helen Hollick on Ruby Ferguson’s Jill Series

The fourth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog. So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, and Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden and Scotland.

Now at last it’s time for my home country to get a look in, as historical novelist Helen Hollick explains her passion for a classic English series: the Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson.

Helen Hollick writes:

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

From an early age (about four years) I always had my nose buried in a book. My favourites, back then in the late 1950s, were Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. Not exactly school stories – although I do vividly remember one of them being about Fuzzypeg the hedgehog going to school and learning to read.

(Debbie: I love Little Grey Rabbit too, and recently bought a vintage copy of Fuzzypeg Goes to School!)

I do, vaguely, remember reading one school story. It might have been Malory Towers, but to be honest I didn’t like this genre. You see, I hated school. For my first year at  school I couldn’t see much because I was short-sighted and needed glasses, but it never occurred to Mum that this was the reason I was always bumping into or falling over things. And why I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated (even with glasses) always having to sit at the front. Hated being told off for bad handwriting. Hated being moaned at in sewing because I couldn’t see to thread a needle..  So there wasn’t much incentive to spend my own time at school. Even fictional ones.

School Stories with a Difference

Jill’s Gymkhana got Helen Hollick hooked on Ruby Ferguson’s classic series

Those school stories always seemed to have popular, clever, girls with friends. Lots of them. I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t popular or clever. I was shy, scared and unhappy. My friends were the characters I met in books. I met a special fictional friend when I was given a book for my ninth birthday. Jill Crewe in the book Jill’s Gymkhana.

You see, I was pony mad. Jill and her pony Blackboy introduced me to pony stories. From that day onward through my school days I read, lived, breathed – wrote – pony stories. Fiction made up for the pain of being so lonely and desperately wanting a pony of my own. (I had to wait until I was sixteen. Now at sixty-seven I have three ponies, three horses  and two donkeys in our fields here in Devon. Dreams do come true!)

The Jill books brought out the passion for ponies in a simple, funny, quirky and educational way. The first story follows Jill learning to ride and care for her pony, and I learnt with her. Then the second book brought in Mrs Darcy and the local riding school. That was it, I wanted to work there too. Funnily enough, when I did, eventually, get my own horse the owner of the riding school where I kept him reminded me of Mrs Darcy.

Classic 1950s Stories

There was a whole series of Jill stories to enjoy

The stories are very dated now – they are set in post-war England in the early 1950s. That in itself makes them interesting, for the historical detail of life back then. At the very least it wouldn’t be allowed in the 21st century for a girl of thirteen or fourteen to run a riding school! But this is exactly what happens in the second book in the series Jill Has Two Ponies.  Mrs Darcy has to go away so Jill and some friends offer to run the riding school in her absence. All well and good, but Mrs D’s valuable horse, Blue Smoke falls ill. Jill has to summon the vet:

“You girls clear out,” said the vet, cheerfully, “and let me have a look. Go and make me a cup of tea. I’ve been sitting up with a cow for hours.”

     We thought it very heartless of the vet to want tea, but we went into the house and made him a cup. We didn’t make any for ourselves, it would have choked us. Every time I caught Wendy’s eye she gave a gulp, and every time Wendy caught my eye I gave a gulp. We did nothing but gulp at each other. I set off down the yard with the vet’s cup of tea and slopped it all over into the saucer. Then suddenly I saw the vet before me. The heartless man was grinning all over his face.

“She’s just been playing you up,” he said. “A touch of a toothache, that’s all, but you know what these thoroughbreds are like, the least touch of pain and they act as if they were dying.”

(As a horse owner . . .  oh don’t they just!)

I still have that original birthday present hardback edition of Jill’s Gymkhana, and paperbacks of the others in the series – all somewhat battered because I read and re-read them as a teenager (along with many other pony stories). I re-read the first one not long ago and still thoroughly enjoyed it. Alas, I can’t read the others as I am now visually impaired and the paperback print is far too small and faded. A great shame that they are not on Kindle.

Modern Meddling

Jill was a victim of political correctness in later years and appeared in republished (awful) editions. The name ‘Blackboy’ was banned, (why, he was a black pony for goodness sake!). These re-writes completely spoil the feel of the stories – if you want to read them, get the originals!

(Debbie: It irks me too when publishers try to put a modern spin on timeless classics – such as reissuing Just William stories featuring William Brown sans school blazer and cap but with t-shirt and trainers instead. What nonsense!)

Inspiration for a Budding Novelist

The main thing Jill, her ponies, her friends and the Riding School did for me was to teach me to write.

Throughout those years I was either reading or writing. I had my own fictional pony: Tara, a palomino. (I must have heard of Gone With The Wind somewhere around then). I even wrote a story set in a riding school during a GCE exam. I’d finished the questions and had about an hour to kill. So I started writing a story about someone stealing a horse from the local riding school. I filled one A4 sheet of paper. Asked for another. And another.  I had quite a pile on my desk.

What I didn’t realise, the other girls in the class (Chingford’s, Wellington Avenue Secondary School for Girls) assumed I was answering exam questions. Like me they had only filled one A4 sheet and had no idea what else to put. But there was I, scribbling furiously…

They didn’t speak to me again for ages. I didn’t care, that meant they left me alone to escape into the world of ponies and riding schools.

© Helen Hollick


More About Helen Hollick

Thank you, Helen, that’s a fascinating insight both into Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books and into your own evolution as a writer.

I must admit that in my own childhood these stories passed me by, possibly because I’ve never been interested in horses, although my older sister remembers enjoying them. But given Helen’s persuasive tribute, I’m now keen to try one. As they’re all out of print now and have become collectors’ items, I’m going to have to keep an eye open in secondhand bookshops – a favourite haunt of mine, especially on holiday – until I can find one.

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
Me with Helen Hollick, a great friend and mentor to authors all over the world

Meanwhile Helen grew up to write award-winning historical novels, fantasy and historical non-fiction. I’ve especially enjoyed her pirate fantasy series, which is a must for anyone who is a fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and her straight historical novels with Arthurian and Saxon themes are among my mum’s favourites!

She’s also become a firm friend and mentor to many, many aspiring novelists worldwide, well known for her generous spirit and kind heart. I’m thrilled therefore to have her as my guest on my blog today.

Find out all about Helen Hollick and her many books via her one of her links below:

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome): https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/

Meanwhile at St Bride’s…

In the meantime, my own school stories are coming along nicely:

  • Book 2 in my St Bride’s School series will be published on 1st July 2020

    The first in the series, Secrets at St Bride’s, was a finalist in The Selfies Awards 2020, given to the best independently published fiction in the UK. With the paperback and ebook selling well, I’m planning to produce an audio version this autumn, narrated by Siobhan Waring, the voice artist responsible for the audiobook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. You can order the paperback here and buy the ebook here.

  • The second in the series, Stranger at St Bride’s, will be published on 1st July in ebook and paperback. You can already preorder the ebook here.