My love affair with KM Peyton began in 1980. I was living in New York and missing London horribly, having exchanged English friends and soft green landscapes for the mean streets of New York City. My main consolation (with the possible exception of The Clash) was hours of British TV on Sunday morning. The last to come on, after Monty Python and The Good Life, was always Flambards, and I watched it in a haze of rosy passion – for the big crumbling Essex manor house (filmed in Yorkshire), the romantic obsession with hunting and horses, and that moment just before World War I where everything seemed to pause on an in-breath, before the aristocracy and their mounts all went off to war.
The ‘Flambards’ series could have been written just for me. When Christina the orphaned heiress comes to Flambards and learns to ride side saddle on Sweetbriar, I imagined learning with her. The two brothers appealed to me in equal and opposite directions – the handsome, brutal Mark, who lived to hunt, and the sensitive intelligent, William, who hated horses as much as he loved flying machines. Who would Christina fall in love with? Both, as it (so wonderfully) turned out. The subplot of airplanes and romance was compelling, but really, it was the horses I loved. And there was no shortage of horses: hunting, racing, bought and sold, overjumped and overridden, and finally fed to the hounds when they went lame or were no longer of any use.
Thence to the books, where I found KM Peyton’s descriptions of horses and hunts and flying machines and love affairs and class divisions and the slow teetering collapse of a traditional way of life far more enthralling (even) than the TV drama.
And that was it, until about three years ago, when a wise and wonderful bookseller said that my novel, The Bride’s Farewell, reminded her a bit of Kathleen Peyton’s books, and had I read them?
Intelligent elegant prose
Them? I asked. And it turned out that there were dozens of them. Some out of print, some reissued, some never off the shelves. I started reading and couldn’t stop. Something about this woman’s writing resonated directly with my brain and my heart – the unsentimental, sharply-observed, clear voiced love of horses and riders, the trials of adolescence, of friendship and country life and the endless difficulties with families, all rendered in the most intelligent elegant prose.
And something about this wonderful voice announced to me (in the way that televisions talk to mad people) that we were meant to be friends.
At this point I had lived in England for two decades, but the impulsive American always simmers just under the surface. Obtaining contact details from one of her publishers, I phoned Ms Peyton and suggested we meet, drove the hour to her home in Chelmsford, and found not the doddering 81-year-old Lady Writer I expected, but a brilliantly witty writer and horsewoman who had recently given up hunting twice a week due to the death of her beloved mare. She was everything I didn’t dare hope she might be: acerbic and kind, outspoken and funny, wiry, athletic and very welcoming -- and best of all, still writing. We talked for ages about riding and writing, my two favourite subjects (and hers) and then sat down to lunch overlooking the field behind her house, which, she admitted, looked rather empty without a horse or two in it.
Of course it was no coincidence that Kathy had written so many of the books I wished I’d written (I couldn’t possibly have written them, of course, lacking her lifetime of immersion in pony clubs and the horsey life) and no coincidence that at 53, I was as enthralled by her so-called children’s books as I might have been at 15, had they been available in America. Publishers and book critics always overlook the fact that a good book is a good book, no matter what the age of the protagonist or the reader.
And so, one after another I devoured them – Fly-by-Night,The Team, the Pennington series, Marion’s Angels, The Last Ditch, Blind Beauty, the Swallow summer books, Small Gains, Greater Gains, and most recently, Paradise House -- each informed by the same generosity of spirit, the same wit, insight and sharp, discerning eye that I first encountered in Flambards.
Many of the details I most loved in her books Kathy swears came straight from observation – the pony club District Commissioner dosing her young competitors with whiskey before they rode, the mother of a girl paralyzed in a fall who left her daughter at hospital in order to finish off her jump judge duties. Having taken up riding again at fifty, I particularly love the bits of horsey lore that are both mythic and true – the horse who’s a lamb for one rider and a devil for another; the ugly worn out nag who (with good feed and care) turns into a dream horse; the grumpy old horseman with the magic eye – able to spot a show jumper or dressage champion out of a paddock full of untried yearlings.
Tough, emotionally demanding toil
Kathy Peyton wrote her first novel age nine; she published her first at fifteen. When she met her husband, Mike, she followed him up mountains and across oceans, the two of them living the life of 19th century adventurers. Together they traversed Corsica on foot, canoed through Canada, and once rescued their two small children from a shipwreck at sea. She rode horses and brought up her children and sailed, and in those boring bits in between, Kathy wrote sixty-five books. Sixty-five fine, wonderfully observed books.
Mention KM Peyton today, and fans of all ages emerge with great enthusiasm from the woodwork (I’ve met an astonishing number of middle aged women who still swoon at the mere mention of Pennington). But I believe it takes a writer to fully appreciate the magnitude of her achievement – the major awards, the consistency and clarity of her voice, the lifetime of dedication to what any writer will tell you is tough, emotionally demanding toil.
Kathleen tells me that she has just finished her final novel, and though my impulse is to beg for more, I shall remain dignified. Sixty-five novels are probably more than any of us deserves. And there’s always the backlist.
A selection of books by K M Peyton
Flambards, Oxford, 978 0 1927 1955 3, £6.99 pbk
The Edge of the Cloud, Oxford, 978 0 1927 5023 5, £6.99 pbk
Flambards in Summer, Oxford, 978 0 1927 5054 9, £6.99 pbk
Fly-by-Night, Fidra, 978 0 9551 9109 1, £12.00 pbk
The Team, Fidra, 978 1 9061 2309 3, £12.00 pbk
Greater Gains, Definitions, 978 0 0994 7297 1, £5.99 pbk
Paradise House, Scholastic, 978 1 4071 1664 8, £5.99 pbk
Meg Rosoff’s latest book is There is No Dog (Puffin, 978 0 1413 2716 7, £12.99 hbk).