That Pretty Little Horsebreaker AKA Pretty Kitty Herrick the HorsebreakerSeptember 6, 2013
I’m not actually sure whether to refer to this book by Mrs. Edward Kennard as That Pretty Little Horsebreaker or Pretty Kitty Herrick the Horsebreaker. They’re both listed as being published in 1891, and if the latter has many times more Google results, I’m pretty sure that’s only because it’s the one that’s available as an ebook. Under either title, I’m pretty pleased with it — even though I was slightly overwhelmed by horsiness. I was never super into horses as a kid, but I did read Black Beauty and at least one Black Stallion book and several series books involving young people and horses, and I’m still able to state unequivocally that this is the horsiest book I have ever read.
It’s also a fox hunting book. I’ve consumed a fair amount of media that features fox hunting in some capacity, from Brideshead Revisited to Top Gear, but I never actually understood what was going on. That Pretty Little Horsebreaker has cleared up the confusion to some extent, but only in that I now understand why I’m confused by it. See, I always thought that there must be some point to all the folks in (red) pink coats riding horses, but it turns out there’s not. They are entirely unnecessary for the business of killing foxes. There’s a pack of hounds to hunt down the fox, a guy to be in charge of the hounds, and a whole slew of people to run around after the hounds for the hell of it. Which I guess I understand, because there’s probably no other way to get the kind of unpredictable cross-country ride they’re going for, but I also find it kind of weird. No, guys, you’re not actually hunting. You’re chasing on horseback dogs that are hunting. Let’s not call this something it’s not.
Not that the book is solely composed of detailed descriptions of people on horses running after dogs that are fox hunting. Mostly it’s about Kitty Herrick’s love life. Kitty is, I think, nineteen, and the only daughter of a widowed father. The two of them are big into sport, and by “sport” I mean “chasing on horseback dogs that are hunting”. Kitty’s got two suitors, both of whom are also really into sport. Captain Cyril Mordaunt is extremely good-looking, not particularly wealthy, and apparently has a really cute mustache. Lord Algernon Loddington is the son of a Duke, has known Kitty since she was a kid, and is kind of dreamy. Obviously Kitty’s much more interested in Cyril, the handsome stranger, but practically as soon as she gets engaged to him and tells her father about it, her father commits suicide and Kitty is left penniless.
It’s pretty clear that Cyril — and his mercenary mother — are a lot less interested in Kitty as soon as she’s found not to be an heiress, but Mrs. Kennard has the engagement break down slowly, so that Cyril isn’t an outright villain. There’s a long, drawn-out process of the two of them negotiating their own ends of the situation, which is pretty great, especially since the two ends of the situation are basically nothing alike.
Once it becomes clear that, whatever Cyril’s feelings, Lady Mordaunt is hostile to her, Kitty takes a job with the local horse dealer, who knows her well and wants to help her out. Everyone — including her employer — deplores this step, but as Kitty points out, none of them were willing to offer any other ideas as to how she might earn her living, so they’re not really in a place to criticize. There are a lot of class issues tied up in peoples’ various objections to Kitty becoming a horsebreaker, and, in Mrs. Kennard’s universe, they turn out in part to be justified. Kennard walks a fine line between having Kitty be amazing at her job and having her be too good for it, and mostly makes it work. And if the only way to remove Kitty from her job is by placing her in physical danger on multiple occasions — well, I’m surprised Kennard held out as long as she did.
I have a weakness for books like this, where the plot can be viewed as a problem to be solved, and the author’s job is first to find a solution and second to conceal the plot’s inner workings. Mrs. Kennard does a pretty decent job with both. Take, for example, the problem of how to detach the gold-digger from the heroine — a classic situation. Kennard brings in an ugly, slightly vulgar heiress — also a classic — as part of her solution, but she makes said heiress kind of great. Judith Van Agnew, as Kitty’s oblivious rival, is the only person who understands the contortions Kitty’s pride has to go through as she adjusts to her new position. And although Miss Van Agnew’s presence often signals Kitty’s worst behavior, neither of them hold that against each other. It’s so easy, in books like this, for the author to end up having most of the women hate each other, and Mrs. Kennard almost goes that route, but Miss Van Agnew is a saving grace. Cyril is luckier than he deserves.
So, yeah, I really enjoyed this book, whatever you want to call it. Mrs. Kennard seems to have written a number of similarly horsey books, and in spite of the fact that I don’t care what a horse’s hocks look like, or even what they are, I’ll be seeking some of them out.
ETA: Horse injury report in the comments.