Flambards by K.M. Peyton is the engaging first volume of a historical trilogy that belatedly turned into a quartet over a decade later. This first book is definitely a pony book but later books are more varied.
It is 1908 and Christina, an orphan, is 12 and being sent to live with Uncle Russell. She has been moved between relatives all her life and this is nothing new. Uncle Russell has two teenage sons and Christina believes that she is intended to marry the older one so the money she will eventually inherit will save Flambards, the crumbling family pile, from further deterioration.
Flambards is a depressing house ruled over by the tyrannical Uncle Russell who is severely disabled from a hunting field accident. His elder son Mark is also horse mad but the young boy Will is a totally different character. When we first meet Will he is falling off a horse to be carried badly broken from the hunting field and for much of the first part of the book he is in bed.
Christina is told she must learn to ride and is taught by the patient groom Dick. Mark nearly gets her killed by putting her on an unsuitable horse too early (an event he treats as a joke) and she is saved by the quick thinking of Dick. Depsite this she loves riding and eventually she too is a 'hunting Russell'.
Uncle Russell lives for tales of the chase and won't tolerate non-riders. Will is terrified of horses and Christina catches him trying to walk on his broken leg so it will set badly and he won't have to ride. Christina watches the family in a slightly detached way as careless joking Mark and serious Will deal with their father. Russell is a brute and bully and there are some well written and compellingly unpleasant family scenes.
Gradually Christina is drawn into the family as the years pass. She loves the horses and gets on with Mark in a love-hate sort of way. Unloved kindly Will, with his obsession with planes, she admires and feels sorry for. There is very much a sense of distance between family and servants which Peyton, writing in the egalitarian 60s, starts to undermine through Christina. She can't see the patient and skillful groom Dick as just a servant and enrolls him in saving her pony Sweetbriar from being shot. She, Dick and Will pay heavily for this in one of the most unpleasant of Uncle Russell's many gritty moments. Dick is sacked, Will is given a horrific flogging, and Christina is hit in the face with a crutch.
The book is driven by the hunting season and family relationships and so character is all. Peyton's mastery here is clear, especially in delineating two so different brothers, and two very different kinds of bravery alongside a third variation of masculinity in the steadfast Dick. By the end of the book the hunt ball is in full swing and Christina elopes with one of the three young men in her life. Whilst I can't see modern 12 year olds becoming Team Mark, Team Will or Team Dick in quite the same way as Twihards do, this book has much of the same appeal - with added horses!
I enjoyed the whole series but my favourite books are this one and the utterly brilliant second one The Edge of the Cloud which deserves a review of its own. Be warned that the last volume, Flambards Divided, whilst not grossly explicit, does deal with some very adult themes.
Peril: hunting has lots of peril and there are some sickening accidents. Not a book for the queasy. Christina is often nervous but never exactly frightened, so this keeps the feeling of danger at one remove.
Violence: there is Uncle Russell's temper and the thrashings. Dick beats Mark to a pulp for getting his sister Violet pregnant.
Relationships: there are simmering feelings throughout the book. Christina clearly does not know the facts of life and raises questions others feel awkward answering. Violet the maid becomes pregnant by Mark and Christina is baffled. Will and the housekeeper won't explain the hows and whys.
Death: animals, especially foxes, die. Dick's mother dies but this is touched on only briefly.
Anything else: hunting and lots of it. This mainly from the perspective of the riding experience but there is 'blooding'. The riding descriptions are wonderful but the hunting won't appeal to everyone. The accidents and fights: there are a lot of broken bones and bloody noses and Will trying to walk on his broken leg in a cold sweat with his face 'greenish' from the pain is a real 'eugh' moment. Not a book for anyone who feels faint at medical things.
Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the book: the horses, the characters, the historical elements. Not much happens plot wise, but it has much to appeal to the older children in our age group who respond to character driven fiction.
Other reviews and useful sites:
You can read my review of the second volume in the series, The Edge of the Cloud, here.
There is an excellent review of Flambards on academic Rohan Maitzen's site here, and one of the Flambards series on the blog A Thing With Feathers. There is also an interesting blog piece comparing Flambards with The Hunger Games: strong outdoorsy women in a man's world, time of war, etc.
I bought my copies of the quartet from the lovely Jane of Jane Badger Books who is a national treasure when it comes to pony books. Jane's KM Peyton page is here. Jane has a history of the English pony story coming out next month, Heroines on Horseback.
A TV adaption was made of the first three books and is available on DVD .