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  • How Close Is Too Close? Enid Bagnold, National Velvet, and the Butchers of Rottingdean
How Close Is Too Close? Enid Bagnold, National Velvet, and the Butchers of Rottingdean

Nobody grownup seems to read National Velvet. Take my word for it. This is not a children's book. It's a fairy tale, yes, but it's also a brilliant and deeply observed book about a very real family: that of Araminty and her husband, Mr. Brown (the parents call one another Mr. and Mrs. Brown even in moments of great tenderness) and their five children. The three older girls are, "Like golden greyhounds," Velvet, at fourteen, is described as "a sapling Dante," while their four-year-old son, Donald, carts around his "spit bottle," and worries about "Stinking ants." 

The family also includes their dogs--the nameless "black barking dog on a string," that nobody in the house hears anymore, and who occasionally lunging himself senseless; the three yard spaniels, thin and golden like the three older daughters, leaning against the "groaning" door, longing to get in; and Jacob, the fox terrier, growing stout in middle age, obsequious and fawning, and who trots from person to person at the table. "The Browns loved Jacob as they loved each other, deeply, from the back of the soul, with intolerance in daily life." 

And then there's Mi, the son of the only man who knows what Araminty is really made of, "embedded in fat, her keen, hooded eyes hardly lifting the rolls above them." For Araminty once swam the channel and Mi's father was the man who trained her to do so. 

Father is the butcher, with a shop and slaughterhouse (the latter sharing a wall with the house.) Mother does the books and cooks the remnants left over when the fancy meat is sold. 

And here's where we get into the "How close is too close?"

According to Michael Thornton, the film and theatrical reviewer who was befriended by Bagnold when he was seven and she in her fifties,  National Velvet's publication in 1937, "created an uproar in Rottingdean. The village butchers, the Hilders, contended that they were cruelly caricatured as the Brown family in the novel. Their daughter Winnie and her three siblings had clearly served as models for the characters of the heroine, Velvet Brown, and her sisters. Everyone in Rottingdean knew that the family’s matriarch, Mrs Hilder, had been an exceptional swimmer in her day. She was incensed to find herself portrayed as Mrs Brown, a bossy, over-large matron. 

To add insult to injury, Enid did not even buy her meat from them, but got her joints at Sainsbury’s in Brighton. The Hollywood movie nine years later, which elevated Elizabeth Taylor to stardom, made Enid’s success international and the Hilders even more resentful.

I adore the Browns, especially Araminty. She "cooked admirably, ran the accounts, watched the shop, looked after the till, spoke seldom, interfered hardly ever, sighed sometimes, (because it would have taken a war on her home soil, the birth of a colony, or a great cataclysm to have dug from her what she was born for,) moved about the house, brought up her four taut daughters under her heavy eye and thought about death occasionally with a kind of sardonic shrug. Ed(wina) Malvina and Meredith behaved themselves at the wink of one of her heavy eyes. Velvet would have laid down her stringy life for her." 

I would, too. 

And yes, Mrs. Hilders hated the way she was presented. Should Enid Bagnold have changed the family, made them unrecognizable? Made the three older daughters, "all alike, like golden greyhounds, into three boys, thus losing the dynamic of four girls in a row, not to mention, "their golden hair was sleek, their fine faces like antelopes, their shoulders still and steady, like Zulu women carrying water, and their bodies beneath the shoulders rippling when they moved." 

Then, there's Mi, who taught the children to ride, including the three little brothers and the eldest,  Bagnold's daughter, now "Laurian, Countess of Harcourt," the horse mad girl who inspired the whole novel and provided the line drawings of horses that illustrate it. “I was able to practise my riding so much because I had a governess and a lot of time.’’ And because she had McHardy, a former jockey with a mysterious past. He slept, by choice, in a loose box and, according to Bagnold, invented the Joneses as a “horsebox family”, as they toured gymkhanas countrywide. She once claimed that for the 10 years McHardy was with the family he was “more important than a governess: more important than a mother”. It was his racing background that informed the book’s narrative and his character, Mi Taylor, was played by Mickey Rooney in the film. There is no word of objections from McHardy to his character, in either novel or film. 




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