Enid Bagnold, Author of National Velvet
By Nava Atlas | On March 18, 2015 | Updated September 25, 2022 | Comments (0)
Enid Bagnold (October 27, 1889 – March 31, 1981) was a British novelist and playwright. Though now best known as the author of the classic 1935 children’s novel National Velvet, she wrote about a variety of subjects in a number of genres.
The daughter of an army officer, Bagnold was born in Rochester, England and spent her early years in Jamaica, after which she was educated in England and France. She attended art school, studying with some notable artists.
Though National Velvet (1935) and possibly The Chalk Garden might ring some familiar bells, a 2008 article (in conjunction with a stage revival of the latter) by Sarah Crompton states that “… her name is almost forgotten … the rest of a rackety, riveting life and career has fallen down the cracks of literary history.”
Enid Bagnold biography highlights
- She remains best known as the author of the children’s novel National Velvet.
- The hugely successful film version of National Velvet (1944) gave the young Elizabeth Taylor her first starring film role.
- Bagnold’s first book was Diary Without Dates, a controversial 1918 novel about the suffering of soldiers during World War I.
- Her play, The Chalk Garden, premiered on Broadway in 1955, and also went on to be a film.
- Bagnold’s prickly personality put her at odds with her literary contemporaries, who called her a “demon lady” and a “monster.”
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World War I and first books
Bagnold changed direction from pursuing a path in art when she went to work as a journalist for a magazine in 1911. The editor, a notorious womanizer, seduced her when she was 22 and he in his mid-fifties.
During the first World War, Bagnold served in the British Women’s Services as a nurse’s aide, attending to the non-medical needs of wounded British soldiers at a hospital not far from London.
What she saw there was horrific, and from that experience she wrote A Diary Without Dates. Published in 1918, it was presented as a dreamlike prose-poem about the physical and mental suffering of soldiers. Its allusions on the doctors and nurses she worked with led to her dismissal from the Services. Though the book has long been out of print, it’s a timeless commentary on the horrors of war.
The controversy surrounding A Diary Without Dates drove sales of the book in England, with customers lining up around blocks to buy the book, but its success didn’t ease her entry into literary circles. She knew members of the esteemed Bloomsbury circle, for example, but was never accepted into it.
The Happy Foreigner (1920) also details her wartime experiences as a nurse to the wounded of World War I.
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Becoming Lady Jones and a first novel
In 1920 Enid married Sir Roderick Jones, at which point she became Lady Jones. That compelled her to become a society hostess, another role she wasn’t quite comfortable with, either. She was apparently insecure about managing servants and organizing dinner parties.
She also found this role to be somewhat in conflict with her desire to write, though she kept writing through it all. She continued to use her maiden name for her writing career.
Her first work of fiction was the 1924 novel, Serena Blandish or the Difficulty of Getting Married (1924). There was a dry spell until 1930, when Alice & Thomas & Jane was published. Perhaps this is when she was having and raising her four children. Despite her difficulty with the other people in her life, she was said to have been a devoted mother.
Bagnold’s best-known work remains the novel National Velvet. It’s the story of an ambitious, horse-crazy fourteen-year-old girl, Velvet Brown, who rides her horse, Pi, to win Britain’s Grand National steeplechase.
Assisted by Mi, her father’s hired hand, Velvet plots to get the horse ready for what’s considered “the greatest race in the world,” praying to become “the best rider in England,” not for the money but for the glory of the horse she loves so dearly.
It’s a sentimental tale, to be sure, but it struck a chord with readers, especially horse-crazy girls, and has remained a classic since. The book was successfully made into a film starring the young Elizabeth Taylor in 1944.
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National Velvet: A Review
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The Chalk Garden
Another of Bagnold’s most successful works was the play The Chalk Garden, which premiered on Broadway in 1955, produced for the stage by Irene Selznick. Bagnold was 64 years old when the play was first published, and, according to Selznick, she was ever eager for accolades: “I have known no one else in my life as eager for laurels as Enid was … she craved celebrity.”
The story of Laurel, a disturbed child, and her governess, The Chalk Garden was also made into a 1964 film starring Debora Kerr and Hayley Mills. The stage play has been revived all over the world since its premier.
Her last play, A Matter of Gravity (1967; original title Call Me Jacky) starred Katherine Hepburn.
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A prickly personality, disliked by colleagues
No one was sure what to make of Bagnold during her time. Virginia Woolf called her “a scalawag who married a very rich man” and “a disagreeable chit.” Though Woolf’s legacy now far outshines Bagnold’s, at the time, she was a bit afraid of her, as well as somewhat contemptuous.
Others have observed that Bagnold was never quite in step with her times, and a woman of great contradiction. In her 1969 Autobiography, she reveals both a naïvete and obsessive nature about a number of things, including sex and men. She regularly had rifts with colleagues, and turned friends into former friends.
Cecil Beaton said of her: “She is not a nice person. But her honesty and strength of character are amazing.”
Incredibly, after having been such an early and astute observer of war, she admired Hitler for a lot longer than seemed reasonable. Later, she was embarrassed by this.
With her prickly personality, her colleagues in the arts called her a “demon lady” and “a monster.” Even her children and grandchildren were often puzzled by or frightened of her. Bagnold’s contemporaries couldn’t quite decide if she was old-fashioned or on the cutting edge.
Bagnold died at Rottingdean, England, at the age of 92. National Velvet is still considered a delightful book (and film). We’ll leave it to readers to decide whether she’s an author worthy of rediscovery.
More about Enid Bagnold
On this site
Enid Bagnold’s bibliography includes numerous other novels, poem collections, and plays. These are the best known:
- A Diary Without Dates (1918)
- The Happy Foreigner (1920)
- Serena Blandish, or the Difficulty of Getting Married (1924)
- National Velvet (1935)
- The Squire (retitled The Door of Life for American publication, 1938)
- The Loved and Envied (1951)
- The Chalk Garden (stage play, 1955)
- A Matter of Gravity (stage play, originally Call Me Jacky, 1967)
Biographies and autobiographies about Enid Bagnold
- Enid Bagnold by Anne Sebba
- Autobiography by Enid Bagnold
- Reader discussions of Bagnold’s books on Goodreads
- The Fascinating First Lady of a Gilded Dynasty
- Margaret Drabble on Playwright Enid Bagnold
- Enid Bagnold: At Odds With the World
Read and Listen
- Bagnold on Project Gutenberg
- Read A Diary Without Dates (full text)
- Audio readings of Bagnold books on Librivox
Films based on Bagnold’s works
- National Velvet (1944)
- The Chalk Garden (1964)