Ruby Constance Annie Ashby (1899–1966), known as Ruby Ferguson, was a British writer of popular fiction, including children's books, romances, and mysteries. She is best known today for her "Jill" books, a series of Pullein-Thompsonesque pony books for children and young adults.
Life and career
Ferguson was born in Hebden Bridge and raised in Reeth, North Yorkshire. Her father was the Reverend David Ashby, a Wesleyan minister, and Ferguson herself later became a lay officer of the Methodist church. She received her education at Bradford Girls Grammar School and then at St Hilda's College at the University of Oxford, where she read English from 1919 to 1922, gaining a normal BA and, a few years later, the Oxford MA.
She then moved to Manchester and took a job as a secretary, supplementing her income by writing a regular column for the British Weekly, and by reading and reviewing books for a publisher. Her writing career began in earnest when she submitted some detective stories to a weekly competition in the Manchester Evening News. Her first full-length novel appeared in 1926, and she continued writing novels and stories under the name "R.C. Ashby" until the mid-1930s.
In 1934, she married Samuel Ferguson, a widower with two sons. Three years later, she published Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary, a romantic novel that proved very popular. Between 1949 and 1962 she attained her greatest success when she wrote the "Jill" books for her step-grandchildren, Libs, Sallie, and Pip. Her last book, Children at the Shop, is a fictionalised memoir of her childhood.
The "Jill" books
The Jill books are a series of nine children's novels about young equestrienne Jill Crewe and her adventures with her two ponies, Black Boy and Rapide. In recent editions, small changes were made to the background details to make the books more accessible to later generations; references to cigarette smoking were excised, for example, and "Black Boy" became the more politically correct "Danny Boy". The series takes the protagonist from the age of twelve to fifteen, from a pony novice to a prize-winning rider.
In the first book in the series, Jill's Gymkhana, Jill's father has recently died, and she moves with her mother to a small Pool Cottage near the fictional village of Chatton. Her mother hopes to support them both as a children's author (similarly to E. Nesbit's classic The Railway Children). Jill is at first a social outcast in "horsy" Chatton because she doesn't own a pony and can't ride. When her mother's stories finally begin to sell for £52, however, the first thing she buys is "Black Boy" pony for £12 for her daughter. With hard work and the expert assistance of Martin Lowe, a wheelchair-using former Royal Air Force pilot, Jill becomes a star of Chatton equitation.
Jill is grateful for her mother's success; however, as she says repeatedly throughout the series, she "can't get on" with her mother's books at all, finding them impossibly sweet and whimsical (possibly a veiled criticism of the works of Enid Blyton). In contrast, Ferguson's Jill is an active, independent and witty character who defies post-war expectations for English girls by scorning ladylike pursuits, treating boys her own age as equals, and working hard to achieve her goals. This makes Ferguson's writing outstanding not only in the pony stories genre, but in children's literature generally.
- Jill has just discovered she must spend the summer holidays away from her pony Black Boy while her mother does a book tour in the United States. Source: A Stable for Jill, Chapter 1.
|“||I did my level best to look on the bright side, only I honestly couldn't find one to look on. There was a book of Mummy's called Barbie Bright Side about a girl who had both her legs cut off in a motor smash and got such a name for looking on the bright side that practically everybody in the town used to come to her and ask her to find a bright side for them too, and she always did.
Gosh! I said aloud. If Barbie could find a Bright Side in this she ought to get the V.C.
- Jill and her friends are having tea with Susan Pyke, a snooty, superior sort of girl with wealthy parents. Susan rides very well and is a perennial rival for Jill. Here, Susan's mother waxes nostalgic about her own horseriding past. Source: Jill's Gymkhana, Chapter 16.
|“||'When I was a child,' said Mrs Pyke, 'I was the youngest rider to hounds in the county. I remember the M.F.H. once lifted me on to my pony himself, and there I sat in my little habit with my long fair curls hanging down to my waist. Children had the loveliest hair in those days.'
Personally I thought (a) it was impossible to picture Mrs Pyke as a child at all, and (b) that curls down to your waist must have looked pretty awful all waving in the breeze like floating cork-screws...I mean, there are always plaits.
- Jill is finishing up a great day at Chatton Show, the equestrian event of the year in her part of the world. Her best friend, Ann Derry, has done quite well too. Source: Jill's Gymkhana, Chapter 18.
|“||'Nice work,' said Martin as we came up, and we both glowed a bit.
'Mine was just luck,' said Ann, 'but Jill's riding like a cyclops.'
'You mean, if she had two eyes she'd be riding like a centaur,' said Martin, and we all laughed as we munched our sandwiches and put away a lot of ice cream. Then we went to have a look at the ponies and make a fuss of them for doing so well, and we found them resting quietly in the shade of the trees and making soft little nickering noises of pleasure when they heard us speaking to them, and saw the handfuls of oats we held out to them.
Mrs. Darcy, a local riding instructor, has had to go to London, and Jill along with some of her friends, is looking after the riding school in Mrs. Darcy's absence. These responsibilities extend to looking after Blue Smoke, Mrs. Darcy's own gorgeous hunter worth 500 guineas. However, Blue Smoke gets desperately ill in the middle of the night, and Jill is called up to the riding school to help get the vet, along with Wendy. Source: Jill Has Two Ponies, Chapter 11
|“||'Well, you girls clear out,' said the vet, cheerfully, 'and let me have a look. Go and make me a cup of tea. I've been sitting up with a cow for hours.'
We thought it very heartless of the vet to want tea, but we went into the house and made him a cup. We didn't make any for ourselves, it would have choked us. Every time I caught Wendy's eye she gave a gulp, and every time Wendy caught my eye I gave a gulp. We did nothing but gulp at each other. I set off down the yard with the vet's cup of tea and slopped it all over into the saucer. Then suddenly I saw the vet before me. The heartless man was grinning all over his face.
'She's just been playing you up,' he said. A touch of a toothache, that's all, but you know what these thoroughbreds are like, the least touch of pain and they act as if they were dying.'
Aside from the "Jill" series, most of Ferguson's books are long out of print and have become somewhat rare. The exception is Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, which was recently republished by Persephone Books. At its original publication, The Queen Mother is reported to have enjoyed the book so much that she invited Ruby Ferguson to dinner at Buckingham Palace. The new edition also received favourable notices; in fact, it was listed as one of the "Books of the Year" by The Spectator.
List of works
The Jill series
- Jill's Gymkhana—sometimes sold with A Stable for Jill. (1949)
- A Stable for Jill (1951)
- Jill has Two Ponies (1952)
- Jill Enjoys her Ponies (1954) (later republished as Jill and the Runaway)
- Jill's Riding Club (1956)
- Rosettes for Jill (1957)
- Jill and the Perfect Pony (1959)
- Pony Jobs for Jill (1960) (later republished as Challenges for Jill)
- Jill's Pony Trek (1962)
Other works as Ruby Ferguson
- Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937) (Republished in 2004 by Persephone Books)
- The Moment of Truth (1944)
- Our Dreaming Done (1946)
- Winter's Grace (1948)
- Turn Again Home (1951)
- Apricot Sky (1952)
- A Paintbox for Pauline (1953)
- The Leopard's Coast (1954)
- For Every Favour (1956)
- Doves in My Fig-tree (1957)
- The Cousins of Colonel Ivy (1959)
- The Wakeful Guest (1962)
- A Woman With a Secret (1965)
- Children at the Shop: The Charming Autobiography of Childhood (1967)
- The Queen's Book of the Red Cross. With a message from Her Majesty the Queen and contributions by fifty British authors and artists. In aid of the Lord Mayor of London's Fund for the Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (1939) (contributor)
As R.C. Ashby
- The Moorland Man (1926)
- The Tale of Rowan Christie (1927)
- Beauty Bewitched (1928)
- Death at Tiptoe (1931)
- Miss Graham's Guest ("The Methodist", No. 90, June 1932)
- Plot Against a Widow (1932)
- He Arrived at Dusk (1933)
- One Way Traffic (1933)
- Out Went the Taper (1934)
- A biographical note from Persephone Books
- Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary at Persephone Books
- A review of Lady Rose by Nicholas Clee of The Guardian.
- More biographical information from Hilary Clare; plot summaries and more from a site specialising in pony books.
- A useful article about collecting old books, featuring the author's pony books, amongst others.