Archive for November 16th, 2011

November 16, 2011

The Marlows and the Traitor (AF 2)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

 

Not a school story this time; The Marlows and the Traitor is an adventure story. In the introduction to the GGBP edition of Falconer’s Lure (this piece is proving very useful for contextualising the books), Forest explains that it was written in 1953. “[T]he Nuremberg Trials were in full cry, and Rebecca West was writing her daily accounts of the proceedings,” and so “I thought it would be  interesting to write about a traitor – for children, of course”. That “of course” is something I kept coming back to as I reread the book.

In The Marlows and the Traitor the four younger Marlow siblings (Ginty, Peter, Nicola and Lawrie) are spending a part of the holidays in a hotel with their mother – reasonable explanations are given for the absence of the rest of the family. Peter (a cadet at Dartmouth) and Nicola, while on a walk see someone Peter knows from the Navy- a Lieutenant Foley. Foley sees and clearly recognises Peter but chooses not to acknowledge his greeting. Later the two children find a secluded empty house and break in to discover that it has a lighthouse of its own. They learn that it belongs to the Foley family though none of them live there any longer. When they return to the house bringing the other two children, the four discover documents that suggest that Foley is a spy. They are discovered – Lawrie escapes and has an adventure of her own, but the other three are forced to spend some days with the man they now know to be a traitor.

As with all the Forest books, to describe the plot here feels entirely inadequate.  Autumn Term only really took us into Nicola’s head; here we really get to know Peter, Ginty and Lawrie as well. Peter’s feelings for Foley (hero-worship, distrust, self-doubt), and his discomfort with his chosen career – one he seems willing to continue with anyway. Ginty’s fear of underground spaces, Lawrie’s complex relationship with fiction and performance.

Foley is the book’s best creation. He is not ideologically on the side of the people he works for – whether this makes him ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is debatable – just a romantic daredevil. And he’s not particularly noble underneath. The text occasionally teases us with that possibility; he is occasionally genuinely concerned about the children and is cordial to them throughout. But when it comes down to it, he’s quite willing to let them die.

And trial and imprisonment was something he would not face; the children’s safety could not weigh against that. Foley shrugged and did not debate the matter. He had always told himself that he would prefer death at the hands of the people he had served to the justice of those he had betrayed; and now, always supposing the worst did come to the worst, he found, rather to his surprise, that it was still true.

Autumn Term had Nicola Marlow trying to negotiate the differences between how things are in books and in real life. With The Marlows and the Traitor she faces something similar: she must reconcile the image of this extremely attractive character with that of a traitor and spy. And of course, this being Forest, Foley knows what sorts of narratives she could construct to make it easier, and he pre-emptively teases her to make them impossible.

“A traitor? Suppose I told you I wasn’t? Suppose I told you I was playing a lone hand to confound the enemies of this realm? Suppose I told you I’d been patiently setting a trap and that now it was baited and ready to be sprung? What would you say to that?”

Nicola looked at him. His eyes, impish, teasing, looked back at her. She said slowly: “I don’t think I’d believe you.”

“And you’d be right.”

She felt sick with disappointment. She had hoped desperately that he would insist that that was the truth and – and show her papers to prove it.

Nicola and Foley’s interaction also allows for one of my favourite exchanges in the book:

Behind her, Foley began to whistle under his breath; she felt his fingers dig into her shoulder as he twisted her round to face him. “Now tell me,” he said. “You turned her round on purpose, didn’t you?”

Nicola’s heart thumped. Foley had queer, rather nice, eyes; not quite grey as she had thought, but greenish, with darker flecks in them; she stared at them, while she said: “Yes, I did.”

“I thought so. And what happened to the engine?”

Nicola’s throat felt dry. Foley whistled softly between his teeth. “Come on. What happened?” And then his fingers tightened on her shoulder. “We know the same songs, don’t we? ‘Injuns on the railroad’. Isn’t that what you were whistling when you came out?”

Nicola’s cheeks flamed. “Y-yes.”

“‘Sugar in the petrol’,” said Foley softly, staring at her. “Well, I’ll be damned. Of course. You said you knew Rob Anquetil, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

Foley took his hand away. He said conversationally: “Now, I’ll tell you something rather comic. I made up that song when Rob and I were kids. It commemorated a trick I played on a very unpleasant and influential relative. You know Hamlet, I suppose?”

“N-no,” said Nicola, a little puzzled by what seemed an abrupt change of subject. “We don’t do Shakespeare till next year. Lower Fourth, you know.”

“So if I tell you that ’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard, it won’t be such a cliché to you as it might to someone better informed?”

Nicola flushed again. She looked at him, but he didn’t seem particularly angry, so she asked curiously: “What is a petard?”

Here we have among other things (the looking at people and finding them attractive, wanting to know things, the casual, stiff-upper-lipness of people in terrifying positions) the casual references to literature that make the series so much fun for readers who themselves love books. Because (however unrealistic this may seem when applied to people we know in the real world) almost all of Forest’s characters see literature and music and film as things that actually affect their lives; they describe their own feelings to themselves in terms of characters in books they’ve read, they quote casually, as if those iconic words have just naturally become part of their vocabulary.

And most of all, in a series so concerned with literature, the relationship between fiction and reality and the importance of narrative, Forest’s characters read themselves. There’s a concern about how their actions look – not a ‘what will the neighbours say?’ anxiety, but a sense of oneself as having a part in a larger story.

She looked at Ginty, wondering if she was feeling better too. But Ginty, though she was drinking her cocoa, was still crying. All the same, though she couldn’t think what had made Ginty start one of her crying fits, which always made Nicola feel squirmy inside even when they happened at home, she had to own that it couldn’t, if you looked at it in one way, have come at a better time. Foley was bound to think it was because of Peter being drowned, and so there was no need for Nicola herself to do anything but be rather silent and miserable and – what was it she’d heard someone say in a bus when they were talking about a funeral? “Dazed with the shock, my dear. Couldn’t seem to take it in at all.”

All the same, in spite of being scared, Lawrie, in an odd way, was rather enjoying herself. She kept thinking: “This is how it feels – this is how my feet go – when I’m in films I must remember this.”

 

This sort of self-reflection is seen within the series as something quite different to slotting ones perception of oneself into an already existing narrative – I’ll be forced to talk more about this when I come to Peter’s Room but it’s visible here as well; lightheartedly, from a minor character named David.

“One thing I’m not going to do,” said David firmly, “is open Bill up with a penknife, while you stand by with a hurricane lamp. I know it’s the best way to get our pictures in the papers, but I just don’t happen to fancy it, somehow.”

 

And so I find myself coming back to Forest’s “for children, of course”. A traitor who has no redeeming qualities other than his own personal attractiveness. An Admiralty that is willing, if necessary, to consider a group of (upper-middle-class at the very least!) children “expendable”. For children, of course.