(A year and a half later, the fifth in my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)
It’s been over a year since my last Antonia Forest reread post. In that time I’ve re-read Peter’s Room three times and I’m still astonished by it.
Peter’s Room takes place in the Christmas holidays following the events of End of Term. Peter, the younger Marlow brother, has his holidays start earlier than those of his siblings, and so spends the first few days alone. During that time he takes possession of an old building (called “the Old Shippen”) on the property, used to store wood and potatoes. There’s an upper storey, and here he finds a number of his cousin Jon’s (whose death in Falconer’s Lure is the reason the Marlows now live at Trennels) childhood treasures. He also finds family records that tell of an ancestor named Malise who, during the Civil War, had gone against the rest of the family and declared for the king. Which is the sort of glorious, doomed romantic gesture that the Marlows (and I suppose many of their readers, including myself) are attracted to. [Having strong opinions about the Civil War seems to have been a thing writers of and characters in school stories did; see some of Farah Mendlesohn’s work here.] There’s a rather lovely moment in which Peter remembers having strong opinions of his own as a young boy at school:
For a long time the lists and bills and household accounts yielded nothing; and then, at the foot of an unfinished receipt, the crabbed whisper became a voice: The Eighth Day of May, 1645. The Sixteenth Birthday of my Second son, Malise. This forenoon he rode away as he has so many times sworn to serve the Man of Blood Charles Stuart. O Absolom my son my son.
He bit the ball of his thumb, remembering that once, ages ago, in his first term at prep school, it had mattered tremendously whether you were for King or Parliament. (A very small Royalist had been stuffed into the water-butt and, as reprisal, an even smaller Parliamentarian locked in the potting-shed at the end of the kitchen-garden where no one ever came: he’d forgotten all that for years, but now, sitting in the lamplight, there came a vivid memory of the terrible panicky feeling that no one would ever hear him or come and let him out ever.)
There are other things going on; the Old Shippen is said by locals (the Marlows don’t count, having only been here a few months) to be cursed and the site of a sighting of the devil; Peter suspects this is true when a bag of “sovereigns” he unearths turns out to be only a collection of new pennies. Meanwhile his sisters have come home, Ginty (Virginia) is doing a project on the Brontës’ Angria and Gondal stories, and between them the family (reluctantly, in Nicola’s case) and their friend Patrick Merrick decide that Peter’s new den would be the perfect spot for some “Gondalling” of their own. And from this point the book tells two parallel stories- the doomed mission to Angora by the young king of Exina (with frequent interjections and arguments from the roleplayers) and that of the Marlows and Patrick’s winter holidays. Holidays which, incidentally, include fox-hunting, parties in houses with actual ballrooms, and the selling of an heirloom tiara in order to buy a couple more horses for the family. This is going to make the “too poor to afford boarding school fees” subplot of The Cricket Term look very silly.
If there’s an overarching theme to the Marlow books it has to be the ways in which people interact with stories and how this facilitates or hinders their relationships to other people and to the world. In that sense Peter’s Room is probably the most important book in the series. I think it’s fascinating that, in a series where people’s instinctive storifying of their lives is generally seen as natural human behaviour, Gondalling is seen as so terribly dangerous. Karen’s dismissal of the Brontës is one thing; the reason we really know that something is wrong is because Nicola instinctively recoils from it, and because it nearly ends in tragedy.
And I’m still not sure what the book’s position, if it has one, is on Gondal. Karen thinks that the Gondal and Angria fixation was a waste of Emily Brontë’s talent as well as dangerously self-absorbed; imagine creating an entire world and telling stories within that world forever (I know the Marlows have read Lord of the Rings, I’m pretty sure they have not read The Silmarillion). Ginty admires it precisely for its futility (glorious lost causes again) and her own love of romanticising herself, Lawrie always enjoys throwing herself into stories (and possibly as a result is the least affected of them all). With Nicola, the only objection she ever puts into words is this—
… we don’t know each other well enough […] Not for pretend games. I couldn’t say Land ahoy skipper and things like that with Patrick there. I’m not even sure I could with Gin.
Putting herself into other roles, then, is personal to Nicola – and she is in any case a very private person throughout the series. It is something she will do, when she’s alone, as in the sections where going out to look after Sprog is made easier by pretending to be an arctic explorer. Nicola never talks (or thinks, as far as Forest shows us) about her Gondal character as the others do; he’s inauthentic. Her roleplaying, when it happens, will be private and honest. And again, I’m not sure if the text is explicitly saying anything about writing yourself into other narratives unless it’s that we all do it, and that it’s possible for it to go horribly wrong, and that it’s possible to do it wholeheartedly and still retain a sense of self.
There’s also a (I think?) separate thing from roleplaying, and that is a sort of empathy that comes from imagining others in your position or yourself in theirs, or knowing that they have faced what you have. Nicola’s holidays have been blighted by the Brontës, but when her bird Sprog dies she and Emily are joined for one moment in a sort of shared community of grief.
Instantly, at the unguarded thought, tears flooded her eyes, and furiously she blinked them dry. If she was going to behave like this every time she thought of him, it was going to be simply ghastly. In a way it would have been better if it had happened at school; it was so miuch more difficult to cry there. But already Trennels had come into view, a pattern of lighted windows against the dark morning, and she stood still deliberately thinking Sprog until the name was just a bruised sadness—so if she could manage it so that she didn’t tell anyone till tonight, better still tomorrow, she ought to be alright —–
A sentence wrote itself across her mind: Our poor little cat is dead. Emily is sorry. She thought it again as she went on towards the house, and the clenched, wrung feeling inside her began to slacken. She couldn’t have said why Emily Brontë’s long-ago sorrow should have been comforting, but it was: probably that Charlotte had told her it was wrong to care too much about animals, just like Ann always said it to her, Nicola, too.
Peter’s Room as a book:
I think one of the clever things that Peter’s Room does is to have its characters constantly looking for a narrative for their own holidays as well as the one going on in the story they’ve created. Peter’s attraction to the idea that the Shippen is cursed seems to die down while he’s enjoying the roleplaying but comes back when he learns that the historic Malise (whose name he’s adopted for his Gondal character) betrayed his cause. By the end of the book he’s back to considering
how oddly things had—had transmogrified themselves. The sovereigns had become farthings; Malise had turned from hero to villain: even the holiday itself had changed from what he’d planned into this Gondal nonsense: whatever Mr. Tranter might say, it did look as if Ted Colthard’s grandfather had—well—you never knew——
Meanwhile Ginty desperately wants to see significance in the world that would legitimise their Gondalling. An epistle read out in church, a similarity between something she’d made up and the account of an explorer.
… she told herself, as she had in church, that by some side-stepping chance they had come, unaware, to another dimension in which, it might be, Crispian and Rupert and the rest were true—and they themselves were only acting out something which had once been real. It could happen. It did happen … and always provided one didn’t say it aloud (especially to Nicola) it was gloriously convincing …
There are other ways in which the book serves to remind me of its book-ness, though perhaps these are less deliberate. There’s Nicola’s insistence that she will not read books in which animals die—whereupon Forest turns this into such a book with the death of Nicola’s merlin Sprog.
And then there’s Ann’s remark that in Gaskell’s writing on the Brontës she likes Charlotte best, immediately countered by Karen’s pointing out that Gaskell is writing from Charlotte’s point of view and one is supposed to like her best. Perhaps I’m reaching here, but in a book which consistently confirms Nicola’s distrust of the game at its centre, perhaps this is a reminder that we are reading a book, and that it’s one in which we’re supposed to like Nicola best?
Patrick and Ginty:
Before the beginning of the roleplaying game there are already signs that Patrick is attracted to Ginty, and that Ginty may be interested in Patrick. But then they begin to Gondal, and the two are cast, first, as Rupert-and-Crispian (best friends, but Ginty compares them to Nisus and Euryalus so there’s a strong romantic undercurrent as well) then as Rupert-and-Rosina (doomed lovers). What this does is to cast a massive weight of story upon their relationship that will have awkward consequences in the future. To be Patrick-and-Ginty will always disappoint them now; in (I think) The Attic Term Patrick will find it difficult to tell Ginty he “loves” her unless he is being Rupert and she is being Rosina. At the end of the book both are mourning Gondal and comparing its loss to “that ghastly long thing of Wordsworth’s about fading into the light of common day”. In the light of common day, Patrick and Ginty might not, eventually, have enough between them.
We’re meant to love Nicola. I love Nicola. And Patrick is Nicola’s friend, even if it’s not a romantic relationship at the time, and Ginty comes along and “steals” Patrick by being older, and more beautiful, and more interested in the thing in which he is interested over this few weeks. We have read stories and we know how they work; this has become a love triangle whether Nicola likes it or not, and Ginty is the corner that must be got rid of. Even though Patrick in this book and those that follow it will be frequently insufferable, the sense that this is the way things are supposed to happen is hard to resist.
The thing that always makes me reluctant to reread Peter’s Room is how miserable Nicola is for most of the book. She’s alienated by her dislike of the game from all of her family (all that is her own age, at least) and her merlin dies. And Patrick’s betrayal comes in stages; his having a separate relationship with Ginty, his choosing Ginty to share things that that would normally have been shared with Nicola (“the geese should have been hers”), and worst of all the bringing of his “Rupert” face into ordinary life so that he quite literally becomes a stranger. At one point Patrick, jumping a fence, almost brings his horse down on top of Nicola; instead of stopping to see if she’s okay he rides off with his Rupert face on. Things are never going to be quite right between them again, no matter what the later books (Forest’s books, Sally Hayward’s sequel, various people’s fanfic) may imply. We want this to be okay, but how can it be?
Peter’s Room begins with Peter’s point of view and bears his name but it rapidly turns into a Nicola book, almost as if Forest can’t help herself (and I wonder if it’s a coincidence that in the next book in the series, The Thuggery Affair, Forest has the character be completely absent the whole time). Nicola returns from school, gets unwillingly caught up in a situation that makes her uncomfortable, is unhappy. But then there’s the chapter with the hunt, which is awful because it’s a chapter about foxhunting (the fox lives, at least), but it’s also perfectly written in ways that are astonishing to me. This is where we really see how alienated Nicola has felt all these holidays—during the hunt she remains physically separate from her family throughout. There’s a not-quite-real quality about this entire section that feels to me to make it significant somehow, in a book that is so much about the blurring of the real and the fantastic. And then the high point, when she (who isn’t a good rider, this is something we’ve known about her for some time) and her elderly horse Buster accidentally jump “the Cut”, a feat whose significance Nicola herself doesn’t recognise but everyone else does. This is, for me, the book’s turning point. Things have been terrible, but now they can be good again.
“Then you did jump the Cut!” Something in Patrick’s face told Nicola that though she’d had no intention of doing anything memorable and though it was all Buster’s doing anyway, this jump had put her so One Up that Patrick would never be able to be rude about her riding again. This being so, it also, though Patrick didn’t know about that, avenged the geese. And she bit into her last sandwich with renewed appetite.
Everything doesn’t magically get better after this. There’s still that moment when Patrick turns around and Nicola doesn’t recognise him. But the text doesn’t dwell on this, she meets a fox and has a much better end of the hunt than anyone else. Circumstances prove her to have been right all along when, soon after, the children’s Gondalling nearly leads to a death; an unloaded gun that Patrick planned for ‘Rupert’ to shoot himself with turns out not to have been empty after all, and Nicola finally has the strength to leave.
“But it’s four to one,” hectored Lawrie.
“I don’t care if it’s a billion to a quarter,” said Nicola, discarding family democracy at the same time as she put on her mackintosh. “I think the whole thing’s quite mad. And I think those Brontës of Gin’s must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!”