Archive for ‘Antonia Forest’

May 21, 2013

The Thuggery Affair (AF 6)


My friend Supriya recently visited her family in Bombay, and in a fit of home-sweet-home-ness took this wonderful picture of The Mumbai Mirror.

This was a useful reminder that the next of Antonia Forest’s books contained a) drug-running wildlife b) wordplay (though nothing quite in the league of “bleet(y) hell!”).

If Autumn Term is the Marlow book about genre and Peter’s Room is the one about make-believe, The Thuggery Affair is the one about language. This is to oversimplify, of course, yet language seems to be at the centre of most people’s experience of this book. Forest’s own discussion of the book (again, that useful prologue in the GGB editions) begins with a reference to the self-invented languages of teenagers and a rueful “unfortunately, I think I was the only person who did understand what my characters were saying. But still, try anything once”. Online reviews bear this out by talking constantly about how difficult the language of the “thuggery” is—to the extent that this particular quirk of the book has almost overshadowed the fact that the book is about drug-running pigeons.

A scandaroon, the variety of pigeon used to smuggle drugs. I hope this enhances your understanding of the text.

The plot in brief: Lawrie, Patrick and Peter are home for half-term; Nicola is staying with a friend and Ginty (to Patrick’s disappointment) with her grandmother. A group of young delinquents –you can tell, they wear garish clothes and listen to the Beatles—work nearby, at the home of a woman who breeds pigeons. Two such pigeons are taken down by Patrick’s hawk Regina, and the children discover that one has a capsule filled with white powder attached to its leg. Since all three are rather inept they lose the capsule and decide to split up—Peter will lead the gang (known to the children as “the thuggery”) on a wild goose chase, Patrick will break into the dovecote, and Lawrie, in the absence of the crucial piece of evidence, will take the pigeon’s corpse to the police and explain that it used to have drugs attached. To no one’s surprise, things go horribly wrong.

Further proof that this connection is tenuous, at best. These covers are nothing like one another.

In my head I keep associating The Thuggery Affair with A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’ book was written in 1962, three years before this, and also features teenagers with made-up languages, and, er … the cover of The Thuggery Affair is very orange. This is not a particularly scholarly comparison to make.

But (in part because of the completely spurious connection I’ve made in my head) I can’t help comparing the teenage languages in the two books. And when I do so I find the complaints about the Thuggery being incomprehensible rather strange, because compared to Nadsat this is hardly challenging. I wonder if it has to do with the expectations we bring to a book—perhaps one doesn’t expect a children’s adventure story to require effort. Most of the time the Thuggery’s language is just gloriously stylised:

“Why so much try to decorpse this one flutterlet?” (a character is trying to feed a baby pigeon)

“What met your top, Jukie? It grows a melon.” (Jukie, the leader of the gang, has a bump on his head)

“Belshezzar it” (a message is written on the wall)

For me, the reason this is interesting is that it ties in with a preoccupation with language that runs through the whole book. Forest’s characters don’t just use language, they delight in it. This is clear from the beginning of the book, when we learn how the book gets its name:

That pack of boys the village called them: Patrick, adding one more to the nouns of association listed in The Boke of St. Albans, called them in cheerful exaggeration A Thuggery of Teds.

Shortly after, Patrick gets into an argument with Miss Culver, the breeder of pigeons. Miss Culver is carrying a gun and seems quite threatening, until she realises that Patrick is the son of Anthony Merrick, the local MP.

It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant, but quite another to murder a Merrick … Good humour and chap-to-chappery were now, apparently, in bloom.

Patrick isn’t the only one of the three main characters who delights in language. Peter later describes someone as “trembling like a naspen”. And then there’s Lawrie.

We already know from the previous books in the series that Lawrie is a good actor, and in The Marlows and the Traitor we see her observing other people’s behaviour carefully for the purpose of future roles (people who she is unlikely ever to act are ignored, obviously). Here, she starts the book by imitating a number of stylistic registers: she speaks “in the manner of any comic admiral of film, radio or television”, in her head she “composed a front page story for the Colebridge and District Mail”. So far this is unsurprising – Peter also likes to imitate a strong accent (seen here, but much more in The Ready-Made Family where it forms a part of the actual plot). What is interesting, though, is Lawrie’s ability to think in a different register as well.

Lawrie’s complete ignorance of everything around her often leads her to be used as the comic relief in these books. Here, she is deputed to smuggle the dead pigeon to the Colebridge police and explain the situation to them; a task which terrifies her. She braces herself by putting on make-up to look like a Bond Girl (Peter is alarmed; she does not look anything like Pussy Galore), but then gets really into the act. To the point that when she meets a member of the gang on the train, instead of trying to avoid him and run to the police station she flirts with him, introduces herself as Sophia, and decides to join him for coffee and a movie. And the reader laughs or rolls her eyes and says Oh Lawrie, because of course Lawrie would be so flaky that she’d forget her mission and go off on a date. It’s only later that we realise that there was a genuine threat to Lawrie—when Jukie casually says of Red Ted “I think mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ‘N then again mebbe even if she’s not”. As in The Marlows and the Traitor, we’ve been reminded that the world isn’t entirely safe even for middle-class English children having Blytonesque adventures. Once again we are pulled, as Peter thinks, into “the midst of an adventure which had turned into something huger and blacker than he had bargained for”.

But back to Lawrie who, being Lawrie, when she inhabits a role really inhabits it. And so Forest shows us an actual shift in her internal monologue. “It was just grotty Sophia had to lug her music-case around with her; and she naturally thought it gear when Red Ted offered to carry it for her.” (Though she retains her love of playing with language, describing “The Beatles merseying from Red Ted’s pocket ‘She loves you—yeh, yeh, yeh’”). It’s only when she panics, comes to her senses and escapes, that the register of her thoughts changes back to the one with which we are familiar.

Which is not to imply that the register with which we are familiar is any sort of default. There’s a moment, quite early on, which is rather telling in this respect. The trio of Patrick, Peter and Lawrie have received a note which the Marlows are unable to decipher, but that Patrick, with his greater knowledge of urban slang, is able to translate:

The carton was empty all right; but on the inside of the flap someone had printed: PLAY IT SEHR CRAFTY NODDY-BOY. IF THIS MOB IS SPRUNG THE CLICK IN THE SMOKE WILL HAND DADDY-O HIS HEARSE TICKET SHARPEST.

Peter read this aloud. Lawrie said, “What’s all that mean?”

In an unnaturally level voice Patrick translated. “Take jolly good care softy. If our lot are caught the part of the gang who operate in London will murder your pa. I wouldn’t know if sharpest means razors or just fast.”


I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. For one thing, I’m reading this a good half-century after it was written and that changes a lot of things about context. I invoked Blyton a couple of paragraphs ago; the Famous Five, for example, regularly spend the few days of half-term battling smugglers with no adverse consequences, and saying things like “by jove!” A lot of the language taken for granted by this genre (though can we consider The Thuggery Affair to be in the same genre as Five Get into Trouble?) seems hopelessly archaic to a modern reader. And there are certainly moments in The Thuggery Affair that were probably not meant to be as funny as they are now; at one point Patrick suggests that they might have misheard Jukie’s nickname, and it might be “Junkie”. “Junkie—in their language—means drug addict.” I don’t know how widespread the word was in 1965, and Forest could hardly have predicted that it would become something everyone knew. But I laughed anyway.

But I don’t know if that exchange I quote above can be put down entirely to a disconnect between the world in which it was written and the world in which I am reading it. Because I don’t think Patrick says things like “take jolly good care” on a regular basis. I wonder if the text is laying that extra bit of emphasis on the sort of language that he uses to remind us that that too is not a default but a specific style of speaking associated with specific cultural markers.

Forest often gets dismissed by critics for writing about (since there aren’t enough of those in literature) privileged people having adventures. I do think this is a fair criticism, and I often find myself mocking the supposed poverty of her characters (the poor things cannot afford to buy more horses without selling the family tiara). But in The Thuggery Affair for the first time (and perhaps this has to do with the fact that it was the 60s) she might be doing the same. Twice in the book characters are forced to confront their privilege. First Lawrie, who discovers that the police might seem perfectly friendly and polite to the daughters of naval captains who also own extensive property and yet be hostile and suspicious towards girls in make-up who don’t look like the daughters of naval captains etc. One moment Lawrie is being suspected of being in a rival gang, the next, after a phone call from her mother, she’s being fed cocoa and pork pie.

And then Patrick, who over the course of his and Jukie’s aborted getaway drive learns something of his captor’s history. When Patrick scorns the notion that his father would ask him to commit perjury to salvage his political career, Jukie only replies, “You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.” Patrick does say that his father would probably feel the same even if he was running for P.M. (rather telling that this is his definition of having something to lose!), but the reader has been reminded that Patrick’s and Jukie’s circumstances are entirely different. Shortly after, when he tries to express empathy for Jukie because he gets less pocket money than a lot of the boys at his posh school, he is mocked. “Patrick was silent, convinced he really did know how it could be, keeping company with people who had more spending money than you had”, but the reader is not convinced.

Somewhere in The Thuggery Affair‘s engagement with language, then, is there an acknowledgement of some of the series’ own class-related issues, of the constructedness of the norms of the class to which the Marlows, Patrick and most of their genre-contemporaries belong, and of the ways in which language and culture are intertwined? I think there might be, though I’m still not sure how far Forest herself would agree with me. Meanwhile, there are many pigeons.



*It is quite possible that no Blyton character ever has used that expression, but you know what I mean.


March 7, 2013

Peter’s Room (AF5)

(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.


…and Nicola:

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!”


November 27, 2011

End of Term (AF 4)

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

My first Forest book, as I mentioned in the introduction linked to above. It is also the best school story ever written.

In terms of plot, very little happens in End of Term, and most of it is linked to the school play at the end of the year. Nicola befriends a new girl, falls foul of the sports prefect and unwittingly finds herself cast in the role that Lawrie wants in the play. Lawrie is educated about Christianity and calls on higher powers to do her will. Sprog the comically inept merlin kills a sparrow. But plot is unimportant here.

End of Term is the book that introduces the theme of religion to the series, and it remains there (though as less of a main subject) in the later books. People talk about religious belief throughout. So we know that Ann Marlow believes strongly enough to find her sisters’ joking about the hymns upsetting; that Rowan sometimes believes and sometimes not; that Lawrie is amazed to discover that anyone believes at all. We discover that Miranda is Jewish but not particularly so, and that a minor character comes from a more orthodox Jewish family and is therefore unable to watch the Christmas play. The Merrick family are revealed to be Catholic, and while Nicola Marlow doesn’t seem to quite know what she believes yet, there are the first stirrings of her attraction to the idea of Catholicism. In Nicola’s interest in the Catholic church, in Miranda’s fascination with the Christmas play, and her half-told stories of discrimination and being outside the cultural mainstream, Forest is also portraying religion as a thing that functions socially, that exists in the world, as separate from religious belief. And belief or lack thereof isn’t seen as relevant to the basic decency (or lack of it) in any character.

By the standards of girls school stories, all this is rather astonishing. End of Term was published in 1959, rather later than most of the genre, but this needn’t mean anything. Consider Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books (the school stories I’m most familiar with)which continued until 1970. In this series, the entire range of human belief is represented by the fact that some students are protestant and others catholic – and the only implication this difference has is that they have to take prayers separately. In 1958 (the year before End of Term was published), Brent-Dyer’s Trials for the Chalet School came out. It featured a character who did not believe in god -but still blamed him for all her woes- and her very existence shocked the other characters. The book contains the immortal line “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

Forest herself was from a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism. Which may explain away the presentation of those two faiths – it does not do so for the entirely sensible treatment of atheists and agnostics.

I’ve only read Forest’s work as an agnostic or an atheist. Yet despite the flippancy of the characters when it comes to discussing Things That Matter, she comes closer than most, for me, to getting at the intangible aspects of faith. Nicola is the lead soloist in the play and “Nick makes me feel like cold water down my back” (later, “a little shudder of pleasure shivered like cold water down Patrick’s spine”). And

The organ stopped, which was her cue. She looked ahead to the West Door, past the watching eyes, and took a long breath, as if she were about to dive (which was rather how she felt). ‘Try to sing it with regret,’ Dr. Herrick had said. ‘”Once in Royal David’s City.”‘ Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.’
She had never been able to do it to his entire satisfaction, rehearsing at school, but at this moment, with the storied centuries of the Minster about her, and the play, complete and entire behind her, she thought, suddenly, she might manage it.


I mention above the flippancy with which the characters choose to treat big issues, and their discomfort with discussing religion (which they end up doing anyway) comes in part out of this. There’s a moment where Nicola gets into theological debate with the choirmaster at the local cathedral:

…for surely in the Middle Ages, when people believed properly,they’d have brought their hawks into the Minister with them -

She said something of this, in a rather muddled way, to Dr Herrick, who looked first taken aback, and then amused, and then said that though Nicola might find it hard to believe, there were people who now believed ‘properly’, as she put it, though perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘without reservation’: didn’t Nicola think so?

and this acknowledgement of self-consciousness/awareness that what one says is mediated by the world around one and not a form of spontaneous expression, is one of the things that so attracted me to the books as a child. I’m reminded of this quote of Umberto Eco’s , though I’m not sure how Forest would feel if I called her a postmodernist writer. Patrick thinks “only the older carols…managed to mean what they said without being embarrassing”. After Nicola, Patrick is the character given the most interiority in this book, and he seems both aware of how he edits his own words, and how others do the same in their heads. “He would – no, he would not tease her about it, come the holidays: it would be fatuous and obvious, quite apart from being unkind; and though, like anyone else, he could be unkind on occasion, he did not care to be fatuous.” and (with regard to Lois Sanger) “How queer. I wonder how she thinks about it?…Well – what does she tell herself? I mean – how does she make it alright for herself? Or doesn’t she? Does she think she’s a heel too?”

Since this post has mostly dealt with Forest’s treatment of belief systems, at this point it seems appropriate to talk about Lawrie. Lawrie does not believe in the Christian religion as it is presented to her, shocking her family with her amazement that people treat it as if it happened rather than as they would treat, say, Norse gods. But she does believe in something, as we learn when she pretends to be Nicola in order to let her twin play in an important netball match.

There were three things she was thinking. The first, the easy one, was what fun it would be for Nick to play, and how nice of Lawrie to let her. The second, less disinterested , one was, that if she let Nick play, Someone would arrange, as a reward, that Somehow, when it came to the performance, Lawrie would play the Shepherd Boy.

And later, “‘I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy -’ [...] ‘Except for one thing, Lawrence. With whom did you make this bargain?’ ‘Who with?’ Lawrie looked surprised and waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling. ‘Well – you know – Them.’”

I find myself wondering if, in the absence of a religion to believe in, what Lawrie is putting her faith in is what Terry Pratchett would call Narrativium – the force that has events go the way they ought to in a story. It would certainly tie into Forest’s genre-awareness (see the Autumn Term post for more on this). And it seems entirely fitting for these books that a character should make bizarre, Faustian bargains with the book itself.



[The next Forest post will be a while coming. It’s on Peter’s Room, a book that stems from the Brontes’ stories of Angria and Gondal. So I’m hoping to read this book simultaneously, and with that and work deadlines I suspect writing about the book will have to wait a week or so.]

November 19, 2011

Falconer’s Lure (AF3)

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


Of all the Marlow books this is the one I feel least acquainted with. This is because while I was allowed to take the others out of the college library a couple of years ago, this one was stuck in Early Printed Books (accessed through a set of underground corridors reminiscent of science fiction movies) and could only be read in the short periods of time I was willing to spend there being very very quiet.

Falconer’s Lure is “The Story of a Summer Holiday” and was (that introduction to Falconer’s Lure again!) originally intended to be a pony book. I love how openly Forest admits these are all about popular genres: “the only reason I had for writing a pony book was that everyone else was writing pony books just then”. Faber asked her to at least find a different animal, and so naturally she decided to write a book on falconry. The Marlow family are visiting Trennels, the farm + estate owned by Marlows for generations (since before William the Conqueror). Till now the Marlows have seemed the default upper-middle-class family that appears in most early-mid twentieth century children’s fiction. They can afford reasonably good schools, and we know that the father is in the navy. We now learn that they have this massive, 600-acre property behind them (Captain Marlow will inherit in the course of the book when his cousin Jon dies). The financial woes of the Marlows will occasionally surface in the later books in hilarious ways – Mrs Marlow will sell a tiara in order to buy her daughter Ginty a pony, and in The Cricket Term will write Nicola a letter explaining that the family cannot afford to keep so many people at the school and they have decided that Nicola is the one who will have to be removed.

Falconer’s Lure introduces Patrick, the boy next door (or on the next estate, at any rate) who becomes a part of all subsequent Marlow stories. He is interested in hawking and has three birds; Regina, Jael, and the unsatisfactory Sprog. By the end of the holidays he has none. Peter, hunting rabbits, shoots Jael. Regina first escapes then is let go. Nicola buys Sprog, since Patrick can’t take him to school.

Jael’s is the second death in the book – the first is that of Jon Marlow, the cousin from whom Trennels is inherited. Jon’s death in a plane crash is never as spectacular as the situation suggests; instead we have quietness. And then, as she stood up, it felt as if she had walked into a wall. For a moment, the landscape seemed to quiver. And then it was still again and she could move. And a couple of pages later:

Nicola, sauntering back to Trennels beside the slow stream and the dancing midges, met Peter at the plank bridge which crossed the stream just below the pool. He looked, she thought, rather odd. And he sounded odd, asking if Patrick had been stopped in time or was he anywhere around. The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.

 Later, Nicola decides to sing Shakespeare’s “Fear No More” for a music competition. Her singing it in practice reminds her mother of Jon; later, during the competition she is forced to stop midway because it suddenly comes to signify Jael. Jael, who had hated to be pegged out in the full sun, and couldn’t be flown in a winter gale in case she were swept away on the storm [...] if she couldn’t stop thinking of Jael, noisy and furious, swinging from her jesses in the middle of the oak, she must just sing the beastly song in spite of it. Literature for Forest’s characters continues to be vital and real, something through which they experience their own emotions.

Yet authenticity matters still, as is evinced by the disgust shown when Ginty tries to romanticise the moment. And “We don’t wallow,” said Ginty, her face flaming, and knowing suddenly what Amy March meant when she described herself as mortified. Books again.

And words. Lawrie* asking her sister not to “be so cranious”. Yet she can be quelled when she’s being annoying by her father reciting Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Her father fixed her with a terrible eye and said:

“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Lawrie sucked in her lips. She had grown very pink.

“Beware the Jabberwock my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch.”

Lawrie shut her eyes, screwed up, tight.

“He took his vorpal sword in hand: - 

“No!” shouted Lawrie, clapping her hands over her ears. “No, not that bit! I’ll unsay! Honest! Only stop now!”

“Well,” said Jonm an interested spectator as Captain Marlow sat back to relight his pipe, “whadda y’know? What’s so terrifying about the Jabberwock?

“All those words,” said Lawrie wriggling. “Ugh!”





* Nicola may be the heroine of the series, but  it’s Lawrie who gets all the best lines; her mourning for their old furniture which is to be sold is one of the high points of this book.

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?”


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.

November 12, 2011

Autumn Term (AF 1)

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

Autumn Term is the first of the Marlow books, and one of Forest’s school stories. It was published in 1948 and in some ways follows the traditional school story plot: girls go to school for the first time, they meet their future classmates on the train (cf Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and all the St. Clares books among others), they get into trouble in various ways, they triumph at the end. However.

My copy of Falconer’s Lure (the third Marlow book) has a foreword by Forest in which she describes some of how Autumn Term was conceived.

So I decided on a school story, which, while not being dead dull, would have some contact with real life. No tomboys, no midnight feasts, no life-and-death adventures, no marvellously popular young headmistress, no wise and over-responsible head girl, “beloved of the juniors,” on whom the Headmistress relied. In short, it would be much more like school as I remembered it.

This is an interesting statement to keep in mind as one reads. Because despite Autumn Term‘s adherance to the structure of many other school stories it does feel truer to life. The authorities are fallible, the main characters are flawed, justice is not always done. But far more interesting to me is the undercurrent of self-reflexivity about the genre that runs through the book and (to a lesser extent, perhaps?) Forest’s other books set in Kingscote. It’s not unusual for characters in school stories to talk about the difference between ‘real life’ and ‘school stories’ – in this genre the characters are often readers of books within the genre. But the constant shifting of register between “if this were a school story, X would happen” and the world that the characters live in is, I think, unusual. Take this moment when Nicola, new to the school, encounters Unsporting Behaviour of the sort that would be condemned in many school stories.

It didn’t matter so fearfully, thought Nicola, arguing with herself all down the flights of stairs. Sometimes if you were asked unexpectedly you couldn’t be absolutely truthful; and over a thing like this it would sound so silly to say, Oh, I forgot, actually I picked them in Aunt Edith’s garden. Besides, it wasn’t as though someone were being Falsely Accused… Because of course, if it should become important to know who had picked the pears…then, of course, thought Nicola in relief, then of course Tim would get up and say: I did it. Feeling positively light-hearted Nicola skipped down the rest of the stairs.

Nicola reacts by recasting Tim’s lie in terms that would be acceptable in a traditional school story. Only once she has done this is she able to feel okay about it. Tim herself is dismissive of the school story – of her father’s friendship with Mr Todd she says that “One fagged for the other, or they blacked each other’s eyes or something equally touching”.

And then there’s Lois Sanger (who would be the villain of the piece except that her thought processes as depicted by Forest are so believable) who casts herself within the school story narrative and manages to believe the stories she tells.

‘Before every match, she jumps the last three steps and pretends to sprain her ankle. Then if she plays badly she can say she wasn’t feeling up to it, and we’re all expected to say: Awfully sportin’ of you, old girl, to make the effort.’

(Author’s note: I also have a dodgy ankle, and in the past if I’ve tripped or stumbled embarrassingly I’ve blamed it on the ankle to save face. Not quite the same thing, but once you admit that an acknowledged injury can get you out of awkward situations…)

Then there’s the joy of characters who read. I’ll be talking about this more in the later books, but I love that even Lawrie (the rather ditzy, self-absorbed Marlow sister) is a reader – it’s she who suggests that their guide patrol should be called The Scarlet Pimpernels. Tim quotes Macbeth as if this were the sort of thing that people normally did, though we know the Marlow twins have not read it (“Nicola and Lawrie were vague on this point but they looked as intelligent as possible”).

Then there’s the fact that Forest sees it as quite acceptable to slip Latin into things. “The day itself. ‘Dies ipse,’ thought Tim, hoping it might sound less ominous in Latin, but finding that it only sounded uncomfortably like ‘dies irae,’ so…” I suspect in 1948 this was a bit less alien than it is now – though learning Latin at school would, I assume, be a marker of class? I did not learn Latin at school and I think when I came across it in books as a child I just skipped over it.

One last thing about Autumn Term; an exchange between Lois and Tim towards the end. Tim has asked Lois (who is a senior) to be the narrator for a play the Third Remove are doing; in the course of the conversation she reveals that she thinks the involvement of a senior will keep the staff from interfering. Lois “thought, with a faintly uneasy twitch of nerves, that Tim’s mental processes and her own were not unalike. And it was disconcerting and not too pleasant to hear it done aloud.” My reaction to this is purely personal – and perhaps Forest would think I was a young criminal – but I’ve always felt rather pleased to hear it done aloud.



November 12, 2011

Reading (and rereading) Antonia Forest


I don’t remember how old I was (eight or nine, judging from memories of where I read it) when I first found a copy of Antonia Forest’s End of Term. It was secondhand, and the last few pages were missing but it was one of those big childhood literary milestones. Because with Forest I was exposed to a sort of interiority of thought that I’d never seen before – it was a sudden understanding (obviously one already knew this on an intellectual level) of the realness of the insides of other people’s heads. And there were a couple of scenes that I remembered long afterward, when I’d forgotten the title and the author.  My copy of the book disappeared when we moved to India and I would not read it again for many years.

I’d read quite a few of Forest’s books out of libraries but the next time I owned one was in 2009 and it was End of Term again. A friend in Dublin discovered it in a pile of free books. I had to give up a lovely old copy of The Big Sleep in exchange, but it was worth it. A few months afterwards I used my M.Phil as an excuse to buy Autumn Term. Last year my then boyfriend decided to hunt down the books I did not have for my birthday – quite possibly the best present I will ever receive. I now own all of her books except the historicals:

The book which seems to be emitting light of its own accord is _Run Away Home_

(A very fuzzy picture of my Forest books)

Most of Forest’s books (all of those pictured above except for The Thursday Kidnapping) are about the Marlows, a large family composed of mostly girls. The most well-known of these are the four school stories, set at the girls’ school Kingscote. But ten Marlow books has never felt like enough, and while fanfiction has provided some excellent additions to the story, Forest isn’t that widely known an author. So I am both nervous and excited by the publication (by Girls Gone By press, without whom I would never have found affordable copies of some of these books) of Antonia Forest’s Kingscote: Spring Term by Sally Hayward. My copy has just shipped, and I’m taking this opportunity to do something I’ve never done before: in the coming weeks I’ll be reading and writing about all of the Marlow books in order. I hope this will be fun even for those of you who have never read Forest’s work.

I’ll also be linking to the posts here as they are written:

Autumn Term
The Marlows and the Traitor
Falconer’s Lure
End of Term
Peter’s Room
The Thuggery Affair