‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

The children are distraught because they’re forced to have a three-day break from Gondalling over the weekend. Nicola thinks them “all quite mad” but doesn’t say so because she “was enough of an outsider as it was”.

The sixth of January – Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany – dawns and it’s Ginty’s fifteenth birthday. She celebrates with a long ride on Catkin, eagerly anticipating the hunt the next day, while madly Gondalling about Rupert/Patrick dying in Crispian/Ginty’s arms (“It was odd how real it became after a while”). Then she goes home to monopolise the bathroom, while everyone else is trying to get dressed for the Merricks’ party, and suddenly she realises – she’ll have to wear the Bridesmaid’s Horror! It’s her own fault for choosing to Gondal rather than go shopping for a new dress, but typically, she blames everyone else:

“Ann’s crassness in saying she could: Doris’s infamy in offering to do the dress when she couldn’t: her mother’s neglectfulness in not making her go into Colebridge and get a new one–”

But Doris has brought the altered dress back and it’s “perfect”. Mrs Marlow, as astonished as Ginty by Doris’s skill, gives Ginty a necklace to wear, then they go downstairs to show it to Doris. It’s probably because I was thinking of the slave thing, but this scene rubbed me the wrong way. Did they even pay Doris for her work in advance, or at all? Doris had to buy boning for the bodice and other materials, presumably with her own money. Mrs Marlow says, without saying please, that Doris should make dresses for all of them, and Doris says, “I’d love to. Thanks ever so,” as though the Marlows are doing her a great favour. Doris is like Cinderella, doing all the work, but while she gets to go to the ball, she still has to slave away in the kitchen instead of getting to dance with the prince. Then when Ginty idly asks if Doris makes clothes for herself, Doris says,

“Oh no, Miss Ginty,” said Doris matter-of-factly, “it’d be waste of time. I wouldn’t repay the trouble. ’Sides, I’ve got a cousin in service in Bristol. She always passes on the things her lady gives her when she’s done with them herself.”

I didn’t need to read the (very interesting) biography of Antonia Forest in the front of this book to realise she was a “lifelong Conservative” – it’s so apparent in her writing. This scene in particular is so very “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” Imagine how different it would have been if it’d been written by Monica Dickens or even Noel Streatfeild.

However snobby this chapter is, I still can’t resist a party-in-an-English-country-house scene and this is a good one. When the Marlows arrive, the infants’ party games are still in progress and Karen and Ann go off to help, while the others “stood rather stiffly and shyly against the wall and hoped no one was going to suggest they should join in”. Patrick is being his usual anti-social self and his mother is clearly fed up with him. She sends him off to check the chapel is locked before the Hide-and-Seek game starts and Ginty goes with him.

“Nicola looked after them, hesitating. But she hadn’t been invited…”

Nicola would have been a bit of a third wheel, because when Patrick sees Ginty in the chapel, “the candlelight falling on Doris’s dress and her mother’s necklace, her bare shoulders and fair hair shining through the black lace of the veil”, he offers her “the greatest compliment in his vocabulary at the moment”, saying she looks like a Gondalian. So they decide to have a secret Gondalling session right then inside the locked chapel, with Rosina/Ginty, the daughter of Alcona, in love with Rupert/Patrick even though her father wants her to marry Jason. Of course, they can’t tell the others about this Gondal development because the others are “too young”. Patrick expresses some doubts:

“I don’t know if I can do this very well,” he said after a moment. “I don’t really know how people talk when they’re in love.”

But clearly he manages to work it out, because he and Ginty spend the entire night flirting with one another. Poor Nicola, in her unflattering dress, stuck with Oliver Reynolds as dinner neighbour and dance partner, notices Patrick and Ginty “were behaving–oddly”. Suddenly she realises that Patrick is wearing his “Rupert face”, even when he’s dancing with Nicola. Patrick denies he and Ginty are being “Rupert and Crispian” (which is perfectly true, but misleading) and then Nicola overhears him calling Ginty “Rosina”.

“Since she despised Gondal and all its works, it was hard to say why this discovery should make her feel hollow inside…”

Poor Nicola, she’s having a terrible holiday. First she’s forced into Gondalling, then Sprog dies, then Patrick, her friend, abandons her for her pretty older sister. The other Marlows are having a slightly better time at the party. Peter achieves his aim of dancing “with every passable female” who isn’t his sister; Rowan is offered a horse for the hunt the next day; Karen dances with Ronnie, a handsome young Merrick cousin; Ann is a wall-flower and chats with the elderly guests, which is probably her idea of a good time; and Lawrie gets drunk with a mob of disreputable young adults. At least someone spills coffee on Nicola’s awful dress, so she probably won’t ever have to wear it again.

But then, as the party ends, Patrick and Ginty are discovered to be missing. Mrs Marlow takes her usual passive approach to parenting and decides “to hope they would turn up by the time the rest of the family were ready to go”. I pictured it as like the video for Avalon, if Bryan Ferry had “golden eyes” and Sophie Ward had been wearing peacock chiffon:

Patrick and Ginty turn out to have been outside having a romantic time watching geese fly overhead. Poor Nicola:

“Rosina was bad enough: but Rosina or no, the geese should have been hers.”

EDITED TO ADD: I’d incorrectly said it was Ginty’s sixteenth birthday, when she was really turning fifteen. Thanks for pointing this out, Elizabeth!

Next, Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running.

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four

Chapter Six: “All the Birds of the Air…”

SPROG IS DEAD HOW COULD YOU DO THAT ANTONIA FOREST POOR LITTLE SPROG DYING ALONE IN THE COLD POOR NICOLA THIS IS SO UNFAIR.

Of course, Nicola doesn’t allow herself to cry, “even though when animals died it was always misery past bearing; one would always much rather it were one of the family.”

She is slightly comforted by the thought of Emily Brontë mourning her dead cat. This doesn’t seem very plausible to me, given Nicola’s previous opinion of the Brontës, but I’m not going to begrudge poor Nicola any comfort.

I suppose one good thing is that now she can take Daks back to school as her pet, not Lawrie’s, which will work out better for Esther. I have to say, Daks is having a much better holiday than if he’d been allowed to stay in Esther’s flat. He has Tessa and Bucket as playmates, Peter to fuss over him, and lots of delicious farm smells to wallow in. Poodle heaven.

Chapter Seven: Dispatches to Angora: II

More Gondalling. The Guards realise that Alcona’s map is wrong, they discover their sealed dispatches are their death warrants, and Lawrie/Jason reveals that Alcona forced young Jason to watch his loyal rescuers being tortured to death. Patrick admiringly says to Lawrie, “I couldn’t have done Alcona’s particular brand of nastiness better myself.”

Then there’s an ambush in the “quicksnow” and the Guards fight bravely, get wounded and kill lots of enemies. Unfortunately, Rupert/Patrick is captured by evil Navarre/Peter. Threatened with torture, Rupert/Patrick says he’ll tell “anything you want to know” and quickly spills all his country’s military secrets and agrees to kill Jason. The Marlows are outraged by this (“You can’t just tell like that!”) but Patrick:

“found it imperative to explore, under cover of Rupert, the twilights of cowardice and betrayal: partly, he wanted to know how it felt, partly, Rupert was undoubtedly that sort of person.”

Does Patrick want to explore cowardice because it’s so unfamiliar to him? He seems brave when it comes to physical feats – he doesn’t, for example, avoid cliffs, even after his near-fatal accident, and he’s a fearless horse rider. He does avoid social situations – but he’s so supercilious and disdainful of others that it seems strange he’d be afraid of doing the wrong thing and having people laugh at him or dislike him (which is the case for most people with social anxiety). This book is set in the Cold War and Patrick has an uncle in the Foreign Office, so perhaps he’s considering spies and traitors and wondering whether he himself might be capable of treachery?

Ginty goes along with this plot because it has more dramatic potential for her Crispian/Rupert romance, but she considers:

“Since she was quite often frightened herself, she thought fearlessness, which she confused with courage, the most valuable and enviable quality in the world.”

This is a good point to make. Nicola is mostly fearless, but also brave – she does what she believes is right, even when it scares her. Peter is often fearful and forces himself to be brave, although because he’s under such pressure to Be A Marlow Man, it’s often reckless foolishness, not bravery. Lawrie is neither fearless nor brave, but doesn’t really care about looking cowardly – she just stores it all up as acting fuel.

Nicola, by the way, says Rupert’s decision to tell all before the torturing starts is “jolly sensible”, but I think that’s only because she’s bored by all the Gondalling. She’d be horrified if, say, she discovered Nelson had ever behaved in such a cowardly manner.

On the subject of Nelson, I forgot to note earlier that when Peter discovered the old farm journals, there’s a casual mention of how the original Trennels farmhouse had “been built by a Marlow called Joshua who’d made his pile in the slave trade”. None of the Marlows seems to think there’s anything bothersome about this. And I was just reading about Nelson being friends with Caribbean planters and slave owners and how Nelson fought against William Wilberforce and the abolition movement. Is Nicola aware of this? Would she care? Given the children’s offhand use of racist slurs, I’d have to assume she’d be perfectly fine with Nelson’s opinions on slavery and Empire.

Chapter Eight: Dead of Night

This is nice chapter with no Gondalling whatsoever. Nicola wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced a burglar is prowling around downstairs. She bravely goes downstairs in her dressing-gown and grabs a poker (“Better not wake anyone until she was sure, because though she was sure, she’d look an awful fool” if it didn’t turn out to be a burglar). And it’s not a burglar – it’s Rowan with two newborn lambs nearly dead from cold. While they’re waiting for the lambs to revive, they have a good chat about Nicola’s life plans. Rowan suggests Nicola could train to be a vet (“you like animals and you’re not nervous of them and you handle them well”) and then she could come back to Trennels to look after their animals.

Nicola is not very enthusiastic about the living at Trennels bit and gets Rowan to admit that her new life as a farmer is pretty dull. Nicola says she sees that it might help if Nicola came back to keep Rowan company, but Rowan knocks that idea on the head at once:

“In twenty years we’d be Two Terrible Tweedy Types known far and wide as The Queer Miss Marlows.”

Yes, they would. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Antonia Forest must have been reading a lot of Mary Renault.

What Nicola really wants to do is:

“…joining the Wrens for a bit if I could be sure I’d be posted to Malta or Gib or somewhere sensible. And then I’d like to work my way around the world doing all sorts of different jobs, like people do. And if I could find anywhere no one had been yet I’d like to go there and be the first person, ever.”

That all sounds perfectly reasonable to me, apart from the explorer bit, and Rowan agrees, as long as Nicola doesn’t mind being poor, which she doesn’t.

Then, hooray, the lambs come back to life (I don’t want any more animals dying in this book, thanks very much) and Rowan takes them back to their mother and Nicola tidies up the kitchen and falls asleep there.

Next, Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three

Chapter Four: Dispatches to Angora: I

This chapter is mostly the Marlow’s version of Gondal, in which the Palladian Guards are ordered by the Regent to carry dispatches to a distant allied kingdom. The plot does not make a whole lot of sense to me, but possibly that’s just my impatience with High Fantasy tropes showing. The Regent forces the Guards to write letters to their families, confessing to being traitors. If they fail in their mission, the letters will be used as evidence and they’ll be executed. If their families destroy the letters, the families will become traitors. If the Guards refuse to go along with the Regent’s plan, they’ll be imprisoned and tortured. Then the Regent turns up under a magical waterfall along the way and announces their young King will be accompanying them. The King says it’s all a wicked plan by the Regent to get them all out of the way so he can seize the kingdom, but none of the Guards believe the King, even though they have plenty of evidence the Regent is evil. I mean, he’s blackmailing them and threatening their families! Anyway, they set off through this frozen wasteland, where “nothing moved but themselves” and yet somehow their falcons find plenty of animals for them to eat. I guess their horses are eating meat, too, or maybe snow? They don’t seem to be carrying much by way of provisions.

I’m also confused about whether the children are sitting round the Hide and talking dialogue, or moving around and acting the story out, or if someone (Patrick?) is writing it down, because this part reads like a novel, not a play. But I was amused by some of the described action – for example, Malise/Peter “climbing fearlessly down into the frozen darkness” when Peter’s actually terrified of heights, and Crispian/Ginty’s “long swim to save” Rupert/Patrick. They are forced to take a break from Saturday afternoon till Monday due to church and Patrick’s visiting relatives (“may all their rabbits die”), which dismays all the children except Nicola. Discussing their next plot obstacle, Ginty suggests an ambush on the shores of a “frozen sea”. The idea of a frozen sea “rang true” to all of them. This is because the Marlows are a frozen sea. Well, except Lawrie, who’s entirely liquid salt water.

Back at Trennels, Lawrie manages to spook herself by vividly imagining a terrible scene in which the young King tries to escape the Regent, is caught and is dragged back to face his punishment:

“Lawrie shivered, staring across the moonlit room into the room of her imagining. It really was awfully queer to be able to feel as frightened as this by a bit of Gondal of her own making … It really wouldn’t have surprised her, in that panic moment of opening the door, to have found the room dark and silent and her family flown.”

This is totally how I would have reacted after too much story-telling-in-my-own-head at the age of 12 (or cough 28). It really annoys me that I have so much in common with Lawrie…

Patrick also invites the Marlows to the annual Merrick Twelfth Night party. They will have to dress up, although Patrick concedes he does have an eccentric aunt who “always wears a lace blouse and a tweed skirt” instead of evening dress. It sounds very grand and possibly a little bit romantic (if Ginty ends up the belle of the ball by turning up in some ravishing Victorian gown that they found in the Trennels attic and Patrick is smitten).

Chapter Five: “The Farthest Distant Quarters”

On Sunday morning, Nicola and Ginty search the Trennels library for books about explorers, to use in their story. Ginty is already amazed by a vague reference in that morning’s Epistle reading that could, if you squinted, apply to Jason the boy King:

“Ginty tried shyly to communicate her sense of the strangeness of the small coincidence as of a nudge from another dimension, ‘like a clue to something’.”

And later she comes across a reference to a frozen sea, which is even more uncanny, and loses herself in a fantasy that

“Crispian and Rupert and the rest were true – had been true – and they themselves were only acting out something which had once been real. It could happen. It did happen.”

But sensible, rational Nicola refuses to engage in such nonsense. Karen arrives and Ginty asks her what she thinks of the Brontës and Gondal and Angria. Karen says, “So far as Emily was concerned, it was the most appalling waste of time and talent” and when Ginty protests that it was noble of Emily not to be motivated by fame and money, Karen points out the evidence, in one of Emily’s poems, that Emily was devastated when her early poems were rejected and “minded desperately” when Wuthering Heights got bad reviews.

They discuss how the poem shows how Emily used Gondal to escape life’s worries (which both Nicola and Karen think is “mad” and “pathetic”), just as Branwell used drugs and drink. Then Karen says,

“I mean – either life was too much for her so she retreated into Gondal, or else Gondal made life too much for her when she couldn’t avoid it.”

Ginty thinks it’s all quite understandable, given Emily was stuck in a gloomy parsonage on the moors, but Karen points out that the Brontës had plenty of visitors and in fact, Emily travelled as far as Brussels and had lots of opportunities to escape if she’d wanted. Emily chose to limit her life to Gondal. And Branwell had his family’s support and could have led a productive life, but chose to model himself on Young Soult, the dissolute poet who was his Angrian persona.

Ann comes in at this stage and says her favourite Brontë was Charlotte and how when Ann was nine, she thought that if Karen and Rowan died at school like the eldest Brontës, then she, Ann, would be like poor Charlotte. And they talk about what a miserable time Charlotte must have had with Branwell, Emily and Anne dying in the same year, and then only having nine months of married bliss before she died.

(Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here imagining what modern-day Australian publishers would say if I presented them with a children’s book manuscript that included a twenty-page analysis of the troubled adult lives of the Brontës and whether juvenile role-playing games hindered their integration into society. Probably the same thing those publishers said when I sent them a children’s history of medicine, analysing the role of superstition, science and pseudoscience, ie “Ha ha ha … oh, you’re serious. NO.”)

Karen also talks about Emily killing off her puppy characters, which so horrifies Nicola that “Wuthering Heights promptly took its place with books like The Lamplighter and Black Beauty which Nicola was never going to read, ever.” There was also a good bit in an earlier chapter where Nicola, hearing of the Brontë name’s link to Nelson, thought, “Suddenly the name on the covers of two of the many books she ought to read – this year, next year, sometime, more likely never – took on a romantic glow: perhaps she really would read them.” That’s exactly how I feel about Shirley and Villette and whatever novels Anne wrote.

The next part of this very, very long chapter involves the Marlow sisters handing down dresses to one another in preparation for the Twelfth Night party. Poor Nicola ends up with unflattering white frilly net (although I don’t see why Lawrie can’t have that, if they’re identical). Ginty tries on a ghastly pre-war peacock chiffon that belonged to their mother and just as they’re discussing how to alter it, Doris the maid announces she’ll do it and carries it off. This is bound to be a disaster because Doris wears “sad, drab” clothes, even to church. Mrs Marlow can’t alter another dress for Ginty because it will hurt Doris’s feelings if she sees, so Rowan comes up with a plan to buy a new dress on Monday and “accidentally” drop Doris’s terrible dress in the bath on the night of the party, and then “discover” the new dress in Ann’s wardrobe.

Mollified, Ginty is back in her room, happily fantasising about how much she/Crispian loves Rupert/Patrick, “like David and Jonathan”, and picturing Rupert dying tragically in Crispian’s arms when she suddenly realises that the shopping trip will mean cancelling their Gondalling on Monday! This is such a terrible thought that she decides she’d rather wear the Bridesmaid’s Horror, an ancient net dress that doesn’t even fit properly. There, see what Gondalling is doing to Ginty already, passing up the rare chance of a nice new frock.

Mrs Marlow now decides Peter has to accompany Nicola on her nightly trips to the hawkhouse, even though he rightly points out he’ll be useless if the village drunk does attack them. Peter then insists he needs to take one of the old pistols with him and Nicola recalls when he shot the Nazi at the lighthouse. But Peter claims to have forgotten all about it and when Nicola muses that Foley was half like Giles, maybe even “kinder than him”, Peter loses his temper and says, “If you’re a traitor it doesn’t matter what the other half of you’s like.” It’s clear he’s repressed the incident “fathoms deep”. This is understandable given his upbringing (and also being threatened with the Official Secrets Act if he talks about it), but it does seem bound to cause future problems for him.

There’s a bit more Gondalling in the hawkhouse with Patrick, as they figure out what happened to the old King. The evil Regent pretended the old King had robbed the Treasury, the King abdicated to avoid civil war, then the Regent got his only friend and ally to kill the King, then executed the friend. Nicola is a bit uneasy that Patrick keeps coming up with these evil plots so readily. Also, apparently the Queen died in childbirth. I notice that all the characters are male – apparently girls and women can’t have adventures, if you’re a Marlow.

Then Patrick rejoins his relatives. Forced to be sociable when he just wants to sit quietly and contemplate Rupert being a traitor, he snaps at his Aunt Florence and is made to apologise. (Slightly off topic, is it weird that he calls Aunt Florence “an interfering old faggot”? The American use of the word as a pejorative wouldn’t have been common in 1960s England, surely, and it’s usually used about men, not women, so is he referring to fagging, as in public school boys? I don’t understand what he means here.) We also learn his Uncle Alex is in the Foreign Office and often talks Top Secret Stuff with Mr Merrick. I wonder if that comes up in subsequent Marlow books? (I was also imagining Uncle Alex would know Colonel Stanley-Ross, but they wouldn’t get along because Alex is a ferocious Tory and the Colonel isn’t.)

Next, Chapter Six: “All the Birds of the Air…”

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two

Chapter Three: ‘A Parsonage called Haworth’

So, the Marlows do their Christmas shopping, but we don’t find out the details of what they buy each another except for Nicola, who “bought everyone sticks of sealing wax” because she “never had any money when she most wanted it”. Firstly, Nicola has at least eighty pounds sitting in her savings account (or in a biscuit tin under her bed, or somewhere) after selling her Boke of Falconerie. Secondly, sealing wax, really? Is this book actually meant to be set in the 1960s? Were most people sealing their letters with wax then? If so, I could almost understand if she bought everyone special sealing stamps carved with their initials or the Marlow coat of arms, but sealing wax is essentially candles without the wick. I did like Karen buying everyone book tokens “because book tokens were what she always hoped everybody would have the sense to give her”. I’m with Karen on that.

Then Christmas arrives and here is how Antonia Forest describes the most significant religious festival in England, when families across the country gather to celebrate with feasting and merriment:

“Christmas Day. Boxing Day.”

THAT’S IT. That’s the description of the Marlows’ Christmas. There isn’t even any mention of Captain Marlow or Giles, who presumably are at sea, not even an “Oh, I wish Dad were here with us for our very first Christmas at Trennels.” Is it that the author, brought up in a Jewish household, didn’t ever experience Christmas as a child? And then, as a adult Catholic convert, disapproved of all the pagan, non-religious bits of Christmas festivities? It just seems very peculiar to write a book about a middle-class Anglican family, set in the Christmas holidays, and ignore Christmas Day.

Anyway, following their invisible Christmas, Nicola meets Patrick in the hawkhouse, where Sprog is staying during the holidays. After some initial social awkwardness (this is Patrick, after all), they discuss the difficulties of keeping a merlin healthy during winter and Patrick assumes Nicola will be hunting this season on Buster, which makes Nicola a bit anxious as she’s not a confident rider. Of course, she doesn’t tell him that because she’s a Marlow. Better to break your neck falling off a horse than ever admit any weakness. Also, Patrick, “that fortunate only child”, refuses to let any other Marlows ride Buster and doesn’t understand why Nicola might want to share her pony with her horseless siblings.

Back at Trennels, Peter is still being lazy about his one chore, boot-cleaning, and when Nicola rightly gets annoyed at him about this, he gets into a physical fight with her, hurting her so badly that Doris the maid orders him to stop. Peter really is a very unpleasant child, unable to control his temper or admit he was wrong, and determined to repress any uncomfortable thoughts about his own mistakes. Nicola may be younger, but she’s far more mature. They go off to meet Patrick at the Shippen, now called The Hide, where Patrick is fascinated by the old farm journals and resolves to copy out all the interesting bits about Malise the Royalist. Patrick reveals that his Merrick ancestors were also Royalists during the Civil War, because the alternative was Cromwell, who was even more anti-Catholic than Charles. But just as Patrick is about to explain what happened to Malise, they’re interrupted in typically dramatic fashion by Lawrie, who has an announcement.

Mrs Marlow has bought two beautiful horses! Catkin is a fifteenth birthday present for Ginty and Chocbar is for Mrs Marlow to hunt. So even though the Marlows are “stupendously hard up”, unable even to afford new school uniforms for the girls, they have enough money for luxuries like hunting ponies. This is because Mrs Marlow has sold the Last Ditch, a very ugly but valuable tiara inherited from a great-aunt:

“All financial crises for years had been solved simply, it seemed, by knowing the Last Ditch was there if needed. And now it was gone. They were out in the cold.”

Well, they’d better not complain about being poor at any stage in the future, that’s all I’m saying.

Rowan offers to lend Peter her horse for hunting, so Lawrie throws a tantrum because everyone has a pony except for her. The other thing that happens is that Patrick discovers his mother is right and that Ginty is the beauty of the Marlow family. And then Patrick and Ginty bond over their mutual love of horses and hunting, even though last summer, Ginty had “made a proper huha about being an anti-blood-sporter” and she’s only hunted twice in her life. Peter, brooding about this, remembers Lieutenant Foley disparaging “that useful social and examination-room accomplishment of making a pint of knowledge fill a hogshead of ignorance” and then he hastily tries to repress any memory of Foley. I’m glad I’m reading the books in order because it’s useful to know here exactly how badly Foley betrayed Peter. Peter trusted Foley as a teacher and Navy officer, and Foley not only turned out to be a traitor but was willing to see Peter and his siblings murdered by Nazis. So it’s understandable Peter doesn’t want to think about Foley, but on the other hand, Peter seems determined not to learn anything from previous experiences.

Then Nicola arrives with the news that it’s snowing and the phone line is down and the children light the fire (the chimney is miraculously free of soot and dead birds) and they roast potatoes and chestnuts while the three dogs lie “curled up in one exquisite lump of warmth, Daks a dark blot against the paler coats of the other two”. I would hope Nicola is writing to Esther to give her regular updates on Daks, but there’s no mention of this.

This is a very long chapter.

Eventually the children grow bored and Ginty comes up with the idea of “pretend games” like the Brontës. She explains how Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne invented two countries called Gondal and Angria and developed elaborate stories about them. Ginty is doing a school project on this and thinks Emily is “absolutely stupendous to have written poems about quite imaginary people so that for ages everyone thinks it’s true” and she must have been beautiful because she was “such a terrific person”.

Nicola, “who avoided poetry”, asks sensible questions like “Why couldn’t she be terrific and ugly?” and Peter is shocked that Emily was still play-acting Gondal when she was twenty-eight (“But that’s ancient!”). It’s Lawrie who says, “Why couldn’t we have a Gondal?” So they plan their story, despite some scepticism from Nicola.

I’m going to write their character names here so I don’t get confused. There are four Palladian Guards:

Patrick is Rupert Almeda.
Ginty is Crispian de Samara.
Peter is Malise Douglas.
Nicola is Nicholas Brenzaida.

Lawrie is the young King, Jason Exina.
Patrick is also playing the evil Regent, My Lord of Alcona.

Next, Chapter Four: Dispatches to Angora: 1

‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest

I have middling expectations for this book, the fifth in Antonia Forest’s series about the Marlow family. So far, I’ve enjoyed her school books far more than the holiday books, but Peter’s Room does seem to be a favourite of a lot of Antonia Forest fans. All I know about this book is that some of the Marlows spend the Christmas holidays play-acting a fantasy, in the manner of the Brontë siblings. I am not a massive fan of either fantasy or Emily Brontë, but I’m keeping an open mind here.

'Peter's Room' by Antonia ForestHowever, I must say that the cover is not very enticing. I assume that’s Daks, Esther’s puppy, but giving Peter access to any weapons does not seem to be a very good idea, given his constant desire to prove his manliness and his total lack of common sense. Stay away from him, Daks! (I’m also assuming that ‘daks’ does not mean the same to English people as it does to Australians. Otherwise it would be a very strange name for a poodle.)

Chapter One: Peter the Woodcutter

The story begins with Peter whinging about having to chop some firewood, what with all the farm men at Trennels being busy building lambing pens. I was about to get really annoyed at Peter for being a spoiled brat – look at how much work Rowan is doing! But then, “perversely the magnitude of the task took hold of him” and Peter decides to chop all the wood and stack it and tidy up the yard. Well done, Peter!

Antonia Forest does a good job here of bringing us up to date with events, in the form of Peter chatting to Daks the puppy. We learn that Grandmother is staying until New Year and that while she favours the Marlow boys, it still doesn’t make spending time with her very enjoyable for Peter (“the gentle malice and veiled sarcasms of her conversation defeated him”). We also learn that although Peter is hopeless in many of the manly skills he is supposed to excel in, he can be quite adept at getting along with people – for example, he successfully talks grumpy Mrs Herbert the housekeeper into giving him treats. Mrs Herbert has a new helper, Doris, who I assume will become important later on because we get a lot of information about her. I also note that the Marlow children (other than Rowan) aren’t expected to do anything around the house and farm, apart from a bit of bed-making, washing-up and shoe-cleaning, which is not exactly onerous between six of them. Mrs Herbert also informs Peter that there’s something called the Old Shippen, a place used for storing firewood. Apparently, Trennels is so vast that the Marlows own entire buildings that they’re not aware of.

However, it turns out the Old Shippen is more than just a place for storing firewood, coal and potatoes. Peter and Daks discover an amazing upstairs room, full of old junk, a “massively secret place”, “absolutely perfect” for Peter. And fair enough – if I had seven siblings, I’d want my own private space, too. Peter does say he might invite Patrick Merrick to join him, so the two boys have clearly made up after their conflict in Falconer’s Lure (which was all Peter’s fault, by the way).

Peter goes off to ask Mr Tranter, the farm manager, if he can have the Old Shippen for himself, and there are some lovely descriptions of the “ploughed fields and thaw-darkened pastures” of wintery Trennels, a new landscape for Peter. Mr Tranter grudgingly agrees to Peter cleaning up the Shippen for his own use, as long as he checks with his mother first, but Ted the cowman has this to say – the Shippen is cursed! A Marlow ancestor built a chapel in there! And held Black Masses! And the vicar refused to exorcise the place after Ted’s grandfather saw the Devil singing on the roof! Even though Ted’s grandfather was knocked unconscious and ended up with a scar in the shape of a cloven hoof! And that’s why the Shippen can never be used to house cows!

This is all fabulously exciting for Peter, who rushes off to ask his mother’s permission. Luckily for Peter, she’s distracted by a letter from the girls’ headmistress, about how “Nick and Lawrie had changed parts in a play or a netball match or something, and that if it hadn’t been for the excellent records of the rest of the family, they might well have been expelled”. So it really was blood for breakfast for Nicola, then, after the Nativity play. Their grandmother takes the entirely sensible view that the twins did the right thing and the play was much improved by their change. (Really, the only bad thing they did was hiding Esther’s disappearance, but it was Tim who lied about it and Esther soon turned up safely at her mother’s place.) Mrs Marlow absent-mindedly agrees with Peter’s plan:

“And Karen said, ‘And mind you let us know the moment you find the Rembrandts and the chest with the Missing Jewels,” to which Peter said he might, but more likely he’d keep them in a secret hoard to pay off his gambling debts.”

I think Antonia Forest’s wit and humour is much more Austen than Brontë. This is reminding me of Northanger Abbey.

Chapter Two: Treasure Trove

One of my favourite bits in children’s books is when they clean up an abandoned, unloved place and turn it into a warm, cosy den (which is why I made sure I included such a scene in my Montmaray books). So I enjoyed this chapter very much. Peter and Daks happily sort through all the junk in the Shippen and although there are no Rembrandts, there are collections of birds’ eggs, butterflies and stamps.

Unfortunately, given Peter’s history with guns, there are also a lot of old pistols and swords. I foresee disaster.

There are also old books and a series of farm journals dating back to the Civil War, showing that a teenage Marlow ancestor, Malise, made the noble but foolish decision to side with Charles Stuart towards the end of the war. Peter even finds a enormous stuffed gyrfalcon named Tarquin, who’d belonged to Great Uncle Lawrence. (I wonder if Lawrie was named after him in an attempt by Captain Marlow to sway old Lawrence’s will in the Captain’s favour? Although if so, the Captain probably should have named Giles after him.) And as Peter is hanging Tarquin from the rafters (quite bravely, given his fear of heights), he discovers a secret stash of gold sovereigns!

Tremendously excited, but playing it cool, he casually shows them to Nicola, who’s just arrived home from school. And Nicola casually reveals they’re new farthings, from the time of William IV. Poor Peter.

“…behind the disappointment was an equally kiddish insistence that they had been sovereigns in the Shippen: it was only since he’d brought them away that they’d become farthings: fairy gold – witchcraft – the Devil on the roof-tree…”

Peter kindly gives them to Nicola, resisting the urge to say they’re a swap for Daks, because “you couldn’t be sure with witchcraft”.

I suspect that when the fantasy role-playing starts, Peter will find it easier to get dangerously caught up in it than Nicola.

Next, Chapter Three: “A Parsonage called Haworth”

You might also be interested in:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb

'How Not To Be A Boy' by Robert WebbI really liked How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, a funny, thoughtful and moving memoir about a boy who absorbed a lot of toxic messages about masculinity – and what happened when he grew up to be a man. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but he’s an English comedian and actor who was in Peep Show and lots of other shows (I also discovered he does a very amusing impression of Mr Darcy). What sets this book apart from most celebrity memoirs is that Robert Webb can actually write and he has much more interesting things to write about than the usual How I Became A Famous Person On The Telly stuff.

He grew up in a dysfunctional working-class Lincolnshire family, with several older brothers and a violent, philandering, alcoholic father. Robert writes with a great deal of insight and humour about the ‘rules’ of boyhood – boys are loud and boisterous, boys don’t read, boys love sport, boys are brave and reckless, boys hate school, boys don’t cry, boys don’t fall in love with other boys – and how terrible he was at following any of these rules. Eventually, his mother threw his father out and married another man who was still fairly useless, although not actually violent or drunk. But then Robert’s beloved mother died of cancer when he was in his final year of school. Despite being suicidally depressed, Robert managed to become the first person in his family to attend university, became president of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club and began his successful career as a comedian and actor.

But inside, he was a mess, and he took out his feelings of unacknowledged grief, shame, guilt and insecurity on his friends, colleagues and family. Despite being determined not to be like his father, he drank too much, he lost himself in work, and he was emotionally and physically unavailable to his wife and children. Fortunately for him, his wife didn’t give up on him and he was intelligent and introspective enough to go to therapy, cut down on the drinking and eventually, write this book.

He doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, but says he agrees with what feminists say and he quotes from and recommends Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender, so top marks from me for that. He also has a lot of sensible things to say to Men’s Rights Activists, who “tend to make a series of valid observations from which they proceed to a single, 180-degree-wrong conclusion.” Men’s documented problems with high suicide rates, alcoholism, imprisonment and premature death are not due to women or to feminism, he points out. These problems are due to the toxic rules of masculinity. Men turn to drugs and alcohol and self-harm because the rules say they can’t admit weakness or ask for help. They die younger than women of preventable diseases because they refuse to take their health seriously and go to the doctor. They’re violent because society tells boys and men to be aggressive and bottle up their emotions. “Feminists are not out to get us,” he says. “They’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, they hate The Man. They’re our mates.”

As you’d gather from those pronouns, this isn’t a book aimed at women. It’s aimed at the men who grew up with the same sort of male role models as the author. It’s about and for the men who were similarly unable to follow the impossible rules of masculinity and are suffering the consequences of this. Of course, feminists have been banging on, for a very long time, about how society’s rigid gender rules harm men as well as women, but the men who need to hear this don’t listen to women. In fact, they viciously attack women who say this sort of thing. Still, Robert Webb is pretty good at acknowledging how privileged he is and how some of his unpleasant experiences (for example, being awkwardly chatted up by a gay man on a beach) are fairly mild compared to the constant and sometimes life-threatening harassment of women. How Not To Be A Boy would be an excellent book for teenage boys and men, but women may also gain from reading this insider’s view of masculinity. Apart from anything else, it’s often very funny.

‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’ Miscellanea

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' by Michelle Cooper

For those who don’t follow me on Twitter (that is, the entire population of the universe, minus about 48 people), here are some bits and pieces about my latest book, Dr Huxley’s Bequest:

The Great Raven recently published a guest post from me, in which I explain why I turned to self-publishing for my fifth book.

– The Children’s Book Council of Australia published a nice review at Reading Time, saying, “This thoroughly researched chronology of medicinal inventions, discoveries and disasters is presented in an interesting and engaging manner. Dr Huxley’s Bequest is a fascinating look at the role science, pseudo-science, and convenient accidents have had on the well-being of humanity … perfect for readers aged 12 and up.”

Magpies Magazine also reviewed it, saying, “Cooper approaches the history of medicine with the same eclectic verve, pace and off-beat imagination as she demonstrates in her historically-based novels … the reader is positively bombarded with fascinating information.”

– Telani Croft at The Book Nut enjoyed the book and her thoughtful review concluded “… strong characters and a believable purpose combine with a deft writerly touch to produce an interesting and engaging narrative that educates and, as I mentioned, provides a positive perspective on research and the quest for knowledge, and this cannot be undervalued. I can see this being picked up by young readers for pleasure, but I would also commend it to teachers to consider as a class text, due to its quality and relevance to learning.”

Read Plus said, “The mystery technique is a fantastic way to tell the story of medicine from ancient Egyptian times to current genetic testing.”

– And Kate Constable wrote on her blog that she “learned something new on every page, but … it never feels too educational! It’s just like a very clever, funny person telling you loads of really interesting stories about medicine.” Thank you, Kate!

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

New Paperback Edition of ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

There’s a new paperback edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest out tomorrow, Monday 15 January. This new edition has exactly the same content as the first edition, but the print size has been increased slightly (so it has 342 pages, rather than 270). I think the larger print will make it more enjoyable to read, especially for younger readers. This is how the new paperback looks:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest', 2nd edition

And there are illustrations inside:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest', 2nd edition, open page

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also available in various ebook formats.

Wait, I have only just heard of this book. What’s it about?

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is a history of medicine for thoughtful readers aged about 12+, in the form of a mystery story, full of jokes and fascinating facts. It’s also a thoughtful look at the beauty, creativity and power of scientific reasoning and it’s especially for girls (particularly girls who’ve been told science is difficult, dull and only for boys).

You can read an excerpt of the book here and read more about the book’s real-life setting here. If you’d like to know more about why I wrote the book, see this blog post.

Which edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest should I buy?

This second edition paperback has illustrations, author notes, a bibliography, a comprehensive index and a pretty cover. The first edition paperback is now out of print. (If you’d like to know why there’s a second edition coming out just two months after the first edition was published, see this very long blog post.)

The ebook versions are available in two formats. There’s a Kindle (mobi) version for Kindle readers and other devices that have the Kindle app installed. There’s also an ePub version, for iPads, iPhones, Nook readers, Kobo readers, and pretty much every other sort of ebook reading device. The ebooks don’t have the illustrations or the index, but do include the author notes and bibliography and they have a search function if you want to find keywords.

Where can I buy the book?

Here are some of the places where you can buy Dr Huxley’s Bequest online. I’ve listed stockists according to geographical region, because delivery costs are cheaper and you won’t have to pay currency conversion fees if you buy locally.

Australia and NZ
Amazon.com.au (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Angus & Robertson Bookworld (paperback, ePub ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Booktopia (paperback)
Fishpond (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

North America
Amazon.com (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Barnes & Noble (paperback, Nook ebook)
Chapters/Indigo Canada (Kobo ebook)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

UK and Europe
Adlibris (paperback)
Amazon.co.uk (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Book Depository (paperback)
Foyles (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)
Libris (ePub ebook)
Waterstones (paperback)

Will it be in my local bookshop?

Maybe, if you ask them to order it for you! Bookshops are often reluctant to stock books that are self-published or published by small publishers. However, all book retailers will receive the same trade discount for this book as when they buy books from large publishers and any unsold books are returnable. Booksellers can order the book from Ingram Spark. (For more information, including ISBNs, see FitzOsborne Press.)

Can I borrow it from my library?

Maybe, if you live in Australia. If it’s not in your library’s catalogue, you can ask your librarian to order it. The book is in the catalogue of ALS Library Services and it has a National Library of Australia cataloging number.

Anything else I should know?

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also on Goodreads, if you’d like to leave a review. (Thank you, Tina!)