After hearing a lot of praise for Antonia Forest’s Marlow books, I was happy to find a reasonably-priced copy of the first in the series, Autumn Term, originally published in 1948. I had high expectations for this book and so far, a few chapters in, I’m liking it very much – and also having a lot of thoughts about it, so I’ve decided to blog about it as I read. If you aren’t much interested in British boarding school stories, you might want to avert your gaze from Memoranda for the next little while.
Chapter One: A Knife with Sixteen Blades
So, the story begins with twins Nicola and Lawrie Marlow, aged twelve, on a train, nervously heading off for their first ever term at school. The twins are in a compartment with their sisters, of whom there seems to be a vast number. Karen is head girl, Rowan is a netball star, Ann’s a Girl Guide Patrol Leader, Ginty is … actually, I don’t know what Ginty’s talent is, but it’s definitely not being nice to her younger sisters. Admittedly, Nicola is bouncing around, making a nuisance of herself by asking a lot of questions about school. But the twins have the huge weight of family expectations on their (identical) shoulders. They have “an awful lot to live up to”. And they are reminding me a lot of Ron Weasley …
Nicola and Lawrie go out into the train’s corridor where they meet a dark-haired girl who’s all alone, is happy to share her stash of chocolate and is quickly revealed to be the
Chosen One headmistress’s niece. Tim hasn’t been to school either, but at least she has an excuse because her father is a painter who travels the world and she does speak a lot of languages. The twins, though, haven’t been to school properly because “every time we started we always caught something” (contagious diseases, Nicola means, not fish or fire). So they haven’t attended school for the past seven years because they keep getting sick? Hopefully, they’ve had lots of home tutoring, because they’re expecting to be placed into Form IIIA – not IIIB and certainly not the dreaded Third Remove, which is for utter idiots. Tim is cheerfully resigned to being put into Third Remove, but Nick and Lawrie have decided they’re not just going straight into the top form, they’re going to be credits to their family in many, many fields of endeavour:
“…first we’ve got to get into the junior netball team, so that next year Nick can be captain and me vice. And then – we’ve been Brownies at home, you know – so we’re going to pass our Tenderfoot and fly up and get our Second Class badges all in one term.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that things are not going to go as planned for the twins.
Tim goes to have a peek at the famous Marlow sisters and the twins explain there are also two Marlow brothers, one in the navy and one at Dartmouth. So that’s eight of them – Giles, Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Peter and the twins. Their father’s a commander in the navy. Presumably their mother is slumped on a chaise longue, recovering from giving birth to at least eight children in ten years. It seems a very large number of children for an upper-middle-class English family in the 1940s. Are they Catholic? Is Kingscote a Catholic school?
Anyway, back in the train corridor, chocolate is munched and confidences are shared. Tim has a horror of being “quiet and dreary” and is planning to take advantage of her relationship with her headmistress aunt at every opportunity. Lawrie has a big crush on Margaret, the games captain, who’s Karen’s best friend. (I really hope there are actual lesbians in this book, but that’s probably expecting too much.) Lawrie got a nice watch for their going-away-to-school present, but Nicola proudly displays a super-duper knife with sixteen blades. Then the train jolts and the knife flies out the window! No, it’s okay, it’s resting on a ledge. They’ll retrieve it when the train stops. Wait, the train’s going through a tunnel. And when it emerges, THE KNIFE HAS DISAPPEARED!
Chapter Two: ‘A Fine of Five Pounds…’
‘In an emergency,’ Commander Marlow was given to telling his family, ‘act at once.’ On occasion he amplified this, saying that it was also necessary to think clearly and sensibly and not act upon impulse. Nicola, however, had absorbed only the dictum that she was to act immediately.
Nicola pulls the cord, stops the train and bounds off down into the tunnel. There is general uproar on the train because no one knows what is going on. Karen, head girl, is calm and sensible until she realises Nick has vanished. Lawrie becomes unhelpfully speechless. Nicola re-appears, luckily not squashed flat by another train, and is dragged back on board by the guard and Miss Cromwell, a nasty teacher who proceeds to berate poor Karen. Then Rowan comes to her rescue. The Marlow sisters regather in their compartment. Karen has a nervous breakdown and Ginty continues to be a giant pain:
‘I must tell Peter,’ burst out Ginty irrepressibly. ‘He’s always been absolutely wild to pull a communication cord or smash one of those things that stop elevators…’
‘Be quiet, Ginty,’ snapped Karen, without looking round.
‘You needn’t bite my head off,’ retorted Ginty. ‘For once, I haven’t done a thing.’
‘Oh, Gin, for heaven’s sake,’ said Rowan. ‘Don’t talk as if you were the tomboy of the Remove. All through the holidays you kept trying to give the impression that a mild case of bounds-breaking had brought you to the edge of expulsion. I could have throttled you.’
‘There was a row,’ said Ginty indignantly. ‘An awful row. Miss Keith said –’
‘I know you went round weeping for days after whatever Miss Keith said,’ said Rowan pitilessly, ‘but that still doesn’t make you the naughtiest girl in the Fourth.’
Rowan is the best. She walks Nicola up to school (while the others take a taxi) and shares some words of wisdom with her little sister. Nicola belatedly realises she could have been killed, or worse, expelled. When they reach school, they encounter an unfriendly presence:
‘Two more of your illustrious family to bring honour to the dear old school … And one of them stopped the train, I hear. Such a clever and original way of making the Marlows conspicuous the very first day.’
It’s Malfoy! No, it’s Lois Sanger. There is clearly bad blood between her and Rowan, but what could possibly have needled easy-going, sensible Rowan? Something netball-related? Meanwhile, Miss Keith, the headmistress, ticks off Karen, then Nicola. Chastened, they head upstairs to unpack.
All the sisters except Karen are sharing a dormitory together, which seems a bit weird. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for new girls to be in a dorm with their classmates? Ginty, in addition to everything else, is UNTIDY. I’m really not seeing the point of Ginty so far, but maybe she has hidden talents. Also, each girl is permitted two framed photographs on her dressing-chest and Nicola has a portrait of Nelson and a photo of her brother Giles’s ship! Not Giles, just his ship.
Okay, so I’m wondering whether this is actually set in the late 1940s? There’s no mention of the war or rationing or Blitz damage. And if it was post-WWII, wouldn’t Nicola worship a more recent naval hero than Nelson (not that I can think of any particularly stellar performances by the British Navy during WWII, off hand). Also, where is this school? They take a ‘southern region’ train, there’s a cathedral in the town and it’s by the sea. I suppose it could be fictional, but I’m going to try and figure it out.
Malfoy Lois Sanger has the last word in this chapter, as the twins rush past her on their way downstairs to meet Tim. ‘I always feel it must be so gratifying to be a Marlow,’ she says sarcastically. I have a feeling Lois is going to cause major trouble at some stage …
Next, Chapter Three: A Form Examination.
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