‘Autumn Term’, Part Two

Chapter Three: A Form Examination

The twins meet up with Tim in the garden and Tim offers them delicious juicy pears, which she cheerfully admits she stole from the headmistress’s private garden. As the twins are trying to get Tim to understand the gravity of this crime, another new girl arrives and Tim is horrified to see it’s her ghastly neighbour, Pomona. Here’s why Tim despises Pomona:

– Pomona is sweet and gentle and charms all the grown-ups
– Pomona is “stout” and dressed by her mother in sandals and a silk tunic
– Pomona’s mother is “frightfully artistic” (unlike Tim’s father, who paints in a masculine and professional manner)

Pomona is bound to be put in Third Remove because she is “delicate and highly-strung and backward” and Tim wishes the twins were going to be in Third Remove too, so the three of them could start an Anti-Pomona League. Nicola is sad that can’t happen because “of course, Marlows always did go into an A form. You couldn’t alter that.”

Nicola, you just keep digging that hole…

Apparently, students don’t have to do any sort of entrance examination before enrolment? All the new girls go off to do the Form Exam on their second day and the twins are horrified to realise they can’t even understand the questions, let alone answer them (“I kept staring at the beastly thing and wondering if it would look better upside down”). The results are posted a few hours later (how do the teachers grade them so quickly?) and big surprise, the twins, Tim and Pomona are all in Third Remove. But I’m really starting to appreciate the psychological insight the author is weaving into her narrative. Ginty (of course) makes a stupid joke to her friends about Nick and Lawrie being stuck in the Dimwits class and here’s Nicola’s reaction:

Nicola, misunderstanding, thought the laughter directed against herself and Lawrie. A lump rose perilously in her throat and she glanced hurriedly at her twin: but Lawrie’s expression was one of dazed bewilderment rather than dismay; it sometimes took time for disaster to penetrate her fully; in an hour or so she might burst into tears; until then she would probably assert violently that it was a mistake and that Miss Cartwright would tell them so in the morning.

Nicola swallowed secretly. One could not, of course, cry here, in front of all the crowd. Probably it would be better not to cry at all if it could be managed. And certainly one must not plunge for the door head down; one must wait until the crowd began to break up and then stroll nonchalantly away in company with anyone who cared to come. Nicola stuck her hands through her girdle, whistled softly between her teeth, and turned her head to give Tim a quick little smile. Tim smiled back quickly too, but as though she were embarrassed. She thinks I mind, thought Nicola crossly and correctly; and said rather loudly: ‘It’s pretty good, I think. We can have the A.P.L. anyway.’

Isn’t that good writing? In two paragraphs, we learn so much about three of the main characters. The question is, has Nicola learned anything from this experience?

Chapter Four: Tim Bags a Desk–

At breakfast the next day, Nicola and Lawrie are surprised but relieved to find they “cared a good deal less”, thanks partly to Rowan’s sympathy. Tim is eating another illegal pear and when told off by a teacher, lies that she’s brought it from home and anyway, wants “special privileges” because her aunt is headmistress. Miss Cartwright attempts to squash Tim, but Tim seems unsquashable. Nicola goes off to collect their books, deeply disturbed by Tim’s stealing and lies, but she manages to convince herself that it isn’t really an important crime and she’s sure Tim would confess if directly questioned. Hmm… Back upstairs in their new classroom, it is revealed that Tim got up early to bag the best desks at the front of the classroom. The other students are not happy. Tim uses the privilege argument again:

‘…me being Miss Keith’s niece and Nick and Laurie the head girl’s sisters. I mean to say, obviously we sit in front.’

There was a slight quiver in Tim’s voice as though she badly wanted to laugh, though Nicola couldn’t see why.’

That’s because Nicola isn’t an wily, scheming nonconformist. I like Tim, but I hope she starts to use her powers for good rather than evil.

Tim gives Nicola the nicest desk, a shiny new one. Although I’m not sure why they want the front row seats because surely they’ll get into more trouble if they’re right under the teacher’s nose? Anyway, the other students send a delegate, Marie, to argue with Nicola about the new desk. Nicola refuses to move. Marie goes off to brood about this and plan her revenge. Tim incites the others to tease Pomona about her name (which is a bit rich, considering Tim’s name is Thalia, but Pomona doesn’t help matters by throwing a foot-stamping tantrum). Miss Cartwright comes in and appoints Jean and Hazel form prefects. Tim and Lawrie are Flower Monitresses and Nicola gets Tidiness. Finally, Miss Cartwright tells them not to feel bad about being put in Third Remove:

‘So don’t feel, any of you, that you’ve been put in Third Remove because you’re outstandingly brainless. Just tell IIIB from me that there are far more really stupid people amongst them than there are here.’

They don’t make teachers like that any more. Thank goodness.

Next, Chapter Five: –And Nicola Loses It

2 thoughts on “‘Autumn Term’, Part Two”

  1. There are all kinds of problems with Antonia Forest’s books but what keeps pulling me back is a) the acute psychological observation and b) the sheer quality of the writing. Later on, there are also beautiful, lyrical pieces of nature writing, another of my weaknesses… not so much in this book though.

    I’ll shut up now 🙂

    1. Please do keep commenting, Kate! Yes, the characters are all so complex and carefully observed, and the author is so good at identifying the sorts of issues that would really take up all the attention of twelve-year-old girls. It’s true there are some hilariously dated bits, but there’s deliberate humour, too – mostly Tim’s snarkiness, but also offhand comments by the author. I’m waiting to see if some of the snobby attitudes of some characters get challenged later on in the book – after all, just because a character says or does something doesn’t mean the author approves of it…

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