‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest

'The Marlows and the Traitor' by Antonia ForestI’ve just handed my latest manuscript over to my editor, hooray, so I’m rewarding myself with the second of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, The Marlows and the Traitor. As with Autumn Term, I’ve decided to blog about it as I read. You might want to avoid Memoranda for the next week or so if you’re planning to read this book, because it sounds as though it will be a thriller with lots of exciting plot twists.

In fact, I was a bit wary of picking this up because my next planned book (not the one I’ve just sent off for editing, a different one) is also about spies and traitors and is set in England during the Cold War. However, I suspect Antonia Forest and I have quite different views about patriotism and the FitzOsbornes are not really like the Marlows, so it should be all right. (However, I would just like to note here that I worked out my plot long before I’d heard of The Marlows and the Traitor.)

Anyway, in Autumn Term we learned that the Marlow family consists of Commander Marlow, Mrs Marlow and eight Marlow offspring – Giles (junior naval officer), Karen (head girl of Kingscote Girls’ School), Rowan (the sporty, sensible one), Ann (kindly Guide Leader), Ginty (giant pain), Peter (Dartmouth cadet) and identical twins Nicola (awesome protagonist) and Lawrie (drama queen). In this book, the four youngest Marlows and their mother are on holiday in a seaside town and the story begins with a chapter ominously titled ‘Wednesday Morning: Encounter in a Thunderstorm’.

Peter wakes at dawn to the clap of thunder, having spent the night fretting about a humiliating incident at school that he refers to as ‘the boat thing’. He’s worried it might happen again and then he might get “kicked out of Dartmouth because he was a useless worm” and “apart from the quite scorching humiliation of being thrown out, he would have to go back to being an ordinary schoolboy at an ordinary school”.

Oh, the horror of being treated as ordinary when you’ve been born a Marlow! But with his father and his only brother in the navy, there’s probably quite a lot of pressure on poor Peter. To remind himself of how brave and daring he is, he grabs his favourite sister, Nicola, and they go for an oceanfront walk in the storm, noting a small boat making its way through the tempest-tossed sea. It is then revealed that Peter doesn’t like the sea and sailing-obsessed Nicola always gets seasick. They also discuss their fellow hotel guests, the Thorpe family, which is made up of “quiet, bald Mr Thorpe and his cheerful noisy wife and two daughters who all wore trousers much too tight and too brightly coloured for their various shapes” (the brazen hussies) and also seventeen-year-old Johnnie, who is well-intentioned but loud and clumsy. The Marlow children “in the politest possible way” exclude Johnnie from their activities, despite their mother’s protests that he’s nicer than his mannerisms suggest (“It’s his mannerisms we’d be with,” Lawrie points out). This is a dilemma because Mr Thorpe has invited them out on his boat, which they don’t feel they can accept if they’re ostracising his son. Peter and Nicola also chat about the upcoming fancy dress dance at the hotel and Peter becomes relaxed enough to tell Nicola about ‘the boat thing’.

It seems Peter, convinced he was a brilliant sailor, became complacent and careless while sailing and caused a fellow cadet to get knocked into the sea. Worse, Peter froze in a panic and failed to turn the boat around to rescue the poor boy. Lieutenant Foley, their instructor, had to fish the boy out, then gave Peter a dressing-down in front of everyone else. Nicola shows what an empathetic listener she is and then asks about Peter’s friend Selby. Selby is significant because he’s the first nice, normal boy Peter has ever befriended:

“All his life, he had had a talent for taking a fancy to the most unpleasant people, from his very first friend at the local kindergarten, who had been an angelic-looking little boy called Esmond who bit people without provocation and ran at them with open knives …”

Selby continues to be nice and normal, but he has had a strange encounter with Lieutenant Foley, who gave Selby a lift back to school one afternoon and behaved in a very “queer” manner – being inappropriately happy, asking what Selby would do for him and telling Selby that naval discipline was excessive and needed to be changed. Selby, rattled, tells his house officer, who apparently tells Foley(!), who later makes a snarky remark about Selby’s “outsize conscience”. But Selby continues to feel “as if things ought to be all right, but, aren’t really”.

Peter likes Foley, so thinks Selby is imagining things, but Nicola is inclined to believe Selby. Listen to Nicola, Peter! She’s a lot better than you are at human relationships! Maybe Foley really does want something sinister from Selby …

Peter then becomes aware that he has led the two of them along a cliff path that he’s been warned is dangerous, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm:

“The rain streamed down their waterproofs and the sea creamed around their gumboots, while the sky grew steadily more copper coloured as if a fire had been lighted behind it. And then, suddenly, the sky cracked open above their heads, and a ball of light rushed along the horizon and fell into the sea: the thunder bellowed, the hail came down like a white wall and the sea swirled about their thighs.”

Even Nicola, who is completely fearless, becomes concerned they might slip off the cliff path and Peter “agree[s] with some relief, feeling rather a fool”. At which point Nicola is nearly washed into the sea, saved from almost certain death by Peter grabbing her. Soaked to the skin, they stagger back to the promenade, relieved to see that at least that little boat has made it back to shore safely. Then something very odd happens.

A man walks past them on the promenade – and it’s Lieutenant Foley! Except he ignores Peter’s polite greeting, as if he’s never met Peter before in his life. Peter, feeling even more foolish, decides that he, Peter, must have been so drenched he was unrecognisable, but Nicola says Foley’s eyes flickered in a moment of recognition “like in The Thirty-Nine Steps”.

Okay, so Lieutenant Foley has appeared in three different incidents in this chapter and in two of them he’s behaved very strangely. Using my extraordinary powers of perception, I predict that Lieutenant Foley will turn out to be The Traitor.

Unless The Traitor is actually that ginger cat on the promenade, which is also mentioned three times in this chapter and the second time it saw the children, it “stared at them with blank yellow eyes as if it had never seen them before” and it also acts treacherously by kicking Nicola’s arm after she’s spent ages diligently rubbing behind its ears.

Unless the cat IS Lieutenant Foley, in disguise. I don’t think this is that sort of book, though.

Also, I was disproportionately amused that the Marlow children use “goop” to mean “a complete idiot.”

Next, Wednesday Afternoon: The Hidden Sea

9 thoughts on “‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest”

  1. Oh goody goody goody, you’re doing MATT!

    Ah, yes. the gigantic snobbishness of the Marlows… afraid to say this is a constant theme (Nicola is not a snob though, and makes friends with all kinds of people without self-consciousness). I don’t think I’m giving away much to reveal that Lewis Foley is, indeed, a wrong ‘un — but he’s not a one dimensional villain.

    I’ll be really interested to see your impressions of this book, in some ways a quite conventional kids-defeat-the-traitors story, but with unexpected moments of complexity (because this is Antonia Forest). I also think the events of this book explain a lot about Ginty’s character later on… but enough of that for now.

  2. No spoilers!

    (I’m up to Chapter Three and have just found out Foley is indeed a wrong’un. He might also turn out to be a wizard capable of turning himself into a ginger cat, but it seems unlikely.)

  3. Ginty – giant pain, and Nicola – awesome protagonist, pretty much sums up the whole series for me and you’ve only read one and a half of them – I love your blog!

  4. Actually one of AF’s great skills throughout the whole series is to make Ginty – the not-strong, brave or likeable character, very sympathetic and understandable so that by the end I do sort-of half like her.
    I envy you the chance to read all the books for the first time in order. It may give you a quite different early impression of some of the characters. I had the four school books in the eighties when they were all in print and I was the same age as Nicola, and my local library had two of the holiday books. But it wasn’t until years later that I caught up with all the others, like this one, so I didn’t know about Ginty having been trapped in the Blitz until my opinion on her was formed.

    1. That’s a good point that reading them in order might change the reader’s perception of the characters. So Ginty’s Blitz trauma isn’t referred to in later books? Then maybe the author didn’t think that was a valid excuse for Ginty’s not-so-brave behaviour – I mean, if it wasn’t even mentioned later. It would certainly be consistent with the stiff-upper-lip values being celebrated in the books so far!

      1. AF set her books during the time at which she wrote them, so Autumn Term takes place in 1948 and Run Away Home in 1982 – there are specific pop culture references in some of the books, linking them to those years. However, the books only follow a time period of just over two years for the characters, meaning that while Ginty recalls her Blitz experience in The Marlows and the Traitor, there are references to punk rockers only a few books later. I suspect AF didn’t refer to the Blitz trauma again for this reason, as a 15-year-old in the 1970s wouldn’t remember the Blitz.

        I’m enjoying your blogs on AF – I hope you get to read them all. 🙂

        1. Thanks, Liz. That’s interesting about the different time settings and also a bit weird, because surely people are a product of their upbringing and cultural experiences? So a teenage character who’d lived through the Blitz would surely have different views on life than a teenager who’d been born twenty years later. Well, I’ll look forward to seeing how Antonia Forest manages that!

          1. Ginty’s blitz trauma is essentially a plot device to explain her claustrophobia in this book. The next book is set in the same time period as this one, and the following two are still fairly generally in the same period, so it could reasonably have been mentioned again.
            The big jump in time setting happens for The Thuggery Affair, which is set in the sixties. Then the next two books are set so much within the world of family and school that it almost doesn’t matter when they were set. Then Attic Term is post Vatican II and Run Away Home is early eighties. Both AT and RAH have references to specific TV programmes etc. Arguably, the three later and period specific books are her least popular and least re-read ones (according to a non-scientific poll on Trennels anyway.)

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