Chapter Nine: Right Way Round
The narrative point of view in this book is all over the place, in a way that would exasperate most of the editors I’ve worked with. While the story is mostly told from Nicola’s perspective, it’s not uncommon for the reader to find herself suddenly inside the head of a completely different character for a single paragraph (for example, look at the end of Chapter One, when there’s an abrupt and unnecessary change to Ann’s point of view, before it swaps back to Nicola for the final two paragraphs). But I think Antonia Forest chose well when she decided the Nativity Play should be seen (mostly) through Patrick’s eyes. He knows enough about the people in this chapter (those on-stage and off-stage) that it’s not too confusing for him, but we get extra insight into them from his outsider’s perspective. He also understands more about the religious story than many of the participants – certainly more than Lawrie, and even many readers (for instance, I had only the vaguest notion about St Stephen before reading this).
Anyway, this chapter starts with the Merrick family arriving at the Minster to watch the play. Daks has been rescued from Esther’s house and is curled up happily in their car, waiting to be transferred to the Marlows. The Merricks sit up the front of the packed Minster (Three thousand people! No wonder Esther was terrified!) beside Mrs Marlow, Madame Orly, Karen and Rowan. Patrick is shocked when the exquisite voice leading the choir procession turns out to belong to Nicola, although not half as shocked as Nicola’s grandmother (“Surely not”, she keeps muttering, even when Nicola’s walking right past her). Patrick’s also impressed by the Reading Angel, until he realises it’s Evil Lois and then he thinks:
“…how queer it was that what people were like had no connection whatever with what they could actually do. Like Coleridge: like Mozart: and now here was this dire twerp of a Lois Sanger…”
At this point, Rowan and Patrick chivalrously give up their seats to some querulous old women, but luckily find their way to the empty gallery, where they can look down the central aisle to the whole scene and give us a lovely description of what’s going on. Patrick is impressed by Miranda, an unmoving falcon-angel who reminds him of Regina, and by Ann’s serenity, and by the sight of dear idiotic little Sprog being carried in by the King’s page.
But it’s Lawrie who steals the show playing the youngest shepherd, forced by his brothers to guard the sheep instead of visiting the infant Christ, then rescued by the Archangel Gabriel and sent off to the stable, where he gives his only possession, his shepherd’s crook, to the baby, “Lest He too, one day, should be a shepherd”. Lawrie’s performance has lots of clever links back to real-life scenes in the book, most clearly when Lawrie decides not to weep noisily in disappointment as the stage directions say, but to use the “pit-bottomed blackness” she’d felt when she discovered Nicola was to be Shepherd Boy:
“But she knew how she’d behaved: she remembered perfectly how she’d put her hands over her face; she’d rehearsed it quite often in her bath cubicle.”
Even Rowan gets choked up at this scene. Of course, being Lawrie, she’s completely aware of how good she is in the role, running up to see Patrick and Rowan when she’s not on stage and gloating about Esther’s absence and how it’s “maddening I didn’t know in time to invite Ellen Holroyd”, her theatrical mentor. As Rowan says, Lawrie really is a ghastly child.
We get some glimpses of Nicola’s viewpoint – her relief that Sprog is behaving himself on stage, her sudden terror when the entire congregation rises to its feet in place of applause, then her deep breath as she prepares to sing her final solo:
“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.”
Nicola, for the first time, manages to do it as he asked, and there’s a lovely description from Patrick of her “immaculate succession of notes, lifting and drifting among the soaring pillars and arches as he had seen thistledown lift and drift one evening in the watermeadows, floating away at last above the trees”. Patrick watches her silent, brief conversation with Miranda and muses how different people can be in different situations, “as if everyone had a spoonful of chameleon blood and changed colour a little, depending on their companions.”
Chapter Ten: And After
Afterwards Mrs Marlow does the usual Marlow thing, refusing to acknowledge how amazing her daughters were, but fortunately Mrs Merrick is there to praise Ginty’s beauty, Ann’s sincerity, Lawrie’s acting skills and Nicola’s singing. Mr Merrick reminds Mrs Marlow he has a puppy for her and Mrs Marlow has quite a lot to say about Nicola’s “frightful impudence” in asking him to collect Daks. Mr Merrick kindly points out that Nicola asked for a favour, rather than ordered him, and it was all to help Esther. None of the adults are very impressed with Esther’s “neglectful mother” (there is no mention of Esther’s even more neglectful father). Finally, Mrs Merrick asks if Madame Orly, who’s been strangely silent, is all right and Mrs Marlow explains that it’s just that her mother is in shock that her “grand-daughters could be anything but a grubby nuisance”.
Meanwhile, Nicola and Miranda are discussing how the play went as they walk back through the silent, snowy grounds. They think Lawrie was excellent (“Of course, Lawrie is frightened of lots of things. I suppose that’s how she knew.”) and Miranda says she enjoyed being in the play, once she got over her initial terror, but that the whole Christmas story seemed so unbelievable:
“And then it seemed so queer, that p’raps that was the reason people believed it … I mean, it’s either complete nonsense, or else it’s so unlikely, it would have to be true.”
I don’t see why things being extremely unlikely make them more believable, but then, that’s why I’m a sceptic and an atheist. Earlier Miranda had explained her family wasn’t Orthodox, but even if she’s from a Reform Jewish background, presumably she does believe in a God and follows some ‘God-ordained’ rules. Hopefully there’ll be more about this in future books, because Miranda’s such an interesting character.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and a furious Miss Keith is waiting for them. She thanks Miranda for her help but “shall, of course, be writing to your father to explain” (why not Miranda’s mother?) and orders them all to see her in her office on Monday. Blood for breakfast! But Nicola’s natural optimism comes to the rescue:
“…after all, Monday was a long way off, and Thursday and end-of-term, by some curious converse, really quite near. And after that came Christmas. So it couldn’t be too awful.”
And a big happy sigh from me. This has been my favourite Marlow book so far. I liked the first school book, but this took it to a new level, with such clever plotting and complex characterisation and thoughtful observations on life and lots of humour. Now I just have to wait for Girls Gone By to publish the next book.
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