‘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”

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Seven

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

15 thoughts on “‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest”

  1. This is my personal favourite Marlow book, it meant a lot to me as an adolescent daydreamer. Though Forest is essentially disapproving, and sees it as a dangerous practice, she clearly understands the very particular pleasures associated with getting caught up in private (or shared) fantasy worlds.

    Keep an eye on those old pistols. Yes, Trennels is basically a TARDIS. In Ready Made Family, Nicola discovers a conservatory that we’ve never seen before 🙂

    In End of Term, Nicola and Esther discuss Daks’ name as coming from the way he’s clipped (in poodle trousers) — so I think it does mean the same in England as it does in Oz.

    The cover is ghastly, isn’t it!

    Definitely more Austen than Bronte, great observation.

    1. Yes, I’m not sure someone who wrote children’s books for a living could truly disapprove of making things up…

      Oh, dear, Peter’s going to shoot someone again, isn’t he? As long as it’s not Daks. I don’t remember that bit about the puppy’s name, I’ll have to re-read that.

    2. Hi Kate, my name is Katy C., and every time I read one of your comments I feel like I’ve run into my doppelgänger. I remember reading this book at age 12 and wondering earnestly whether it was quite healthy for me to be as invested in fictional characters as I was.

    3. It was Miranda (at her most Miranda-ish) and Nicola, in fact, near the end of chapter 2:

      “I say! I’ve just thought! Your Esther Frewen’s got a photograph on her dressing-chest of the most adorable miniature poodle puppy. And d’you know what it’s called?”

      “Yes – Daks. A poodle. I thought it must be a dachshund.”

      “I know. One would. That’s what I’ve just this moment seen. It’s the way it’s clipped. Daks are those trousers you see in advertisements. Don’t you think it’s madly clever of me to have seen that without being told?”

  2. Oh joy, you’re back!
    To be fair about the farm chores, I think this is the first time they have been back since Trennels got changed from “holiday place” to “where we live” so they have some settling down to do.

    1. And you’re back, too! Hello, Pip.

      I have a suspicion the children didn’t do all that much around the house in London, either. Poor overworked Rowan and Ann.

  3. That was a lovely description of the first two chapters!
    In one of her obituaries AF was described as a Jane Austen for children. The one book of hers that I think is a little bit Bronte-ish is Ready Made Family.
    I’m curious now as to how many childrens’ stories start with dusty old houses/rooms being cleaned out before the magic unfolds? It’s a common trope in Japanese animation (I’m thinking of Ghibli mainly) which is in itself inspired by European / British childrens’ stories.
    As for the chores – there’s a lot of bed making goes on in the Marlow books and they always manage to make it seem like a major job. Even in the days of sheets and blankets surely each child could just pull their own bed straight? But it seems to be someone’s turn each day to go and do the whole lot.

    1. Hello, Ann.

      Yes, I’m sure someone’s written their thesis on House Cleaning in Children’s Literature and how it symbolises creating order and asserting control.

      I think there’s a mention of Nicola only making her own bed. But you’re right, it takes about sixty seconds, as long as you’re not changing the sheets! It’s not exactly difficult, once you’re big enough to be able to lift up the corners of the mattress. I assume they make their own beds at school – or do they have maids to keep their dormitory clean?

      1. They make their beds at school and it’s mentioned at length in one of the books – Nicola makes hers first thing after breakfast being an efficient get-things-over-with type whereas Lawrie and Tim go for their morning constitutional first.

  4. Oh bliss, another read through!
    I enjoy both the school and the home books. I generally start a re-read by having a wim to read a certain section in a particular book and then before I know it, I’m reading them all again.

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