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.
However, 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”
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