Chapter Four: Dispatches to Angora: I
This chapter is mostly the Marlow’s version of Gondal, in which the Palladian Guards are ordered by the Regent to carry dispatches to a distant allied kingdom. The plot does not make a whole lot of sense to me, but possibly that’s just my impatience with High Fantasy tropes showing. The Regent forces the Guards to write letters to their families, confessing to being traitors. If they fail in their mission, the letters will be used as evidence and they’ll be executed. If their families destroy the letters, the families will become traitors. If the Guards refuse to go along with the Regent’s plan, they’ll be imprisoned and tortured. Then the Regent turns up under a magical waterfall along the way and announces their young King will be accompanying them. The King says it’s all a wicked plan by the Regent to get them all out of the way so he can seize the kingdom, but none of the Guards believe the King, even though they have plenty of evidence the Regent is evil. I mean, he’s blackmailing them and threatening their families! Anyway, they set off through this frozen wasteland, where “nothing moved but themselves” and yet somehow their falcons find plenty of animals for them to eat. I guess their horses are eating meat, too, or maybe snow? They don’t seem to be carrying much by way of provisions.
I’m also confused about whether the children are sitting round the Hide and talking dialogue, or moving around and acting the story out, or if someone (Patrick?) is writing it down, because this part reads like a novel, not a play. But I was amused by some of the described action – for example, Malise/Peter “climbing fearlessly down into the frozen darkness” when Peter’s actually terrified of heights, and Crispian/Ginty’s “long swim to save” Rupert/Patrick. They are forced to take a break from Saturday afternoon till Monday due to church and Patrick’s visiting relatives (“may all their rabbits die”), which dismays all the children except Nicola. Discussing their next plot obstacle, Ginty suggests an ambush on the shores of a “frozen sea”. The idea of a frozen sea “rang true” to all of them. This is because the Marlows are a frozen sea. Well, except Lawrie, who’s entirely liquid salt water.
Back at Trennels, Lawrie manages to spook herself by vividly imagining a terrible scene in which the young King tries to escape the Regent, is caught and is dragged back to face his punishment:
“Lawrie shivered, staring across the moonlit room into the room of her imagining. It really was awfully queer to be able to feel as frightened as this by a bit of Gondal of her own making … It really wouldn’t have surprised her, in that panic moment of opening the door, to have found the room dark and silent and her family flown.”
This is totally how I would have reacted after too much story-telling-in-my-own-head at the age of 12 (or cough 28). It really annoys me that I have so much in common with Lawrie…
Patrick also invites the Marlows to the annual Merrick Twelfth Night party. They will have to dress up, although Patrick concedes he does have an eccentric aunt who “always wears a lace blouse and a tweed skirt” instead of evening dress. It sounds very grand and possibly a little bit romantic (if Ginty ends up the belle of the ball by turning up in some ravishing Victorian gown that they found in the Trennels attic and Patrick is smitten).
Chapter Five: “The Farthest Distant Quarters”
On Sunday morning, Nicola and Ginty search the Trennels library for books about explorers, to use in their story. Ginty is already amazed by a vague reference in that morning’s Epistle reading that could, if you squinted, apply to Jason the boy King:
“Ginty tried shyly to communicate her sense of the strangeness of the small coincidence as of a nudge from another dimension, ‘like a clue to something’.”
And later she comes across a reference to a frozen sea, which is even more uncanny, and loses herself in a fantasy that
“Crispian and Rupert and the rest were true – had been true – and they themselves were only acting out something which had once been real. It could happen. It did happen.”
But sensible, rational Nicola refuses to engage in such nonsense. Karen arrives and Ginty asks her what she thinks of the Brontës and Gondal and Angria. Karen says, “So far as Emily was concerned, it was the most appalling waste of time and talent” and when Ginty protests that it was noble of Emily not to be motivated by fame and money, Karen points out the evidence, in one of Emily’s poems, that Emily was devastated when her early poems were rejected and “minded desperately” when Wuthering Heights got bad reviews.
They discuss how the poem shows how Emily used Gondal to escape life’s worries (which both Nicola and Karen think is “mad” and “pathetic”), just as Branwell used drugs and drink. Then Karen says,
“I mean – either life was too much for her so she retreated into Gondal, or else Gondal made life too much for her when she couldn’t avoid it.”
Ginty thinks it’s all quite understandable, given Emily was stuck in a gloomy parsonage on the moors, but Karen points out that the Brontës had plenty of visitors and in fact, Emily travelled as far as Brussels and had lots of opportunities to escape if she’d wanted. Emily chose to limit her life to Gondal. And Branwell had his family’s support and could have led a productive life, but chose to model himself on Young Soult, the dissolute poet who was his Angrian persona.
Ann comes in at this stage and says her favourite Brontë was Charlotte and how when Ann was nine, she thought that if Karen and Rowan died at school like the eldest Brontës, then she, Ann, would be like poor Charlotte. And they talk about what a miserable time Charlotte must have had with Branwell, Emily and Anne dying in the same year, and then only having nine months of married bliss before she died.
(Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here imagining what modern-day Australian publishers would say if I presented them with a children’s book manuscript that included a twenty-page analysis of the troubled adult lives of the Brontës and whether juvenile role-playing games hindered their integration into society. Probably the same thing those publishers said when I sent them a children’s history of medicine, analysing the role of superstition, science and pseudoscience, ie “Ha ha ha … oh, you’re serious. NO.”)
Karen also talks about Emily killing off her puppy characters, which so horrifies Nicola that “Wuthering Heights promptly took its place with books like The Lamplighter and Black Beauty which Nicola was never going to read, ever.” There was also a good bit in an earlier chapter where Nicola, hearing of the Brontë name’s link to Nelson, thought, “Suddenly the name on the covers of two of the many books she ought to read – this year, next year, sometime, more likely never – took on a romantic glow: perhaps she really would read them.” That’s exactly how I feel about Shirley and Villette and whatever novels Anne wrote.
The next part of this very, very long chapter involves the Marlow sisters handing down dresses to one another in preparation for the Twelfth Night party. Poor Nicola ends up with unflattering white frilly net (although I don’t see why Lawrie can’t have that, if they’re identical). Ginty tries on a ghastly pre-war peacock chiffon that belonged to their mother and just as they’re discussing how to alter it, Doris the maid announces she’ll do it and carries it off. This is bound to be a disaster because Doris wears “sad, drab” clothes, even to church. Mrs Marlow can’t alter another dress for Ginty because it will hurt Doris’s feelings if she sees, so Rowan comes up with a plan to buy a new dress on Monday and “accidentally” drop Doris’s terrible dress in the bath on the night of the party, and then “discover” the new dress in Ann’s wardrobe.
Mollified, Ginty is back in her room, happily fantasising about how much she/Crispian loves Rupert/Patrick, “like David and Jonathan”, and picturing Rupert dying tragically in Crispian’s arms when she suddenly realises that the shopping trip will mean cancelling their Gondalling on Monday! This is such a terrible thought that she decides she’d rather wear the Bridesmaid’s Horror, an ancient net dress that doesn’t even fit properly. There, see what Gondalling is doing to Ginty already, passing up the rare chance of a nice new frock.
Mrs Marlow now decides Peter has to accompany Nicola on her nightly trips to the hawkhouse, even though he rightly points out he’ll be useless if the village drunk does attack them. Peter then insists he needs to take one of the old pistols with him and Nicola recalls when he shot the Nazi at the lighthouse. But Peter claims to have forgotten all about it and when Nicola muses that Foley was half like Giles, maybe even “kinder than him”, Peter loses his temper and says, “If you’re a traitor it doesn’t matter what the other half of you’s like.” It’s clear he’s repressed the incident “fathoms deep”. This is understandable given his upbringing (and also being threatened with the Official Secrets Act if he talks about it), but it does seem bound to cause future problems for him.
There’s a bit more Gondalling in the hawkhouse with Patrick, as they figure out what happened to the old King. The evil Regent pretended the old King had robbed the Treasury, the King abdicated to avoid civil war, then the Regent got his only friend and ally to kill the King, then executed the friend. Nicola is a bit uneasy that Patrick keeps coming up with these evil plots so readily. Also, apparently the Queen died in childbirth. I notice that all the characters are male – apparently girls and women can’t have adventures, if you’re a Marlow.
Then Patrick rejoins his relatives. Forced to be sociable when he just wants to sit quietly and contemplate Rupert being a traitor, he snaps at his Aunt Florence and is made to apologise. (Slightly off topic, is it weird that he calls Aunt Florence “an interfering old faggot”? The American use of the word as a pejorative wouldn’t have been common in 1960s England, surely, and it’s usually used about men, not women, so is he referring to fagging, as in public school boys? I don’t understand what he means here.) We also learn his Uncle Alex is in the Foreign Office and often talks Top Secret Stuff with Mr Merrick. I wonder if that comes up in subsequent Marlow books? (I was also imagining Uncle Alex would know Colonel Stanley-Ross, but they wouldn’t get along because Alex is a ferocious Tory and the Colonel isn’t.)
Next, Chapter Six: “All the Birds of the Air…”