‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two

Chapter Three: ‘A Parsonage called Haworth’

So, the Marlows do their Christmas shopping, but we don’t find out the details of what they buy each another except for Nicola, who “bought everyone sticks of sealing wax” because she “never had any money when she most wanted it”. Firstly, Nicola has at least eighty pounds sitting in her savings account (or in a biscuit tin under her bed, or somewhere) after selling her Boke of Falconerie. Secondly, sealing wax, really? Is this book actually meant to be set in the 1960s? Were most people sealing their letters with wax then? If so, I could almost understand if she bought everyone special sealing stamps carved with their initials or the Marlow coat of arms, but sealing wax is essentially candles without the wick. I did like Karen buying everyone book tokens “because book tokens were what she always hoped everybody would have the sense to give her”. I’m with Karen on that.

Then Christmas arrives and here is how Antonia Forest describes the most significant religious festival in England, when families across the country gather to celebrate with feasting and merriment:

“Christmas Day. Boxing Day.”

THAT’S IT. That’s the description of the Marlows’ Christmas. There isn’t even any mention of Captain Marlow or Giles, who presumably are at sea, not even an “Oh, I wish Dad were here with us for our very first Christmas at Trennels.” Is it that the author, brought up in a Jewish household, didn’t ever experience Christmas as a child? And then, as a adult Catholic convert, disapproved of all the pagan, non-religious bits of Christmas festivities? It just seems very peculiar to write a book about a middle-class Anglican family, set in the Christmas holidays, and ignore Christmas Day.

Anyway, following their invisible Christmas, Nicola meets Patrick in the hawkhouse, where Sprog is staying during the holidays. After some initial social awkwardness (this is Patrick, after all), they discuss the difficulties of keeping a merlin healthy during winter and Patrick assumes Nicola will be hunting this season on Buster, which makes Nicola a bit anxious as she’s not a confident rider. Of course, she doesn’t tell him that because she’s a Marlow. Better to break your neck falling off a horse than ever admit any weakness. Also, Patrick, “that fortunate only child”, refuses to let any other Marlows ride Buster and doesn’t understand why Nicola might want to share her pony with her horseless siblings.

Back at Trennels, Peter is still being lazy about his one chore, boot-cleaning, and when Nicola rightly gets annoyed at him about this, he gets into a physical fight with her, hurting her so badly that Doris the maid orders him to stop. Peter really is a very unpleasant child, unable to control his temper or admit he was wrong, and determined to repress any uncomfortable thoughts about his own mistakes. Nicola may be younger, but she’s far more mature. They go off to meet Patrick at the Shippen, now called The Hide, where Patrick is fascinated by the old farm journals and resolves to copy out all the interesting bits about Malise the Royalist. Patrick reveals that his Merrick ancestors were also Royalists during the Civil War, because the alternative was Cromwell, who was even more anti-Catholic than Charles. But just as Patrick is about to explain what happened to Malise, they’re interrupted in typically dramatic fashion by Lawrie, who has an announcement.

Mrs Marlow has bought two beautiful horses! Catkin is a fifteenth birthday present for Ginty and Chocbar is for Mrs Marlow to hunt. So even though the Marlows are “stupendously hard up”, unable even to afford new school uniforms for the girls, they have enough money for luxuries like hunting ponies. This is because Mrs Marlow has sold the Last Ditch, a very ugly but valuable tiara inherited from a great-aunt:

“All financial crises for years had been solved simply, it seemed, by knowing the Last Ditch was there if needed. And now it was gone. They were out in the cold.”

Well, they’d better not complain about being poor at any stage in the future, that’s all I’m saying.

Rowan offers to lend Peter her horse for hunting, so Lawrie throws a tantrum because everyone has a pony except for her. The other thing that happens is that Patrick discovers his mother is right and that Ginty is the beauty of the Marlow family. And then Patrick and Ginty bond over their mutual love of horses and hunting, even though last summer, Ginty had “made a proper huha about being an anti-blood-sporter” and she’s only hunted twice in her life. Peter, brooding about this, remembers Lieutenant Foley disparaging “that useful social and examination-room accomplishment of making a pint of knowledge fill a hogshead of ignorance” and then he hastily tries to repress any memory of Foley. I’m glad I’m reading the books in order because it’s useful to know here exactly how badly Foley betrayed Peter. Peter trusted Foley as a teacher and Navy officer, and Foley not only turned out to be a traitor but was willing to see Peter and his siblings murdered by Nazis. So it’s understandable Peter doesn’t want to think about Foley, but on the other hand, Peter seems determined not to learn anything from previous experiences.

Then Nicola arrives with the news that it’s snowing and the phone line is down and the children light the fire (the chimney is miraculously free of soot and dead birds) and they roast potatoes and chestnuts while the three dogs lie “curled up in one exquisite lump of warmth, Daks a dark blot against the paler coats of the other two”. I would hope Nicola is writing to Esther to give her regular updates on Daks, but there’s no mention of this.

This is a very long chapter.

Eventually the children grow bored and Ginty comes up with the idea of “pretend games” like the Brontës. She explains how Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne invented two countries called Gondal and Angria and developed elaborate stories about them. Ginty is doing a school project on this and thinks Emily is “absolutely stupendous to have written poems about quite imaginary people so that for ages everyone thinks it’s true” and she must have been beautiful because she was “such a terrific person”.

Nicola, “who avoided poetry”, asks sensible questions like “Why couldn’t she be terrific and ugly?” and Peter is shocked that Emily was still play-acting Gondal when she was twenty-eight (“But that’s ancient!”). It’s Lawrie who says, “Why couldn’t we have a Gondal?” So they plan their story, despite some scepticism from Nicola.

I’m going to write their character names here so I don’t get confused. There are four Palladian Guards:

Patrick is Rupert Almeda.
Ginty is Crispian de Samara.
Peter is Malise Douglas.
Nicola is Nicholas Brenzaida.

Lawrie is the young King, Jason Exina.
Patrick is also playing the evil Regent, My Lord of Alcona.

Next, Chapter Four: Dispatches to Angora: 1

16 thoughts on “‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two”

  1. ‘They’d better not complain about being poor…’ LOL – not for six months anyway – till we get to Cricket Term.
    I’ve always been mystified by the sealing wax too.
    It must be interesting reading them in order. I must have read Peter’s Room dozens of times before I met the Marlows And The Traitor and knew who Foley was, and parts of PR really benefit from knowing about Peter and Foley.
    While not liking Ginty as a character, I absolutely love the way AF writes her character in this book, and later in Attic Term. Identifying with Emily Bronte, suddenly becoming the resident expert on hunting, (and more stuff later in the book) it’s all so well drawn and subtly done.
    I’m looking forward to reading what you think as the book goes on!

    1. I didn’t like Ginty in the first book, but once I learned about her Blitz trauma in the second book, she became more sympathetic. She’s shallow and self-centred, compared to most of her sisters, but she’s definitely a real person, with understandable fears and motivations.

  2. I read this one in my 30s and out of order so didn’t find Gondal as charming as I might have as a child. After all, I liked The Return of the Twelves!

    English fiction often depends on families that consider themselves hard up but don’t seem it to us but I agree that the Marlow parents have extremely misplaced priorities (and just you wait). In contrast, I remember reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the slivers of food that were all Aunt Jane (?) could afford, and thinking, “Now there’s genteel poverty!”

  3. I always liked that the book just skips over Christmas in four words – it’s basically saying “Yes, they had a perfectly normal Christmas, but this isn’t a nice cosy book about family Christmas at a farmhouse in the snow, so we’ll just acknowledge it and move on to our story.” Also, End of Term is more or less a Christmas book, so maybe Forest just wanted to avoid writing two books in a row about the same Christmas.

  4. And think how long this chapter would have been if she’d shoved Christmas in as well as everything else 🙂

    Agree that part of this book make much more sense once you know about Foley (which I didn’t until very recently). Peter is a difficult character — but he has been through experiences that most 14 year olds haven’t — and been forbidden ever to talk about them!

    This is what makes the Gondalling so fascinating to me, how all the things these kids have been taught to repress make their way to the surface in disguise, and how it fulfils a different need in each of them — most straightforwardly for Lawrie, giving her material for acting practice, but even for Nicola (as you’ll see later on), despite her general scepticism.

    Yeah, dirt poor. Huh!

    1. It’s also interesting the way their real life attitudes are expressed through the Gondalling – all the characters in the Gondal are boys even though three of them are played by girls. Even in a fantasy world they don’t seem to think that girls can do anything interesting.

      1. Ah, I just wrote about this in my new post! I noticed it in Chapter Five, when they discuss the Queen, who “probably died” or “she’d be in jail or confined in a convent or something”. Because of course the Queen can’t be a hero, fighting to save her child and the kingdom!

  5. I always think I don’t really enjoy the Gondalling but somehow get caught up in it anyway. I believe some people skip those parts but there is just enough ‘real life’ interjections that really, you have to read it all to get the full flavour.
    If Laurie were around today and writing fan fiction, she’d put herself in every story as the classic Mary-Sue.

  6. I was Nicola’s age and at boarding-school in the 1960s, and we all adored sealing-wax (which by then did have a wick) and couldn’t get enough of the stuff! So I have always sympathised with Nicola for buying it for everybody – she would have liked to have been given it!

    1. I am boggled by this sealing wax info! So was it soft and in lumps, like putty or Play-Doh? Was it always red?

      EDITED TO ADD: They still sell sealing wax! I was looking at this site and now I want to send some letters with sealing wax!

      1. It was in sticks, sort of rectangular, not very big -about half an inch by a quarter with a wick in the middle. It was more solid than candle wax and set harder after it was melted

  7. I also liked sealing wax and got some in my Christmas stocking once, with a metal sort of fleur-de-lis stamp! It came in a long, sort of embossed stick like a thin candle. I should have been supervised when I first tried it out with matches and no envelope in sight. I dripped burning hot wax on the back of my hand which was painful left a scar for some time.

    1. Ouch, that sounds awful. I just watched a video of how to use sealing-wax-with-a-wick and it does look tricky. Apparently you can now buy sealing wax to use with those heated-glue-stick guns.

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