I have been working very hard on my new book and felt I deserved a reward, so you know what that means – Antonia Forest read-along time! And really, with the world in its current state of chaos and despair, what better time to immerse oneself in a nice story about English children enjoying their summer holidays on a country estate. That’s pretty much all I know about Falconer’s Lure, except I’ve also read that it’s a pony book, but with falcons instead of ponies. I am totally on board for anything involving posh country estates, although I’m a bit wary about the falconry, being very much against animal cruelty, especially involving birds. Then again, most of my knowledge of falconry comes from reading T. H. White’s biography and he was notoriously bad at doing it, so maybe it’s not as awful as I think.
For those new to this series of books, they feature the Marlow family, which consists of Commander Marlow, Mrs Marlow and eight Marlow offspring: Giles, Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Peter and identical twins Nicola and Lawrie. In the first book, Autumn Term, the twins had an eventful first term at their new boarding school. In the second, The Marlows and The Traitor, Nicola, Peter and Ginty got caught up in a terrifying adventure on land and at sea after uncovering a naval spy. Whatever will they get up to on their summer holidays? With Antonia Forest, anything is possible.
Chapter One: Jael in the Morning
This is the first Marlow book that’s explicitly stated the year in which it’s set. It takes place in the summer of 1948 at Trennels Old Farm (exact location unspecified), which was requisitioned by the military during the war and recently inherited by Cousin Jon after the death of their Great Uncle Lawrence. The story begins with Nicola fetching the breakfast eggs from the farmer and glorying in the sunlit countryside, when she hears what she thinks is a distressed cat stuck in a tree. Nicola, “who had a tender feeling for all animals except anteaters”, climbs to the rescue and finds herself facing what seems to be an enraged eagle. Actually, it’s a goshawk called Jael, as Nicola is informed by its supercilious owner, Patrick Merrick, whom she recognises as a friend of her brother Peter’s from before the war. Patrick snaps orders at her, calls her a “clot” and “silly” for not knowing everything he does about falconry and is unsympathetic when Jael slices open Nicola’s ungloved thumb. What a lovely boy. I sincerely hope he’s not a future love interest for Nicola. Or any of her sisters. Or her brothers. I think even Giles deserves better.
Anyway, they rescue Jael and walk back to Patrick’s house, exchanging family news. Giles is now a Lieutenant, Karen is off to read Classics at Oxford, Rowan is going into Sixth Form and will probably be Games Captain (what, not Head Girl?), Peter is doing well at Dartmouth, Nicola’s father has been promoted to Captain, and the Marlows’ Hampstead house is finally habitable again after being bombed in the war.
Meanwhile, Patrick’s father has just been elected an MP, so his family has to move to London. I’m not sure why – can’t his father stay in a flat there when Parliament is sitting so his family can remain at their country estate? Patrick also reveals he attends a local day school, which he loathes, but that he hasn’t been at school at all for the last two years:
“Expelled?” [Nicola] asked instantly, for she was always hoping to meet someone to whom this enthralling thing had happened.
But it turns out Patrick was ill. I wonder what made him too sick for school for two years. Polio? TB? They were both deadly diseases in the 1940s.
Nicola is impressed with Patrick’s beautiful hunting birds (even though the poor things are TIED UP and UNABLE TO FLY). Apart from Jael, there’s Regina, an imperious peregrine falcon, and The Sprog, a sweet little jack merlin. Patrick asks if Nicola will help him look after the hawks. They really belong to Jon, but Jon’s busy being a test pilot for experimental planes at the local airfield. Naturally, Nicola says yes. Then she goes back to Trennels to breakfast, Patrick refusing to come in and say hello to the family (“I don’t think I could meet eight practically strange people on an empty stomach”). That’s okay, Patrick, they probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting you, either.
Chapter Two: Grand Stoop
Back at Trennels, Mrs Herbert, the housekeeper, is loudly unimpressed with Patrick’s “nasty great birds”, because one of the hawks killed her old cat and she has quite reasonable fears for the wellbeing of young Fluff. Nicola tends to her wounded thumb and goes in to breakfast, where much is revealed about the Marlows.
Firstly, the hawks were really Great Uncle Lawrence’s and Jon inherited them reluctantly. Jon also says the RAF used hawks kill pigeons near airfields during the war. Really? I happen to know a bit about pigeons in WWII and there was actually an official campaign to shoot birds of prey to stop them killing carrier pigeons, which were a vital part of military communications. That was mostly on the east coast of England, though, and who knows where Trennels is. Jon throws about a lot of hawking jargon, which interests Nicola and Karen, then they get onto the subject of Patrick. Nicola reports Patrick is “nicer than he was” (he must have been appalling before) and Jon tells them Patrick was badly injured and nearly killed when he fell off a cliff while trying to steal baby hawks from a nest. No wonder Patrick’s mother doesn’t like his hawks.
It also turns out Captain Marlow knows quite a bit about hawks, too (so Jon is his cousin, not Mrs Marlow’s) but he was never allowed to go near them because he was so “rough and rude”. Ginty is horrified to hear that hawks are used to hunt not just rabbits and partridges (that is, animals that you can eat) but also larks and blackbirds for entertainment. Jon says it’s all great fun, like “watching hounds at work with a fox” and that he thinks objections to blood-sports are “a bit exaggerated”. Well, I’m with Ginty on this issue. She storms off, but Mrs Marlow explains it’s only because she’s “been worked up and weepy since Easter”, after what Jon thinks was the children “getting themselves shipwrecked and having to spend the week-end in a lighthouse”. Captain Marlow is coldly unsympathetic and says “it’s time she got over it”.
Well, actually she wasn’t just shipwrecked. She was KIDNAPPED by a SOCIOPATHIC TRAITOR and DRUGGED and forced to wade through a tunnel (even though she’s been terrified of enclosed spaces ever since she was BURIED ALIVE UNDER A BOMBED HOUSE IN THE BLITZ) and then she nearly DROWNED and was on the verge of being MURDERED BY NAZI SPIES and afterwards was FORBIDDEN TO TALK ABOUT HER EXPERIENCES so if anyone has the right to be a bit shaken, it’s Ginty.
The family think Ginty’s lack of moral fibre is due to her new school friend Unity Logan, whom I kept picturing as Unity Mitford. Unity is an intense child who goes around adoring Ginty, telling Rowan, “I’d risk more than an order mark for a friend like Ginnie. I think she’s the most beautiful thing the gods ever made.” As if that isn’t bad enough, Nicola notes that Unity writes poetry. About Beauty. And also writes long holiday letters to Ginty.
Lawrie tries to draw attention back to herself by reminding them all she has a limp from when she was run over by a car. She is firmly squashed by her father, who says it’s boring to talk about illness. Then he humiliates Ann, who is just trying to make sure Nicola’s wounded thumb is properly bandaged. Then he tries to berate Peter for not addressing Cousin Jon with the proper formality, but fortunately Peter is already out of earshot. And Mrs Marlow hurries to placate her husband. My already low opinion of Captain Marlow has descended to uncharted depths. Maybe he and Patrick could go off and live together in some other, non-Marlow, book, so I don’t have to read about them anymore.
But I think my favourite bits of these books are the keen psychological observations. For example, here’s Peter when Nicola explains that Patrick only wants her to visit the hawks:
“Oh, all right,” said Peter carelessly. He felt such an odd mixture of feelings – hurt astonishment that Patrick should have warned him off, jealousy because Nicola was admitted to what was evidently privileged ground, and fury with himself for being either hurt or jealous – that the only thing to do was to spin round and dash after Cousin Jon, shouting “Wait for me, man! I’m coming!”
Peter goes off with Jon to the airfield while Nicola and Patrick walk to the Crowlands and try, unsuccessfully, to get The Sprog to pounce on a lure. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and of Jon’s plane “plunging down the sky”, the vapour trails “sketched across the blue like lines drawn by a slate pencil”. Then comes a moment when “the landscape seemed to quiver”, “as if the air went solid” and it appears someone has lit a bonfire on the horizon, although they don’t hear anything. And, because I’ve read to the end of the chapter and I know what’s coming, I’ll just add that Nicola then passes on the message that Jon will come to see the hawks soon and Patrick says, “Tomorrow, I expect. He’ll be dead to the world tonight.” Oh, no…
Anyway, Patrick and Nicola walk back to his house, having a bonding moment over their respective obsessions (medieval nobility for Patrick, the Navy for Nicola) and then tend to the hawks. But before Patrick can accompany Nicola to Trennels for supper, he’s stopped in a very awkward manner by his housekeeper. And then on the way back Nicola meets Peter, who looks and sounds very odd:
“The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees, and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.”
Oh, no! Poor Jon. Poor Peter, who had to watch his cousin being killed. And what’s going to happen to Trennels now? Jon doesn’t seem to have any children. Do the Marlows inherit Trennels or is there some other relative around?
Next, Chapter Three: “No One Ever Tells Us Anything”