‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

The children are distraught because they’re forced to have a three-day break from Gondalling over the weekend. Nicola thinks them “all quite mad” but doesn’t say so because she “was enough of an outsider as it was”.

The sixth of January – Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany – dawns and it’s Ginty’s fifteenth birthday. She celebrates with a long ride on Catkin, eagerly anticipating the hunt the next day, while madly Gondalling about Rupert/Patrick dying in Crispian/Ginty’s arms (“It was odd how real it became after a while”). Then she goes home to monopolise the bathroom, while everyone else is trying to get dressed for the Merricks’ party, and suddenly she realises – she’ll have to wear the Bridesmaid’s Horror! It’s her own fault for choosing to Gondal rather than go shopping for a new dress, but typically, she blames everyone else:

“Ann’s crassness in saying she could: Doris’s infamy in offering to do the dress when she couldn’t: her mother’s neglectfulness in not making her go into Colebridge and get a new one–”

But Doris has brought the altered dress back and it’s “perfect”. Mrs Marlow, as astonished as Ginty by Doris’s skill, gives Ginty a necklace to wear, then they go downstairs to show it to Doris. It’s probably because I was thinking of the slave thing, but this scene rubbed me the wrong way. Did they even pay Doris for her work in advance, or at all? Doris had to buy boning for the bodice and other materials, presumably with her own money. Mrs Marlow says, without saying please, that Doris should make dresses for all of them, and Doris says, “I’d love to. Thanks ever so,” as though the Marlows are doing her a great favour. Doris is like Cinderella, doing all the work, but while she gets to go to the ball, she still has to slave away in the kitchen instead of getting to dance with the prince. Then when Ginty idly asks if Doris makes clothes for herself, Doris says,

“Oh no, Miss Ginty,” said Doris matter-of-factly, “it’d be waste of time. I wouldn’t repay the trouble. ’Sides, I’ve got a cousin in service in Bristol. She always passes on the things her lady gives her when she’s done with them herself.”

I didn’t need to read the (very interesting) biography of Antonia Forest in the front of this book to realise she was a “lifelong Conservative” – it’s so apparent in her writing. This scene in particular is so very “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” Imagine how different it would have been if it’d been written by Monica Dickens or even Noel Streatfeild.

However snobby this chapter is, I still can’t resist a party-in-an-English-country-house scene and this is a good one. When the Marlows arrive, the infants’ party games are still in progress and Karen and Ann go off to help, while the others “stood rather stiffly and shyly against the wall and hoped no one was going to suggest they should join in”. Patrick is being his usual anti-social self and his mother is clearly fed up with him. She sends him off to check the chapel is locked before the Hide-and-Seek game starts and Ginty goes with him.

“Nicola looked after them, hesitating. But she hadn’t been invited…”

Nicola would have been a bit of a third wheel, because when Patrick sees Ginty in the chapel, “the candlelight falling on Doris’s dress and her mother’s necklace, her bare shoulders and fair hair shining through the black lace of the veil”, he offers her “the greatest compliment in his vocabulary at the moment”, saying she looks like a Gondalian. So they decide to have a secret Gondalling session right then inside the locked chapel, with Rosina/Ginty, the daughter of Alcona, in love with Rupert/Patrick even though her father wants her to marry Jason. Of course, they can’t tell the others about this Gondal development because the others are “too young”. Patrick expresses some doubts:

“I don’t know if I can do this very well,” he said after a moment. “I don’t really know how people talk when they’re in love.”

But clearly he manages to work it out, because he and Ginty spend the entire night flirting with one another. Poor Nicola, in her unflattering dress, stuck with Oliver Reynolds as dinner neighbour and dance partner, notices Patrick and Ginty “were behaving–oddly”. Suddenly she realises that Patrick is wearing his “Rupert face”, even when he’s dancing with Nicola. Patrick denies he and Ginty are being “Rupert and Crispian” (which is perfectly true, but misleading) and then Nicola overhears him calling Ginty “Rosina”.

“Since she despised Gondal and all its works, it was hard to say why this discovery should make her feel hollow inside…”

Poor Nicola, she’s having a terrible holiday. First she’s forced into Gondalling, then Sprog dies, then Patrick, her friend, abandons her for her pretty older sister. The other Marlows are having a slightly better time at the party. Peter achieves his aim of dancing “with every passable female” who isn’t his sister; Rowan is offered a horse for the hunt the next day; Karen dances with Ronnie, a handsome young Merrick cousin; Ann is a wall-flower and chats with the elderly guests, which is probably her idea of a good time; and Lawrie gets drunk with a mob of disreputable young adults. At least someone spills coffee on Nicola’s awful dress, so she probably won’t ever have to wear it again.

But then, as the party ends, Patrick and Ginty are discovered to be missing. Mrs Marlow takes her usual passive approach to parenting and decides “to hope they would turn up by the time the rest of the family were ready to go”. I pictured it as like the video for Avalon, if Bryan Ferry had “golden eyes” and Sophie Ward had been wearing peacock chiffon:

Patrick and Ginty turn out to have been outside having a romantic time watching geese fly overhead. Poor Nicola:

“Rosina was bad enough: but Rosina or no, the geese should have been hers.”

EDITED TO ADD: I’d incorrectly said it was Ginty’s sixteenth birthday, when she was really turning fifteen. Thanks for pointing this out, Elizabeth!

Next, Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running.

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four

Chapter Six: “All the Birds of the Air…”

SPROG IS DEAD HOW COULD YOU DO THAT ANTONIA FOREST POOR LITTLE SPROG DYING ALONE IN THE COLD POOR NICOLA THIS IS SO UNFAIR.

Of course, Nicola doesn’t allow herself to cry, “even though when animals died it was always misery past bearing; one would always much rather it were one of the family.”

She is slightly comforted by the thought of Emily Brontë mourning her dead cat. This doesn’t seem very plausible to me, given Nicola’s previous opinion of the Brontës, but I’m not going to begrudge poor Nicola any comfort.

I suppose one good thing is that now she can take Daks back to school as her pet, not Lawrie’s, which will work out better for Esther. I have to say, Daks is having a much better holiday than if he’d been allowed to stay in Esther’s flat. He has Tessa and Bucket as playmates, Peter to fuss over him, and lots of delicious farm smells to wallow in. Poodle heaven.

Chapter Seven: Dispatches to Angora: II

More Gondalling. The Guards realise that Alcona’s map is wrong, they discover their sealed dispatches are their death warrants, and Lawrie/Jason reveals that Alcona forced young Jason to watch his loyal rescuers being tortured to death. Patrick admiringly says to Lawrie, “I couldn’t have done Alcona’s particular brand of nastiness better myself.”

Then there’s an ambush in the “quicksnow” and the Guards fight bravely, get wounded and kill lots of enemies. Unfortunately, Rupert/Patrick is captured by evil Navarre/Peter. Threatened with torture, Rupert/Patrick says he’ll tell “anything you want to know” and quickly spills all his country’s military secrets and agrees to kill Jason. The Marlows are outraged by this (“You can’t just tell like that!”) but Patrick:

“found it imperative to explore, under cover of Rupert, the twilights of cowardice and betrayal: partly, he wanted to know how it felt, partly, Rupert was undoubtedly that sort of person.”

Does Patrick want to explore cowardice because it’s so unfamiliar to him? He seems brave when it comes to physical feats – he doesn’t, for example, avoid cliffs, even after his near-fatal accident, and he’s a fearless horse rider. He does avoid social situations – but he’s so supercilious and disdainful of others that it seems strange he’d be afraid of doing the wrong thing and having people laugh at him or dislike him (which is the case for most people with social anxiety). This book is set in the Cold War and Patrick has an uncle in the Foreign Office, so perhaps he’s considering spies and traitors and wondering whether he himself might be capable of treachery?

Ginty goes along with this plot because it has more dramatic potential for her Crispian/Rupert romance, but she considers:

“Since she was quite often frightened herself, she thought fearlessness, which she confused with courage, the most valuable and enviable quality in the world.”

This is a good point to make. Nicola is mostly fearless, but also brave – she does what she believes is right, even when it scares her. Peter is often fearful and forces himself to be brave, although because he’s under such pressure to Be A Marlow Man, it’s often reckless foolishness, not bravery. Lawrie is neither fearless nor brave, but doesn’t really care about looking cowardly – she just stores it all up as acting fuel.

Nicola, by the way, says Rupert’s decision to tell all before the torturing starts is “jolly sensible”, but I think that’s only because she’s bored by all the Gondalling. She’d be horrified if, say, she discovered Nelson had ever behaved in such a cowardly manner.

On the subject of Nelson, I forgot to note earlier that when Peter discovered the old farm journals, there’s a casual mention of how the original Trennels farmhouse had “been built by a Marlow called Joshua who’d made his pile in the slave trade”. None of the Marlows seems to think there’s anything bothersome about this. And I was just reading about Nelson being friends with Caribbean planters and slave owners and how Nelson fought against William Wilberforce and the abolition movement. Is Nicola aware of this? Would she care? Given the children’s offhand use of racist slurs, I’d have to assume she’d be perfectly fine with Nelson’s opinions on slavery and Empire.

Chapter Eight: Dead of Night

This is nice chapter with no Gondalling whatsoever. Nicola wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced a burglar is prowling around downstairs. She bravely goes downstairs in her dressing-gown and grabs a poker (“Better not wake anyone until she was sure, because though she was sure, she’d look an awful fool” if it didn’t turn out to be a burglar). And it’s not a burglar – it’s Rowan with two newborn lambs nearly dead from cold. While they’re waiting for the lambs to revive, they have a good chat about Nicola’s life plans. Rowan suggests Nicola could train to be a vet (“you like animals and you’re not nervous of them and you handle them well”) and then she could come back to Trennels to look after their animals.

Nicola is not very enthusiastic about the living at Trennels bit and gets Rowan to admit that her new life as a farmer is pretty dull. Nicola says she sees that it might help if Nicola came back to keep Rowan company, but Rowan knocks that idea on the head at once:

“In twenty years we’d be Two Terrible Tweedy Types known far and wide as The Queer Miss Marlows.”

Yes, they would. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Antonia Forest must have been reading a lot of Mary Renault.

What Nicola really wants to do is:

“…joining the Wrens for a bit if I could be sure I’d be posted to Malta or Gib or somewhere sensible. And then I’d like to work my way around the world doing all sorts of different jobs, like people do. And if I could find anywhere no one had been yet I’d like to go there and be the first person, ever.”

That all sounds perfectly reasonable to me, apart from the explorer bit, and Rowan agrees, as long as Nicola doesn’t mind being poor, which she doesn’t.

Then, hooray, the lambs come back to life (I don’t want any more animals dying in this book, thanks very much) and Rowan takes them back to their mother and Nicola tidies up the kitchen and falls asleep there.

Next, Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three

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…”

‘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

New Paperback Edition of ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

There’s a new paperback edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest out tomorrow, Monday 15 January. This new edition has exactly the same content as the first edition, but the print size has been increased slightly (so it has 342 pages, rather than 270). I think the larger print will make it more enjoyable to read, especially for younger readers. This is how the new paperback looks:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest', 2nd edition

And there are illustrations inside:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest', 2nd edition, open page

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also available in various ebook formats.

Wait, I have only just heard of this book. What’s it about?

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is a history of medicine for thoughtful readers aged about 12+, in the form of a mystery story, full of jokes and fascinating facts. It’s also a thoughtful look at the beauty, creativity and power of scientific reasoning and it’s especially for girls (particularly girls who’ve been told science is difficult, dull and only for boys).

You can read an excerpt of the book here and read more about the book’s real-life setting here. If you’d like to know more about why I wrote the book, see this blog post.

Which edition of Dr Huxley’s Bequest should I buy?

This second edition paperback has illustrations, author notes, a bibliography, a comprehensive index and a pretty cover. The first edition paperback is now out of print. (If you’d like to know why there’s a second edition coming out just two months after the first edition was published, see this very long blog post.)

The ebook versions are available in two formats. There’s a Kindle (mobi) version for Kindle readers and other devices that have the Kindle app installed. There’s also an ePub version, for iPads, iPhones, Nook readers, Kobo readers, and pretty much every other sort of ebook reading device. The ebooks don’t have the illustrations or the index, but do include the author notes and bibliography and they have a search function if you want to find keywords.

Where can I buy the book?

Here are some of the places where you can buy Dr Huxley’s Bequest online. I’ve listed stockists according to geographical region, because delivery costs are cheaper and you won’t have to pay currency conversion fees if you buy locally.

Australia and NZ
Amazon.com.au (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Angus & Robertson Bookworld (paperback, ePub ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Booktopia (paperback)
Fishpond (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

North America
Amazon.com (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Barnes & Noble (paperback, Nook ebook)
Chapters/Indigo Canada (Kobo ebook)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

UK and Europe
Adlibris (paperback)
Amazon.co.uk (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Book Depository (paperback)
Foyles (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)
Libris (ePub ebook)
Waterstones (paperback)

Will it be in my local bookshop?

Maybe, if you ask them to order it for you! Bookshops are often reluctant to stock books that are self-published or published by small publishers. However, all book retailers will receive the same trade discount for this book as when they buy books from large publishers and any unsold books are returnable. Booksellers can order the book from Ingram Spark. (For more information, including ISBNs, see FitzOsborne Press.)

Can I borrow it from my library?

Maybe, if you live in Australia. If it’s not in your library’s catalogue, you can ask your librarian to order it. The book is in the catalogue of ALS Library Services and it has a National Library of Australia cataloging number.

Anything else I should know?

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also on Goodreads, if you’d like to leave a review. (Thank you, Tina!)

How To Buy ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

My new book, Dr Huxley’s Bequest, is out this Wednesday, 15 November. I just received my author copies of the paperback. It has a very nice cover:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' paperbacks

And there are illustrations inside:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' pages

It’s also available in various ebook formats.

Which type of book should I buy?

The paperback has illustrations, author notes, a bibliography, a comprehensive index and a pretty cover.

However, the font is fairly small*, so if you prefer large print, I recommend choosing an ebook edition, which you can resize to suit your reading needs. The ebooks are available in two formats. There’s a Kindle (mobi) version for Kindle readers and other devices that have the Kindle app installed. There’s also an epub version, for iPads, iPhones, Nook readers, Kobo readers, and pretty much every other sort of ebook reading device. The ebooks don’t have the illustrations or the index, but do have a search function if you want to find keywords.
*EDITED TO ADD: I’m planning on putting out a new, larger-print paperback edition in January, so if you’d like to buy a print copy but prefer large print, maybe hold off on ordering the paperback until January.

Where can I buy the book?

Here are some of the online stores where you can buy Dr Huxley’s Bequest. I’ve listed stockists according to geographical region, because delivery costs are cheaper and you won’t have to pay currency conversion fees if you buy locally.

Australia and NZ
Amazon.com.au (Kindle ebook)
Angus & Robertson Bookworld (paperback)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Booktopia (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

North America
Amazon.com (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Barnes & Noble (paperback, Nook ebook)
Chapters/Indigo Canada (Kobo ebook)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

UK and Europe
Adlibris (paperback)
Amazon.co.uk (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Book Depository (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

You can pre-order now and they will send the book to you on Wednesday.

Will it be in my local bookshop?

Maybe, if you ask them to order it for you! But possibly not even then. Bookshops don’t usually stock self-published titles.

Can I borrow it from my library?

Maybe, if you live in Australia. If it’s not in your library’s catalogue, you can ask your librarian to order it. The book is listed with ALS Library Services and it has a National Library of Australia catalogue number.

If you’d like to know anything else about how to purchase Dr Huxley’s Bequest, ask away! (I am planning on continuing my Adventures in Self-Publishing series of blog posts so you can find out more about How Not To Make The Same Mistakes I Made.)

Oh, and Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also listed on Goodreads, if you feel like leaving a rating or a review.

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

There is a stigma attached to self-published books. Book buyers are often wary of these books. Self-published books are rarely found in libraries and bookstores, and they’re explicitly banned from entering many literary awards. This is partly due to the perception that self-published books have all been rejected by traditional publishers and therefore must be rubbish – even though we know that publishing houses are interested in commercial potential, not literary quality. Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible self-published books out there and that’s because a lot of self-published books aren’t professionally edited.

In a traditional publishing house, there’s an editorial team who do their best, within the limits set by the book’s budget and the team’s workload, to make sure the book is a satisfying read. Typically, a structural editor will edit the manuscript for clarity, coherence and cohesion, then a copy editor will look closely at issues such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and finally a proofreader will check the typeset pages before the book goes off to the printer. There might be specialist editors for certain subjects or genres, and big publishing houses usually have a legal expert to look at possible defamation or copyright issues.

Editors are professionals, often with university qualifications and years of experience, so they deserve to be paid at professional rates. That makes three rounds of editing prohibitively expensive for most self-publishers, including me. Still, there was no way I was going to let a book of mine anywhere near the public without at least some professional editing, so one of the first tasks on my To Do list was to find a suitable editor.

This was made more complicated by the nature of my book. It’s non-fiction, but it’s told in the form of a story, so I needed someone with experience at editing both fiction and non-fiction. It’s also for thoughtful readers of about twelve years and up. I figured its audience would be a mix of what the US publishing market calls ‘middle grade’ (although that term doesn’t really exist in Australia) and Young Adult (which can mean anything from thirteen to eighteen years old in Australia) – as well as some adults who read the sort of books I write (I think the Montmaray books ended up with more adult than teenage readers). Plus, I figured it would be helpful to have an editor with educational publishing experience, given the potential for this book’s use in the classroom. And naturally, the editor needed to be Australian…

I scoured the directories of Australian professional editors’ societies and came up with a small list of names, which became even smaller when I contacted each editor and explained the project’s complexities and my timeline. And of course, I needed to find an editor who would fit my budget. Luckily, I found someone just right. Helena Newton did a thoroughly professional structural edit, marking up the manuscript with hundreds of queries and useful suggestions, and writing me a detailed editing letter and style guide, all within a couple of weeks.

Helena also suggested I should get legal advice about a couple of issues, so I contacted the Arts Law Centre of Australia. They provide free (or very reasonably priced) telephone advice to creative professionals, as well as lots of free written resources in areas such as copyright and defamation law. I found them to be very helpful.

I’m now almost ready to send my manuscript off to Helena to be copyedited. After that, it will be ready to be typeset into various formats for print and ebooks.

Although I did say earlier that this series of blog posts on self-publishing wouldn’t be Expert Advice, I will pass on any really valuable lessons I learn along the way. And the first of these is this: if you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT WRITE A BOOK THAT REQUIRES AN INDEX. (Does my book have an index? Ha ha, of course it does! Also, a seven-page bibliography!) Professional indexing costs a mint, so you won’t be able to afford that. You’ll have to do it yourself and it will make you want to tear your hair out by the handful. (Don’t think you can just use the automatic indexing function in Word, either. You can’t. Although it will help a little bit.) It feels as though it took longer for me to compile the index entries and track down all the references in the text than it did to write the book in the first place. And my book’s index isn’t even finished yet! All those entries will need to be cross-checked and the page numbers changed once the book is typeset!

I cannot even bring myself to contemplate the potential horrors of typesetting at the moment (given that I have chosen to write a book with not just an INDEX, but also ILLUSTRATIONS and yes, I did them myself, too), so I will talk about social media next.

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– Here’s a good article by Anna Pitoniak, editor and debut author, on what her editing job has taught her about writing.

– And here’s an important lesson about the perils of ambiguous punctuation: ‘Lack of an Oxford comma could cost company millions in overtime dispute’.

– The Copyright Agency has funded research into teenagers’ reading habits and found that most Australian teenagers prefer to read print books rather than ebooks – although, worryingly, those who prefer ebooks tend to read ‘free’ (that is, pirated) versions.

– Here are the some sheep and here are the no sheep – but where is the green sheep? I loved this article about Australia’s quirky old maps, courtesy of the National Library’s Trove collection. (Have a closer look at Tasmania in the second map. Poor Tasmanians.)

– Still in Australia: ‘Massive spider claims six seats for itself on busy Melbourne train’. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has criticised the spider as being ‘that one passenger who puts their feet on the seat’. The situation is being blamed on passengers no longer reading paper newspapers and therefore being unable to put inconsiderate arachnid commuters in their place (on the floor).

– That’s not to say that people have stopped reading newspapers. They’re simply switching to the digital versions, especially in the United States, with a huge surge in subscriptions to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other ‘old fashioned’ newspapers (‘How Donald Trump, President of the Twitterverse, gave ‘old media’ new lease of life’).

– Finally, some sage observations from Wondermark on those social media commenters who are outraged by political correctness (“You can’t talk like you’d normally talk, full of all the invective and slurs you’d normally use, without the objects of that invective feeling belittled and dehumanized by it!”). And anyone who’s ever run a blog would recognise the Sea Lion.

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Five

Before I discuss etiquette for engagements and weddings, a small digression. I was curious about Nancy Spain, the writer who was so entertaining about Eating for England, because her name was vaguely familiar to me. I’d thought she was a journalist, possibly a war correspondent, and I was half-right. She did work as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster, but was a Wren rather than a writer during the war. After the war, she became famous for writing a series of detective novels set in a girls’ school (called ‘Radcliffe Hall’), for writing a biography of her great-aunt, Isabella Beeton (the Mrs Beeton of Household Management fame) and for getting sued, twice, by Evelyn Waugh for libel. Plus, she had a scandalous private life:

“…she lived openly with the editor of ‘She’, Joan Werner Laurie (Jonny), and was a friend of the famous, including Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich. She and Laurie were regulars at the Gateways club in Chelsea, London, and were widely known to be lesbians. Spain and Laurie lived in an extended household with the rally driver Sheila van Damm, and their sons Nicholas (born 1946) and Thomas (born in 1952). Nicholas was Laurie’s son; Thomas was also described as Laurie’s youngest son, but may have been Spain’s son after an affair with Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham…”

Rose Collis has written a biography titled A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain, which clearly I need to read.

But let’s return to getting engaged and married. Noel Streatfeild looks back at a Victorian-era etiquette book, which included advice such as:

“When a man marries, it is understood that all former acquaintanceship ends, unless he intimates a desire to renew it, by sending you his own and his wife’s card, if near, or by letter, if distant. If this be neglected, be sure no further intercourse is desired.”

This is because bachelors are known to “associate freely enough with those whose morals and habits would point them out as highly dangerous persons to introduce into the sanctity of domestic life.”

Miss Streatfeild goes on to point out the many ways engagement and matrimony have changed in modern times, starting with the fact that many young people are unable to find a place of their own in an era of post-war housing shortages, and are therefore forced to live with their parents. There’s also the sad fact that most young people will not have a large number of servants to look after their household, nor enough space to hold the vast quantities of furniture, linens, silver, pots and pans that were traditionally given as wedding gifts.

Mr Alroy Maker then looks at the people who are getting engaged, sighing over so many young people making unsuitable friends:

“Goodness knows this is no time to be snobbish, but it is understandable that when parents have tried to bring their children up carefully, often sending them to expensive schools, where they should have made nice friends, it is annoying when they insist on choosing such peculiar types. Frequently ill-kempt, often without an aitch, sometimes dirty, addicted to the strangest views on politics, religion and manners …”

It is good manners for a young person to refrain from bringing their peculiar friends home, especially if they are Communist friends who look like tramps. However, if parents are forced to host the young Communist tramp, they should be tolerant and polite, confining any criticism to “the privacy of their bedroom”. Hopefully, their offspring will go on to marry a more suitable (and non-Communist) person.

Miss Streatfeild and Mr Cecil Notary then discuss how to solve the many problems that arise when two young lovers decide to plight their troth. What should they do if they want a quiet registry wedding, but their parents want a huge family affair? How do you avoid hurt feelings when choosing bridesmaids and, worse, bridesmaids’ frocks? Who should be the best man? (“The gay friend of countless riotous evenings is not necessarily the man to trust…”) Should the bride’s stepmother be allowed to stand in the receiving line? Do you need to hire a private detective disguised as a wedding guest to guard the display of wedding presents? All these and many other vital questions are answered.

Miss Streatfeild then concludes the book with a chapter addressing “late questions that could not be fitted into this book” (except here she is, fitting them in). She explains in detail how to tip when travelling first-class – for example, you must never tip receptionists or lift-boys, but porters and chambermaids require varying and very specific amounts, depending on their level of service. While she’s at it, she advises on London taxi drivers:

“There is no such thing as a threepenny tip. All taxi tips start at sixpence. Myself, I keep to sixpence until my fare reaches two and ninepence, when the man gets ninepence. After three shillings and sixpence, he gets a shilling …”

It goes on, until I started to think it would be a lot easier to take the bus. But woe betide any taxi driver who questions the amount Miss Streatfeild has given him. She says to him, quietly but firmly:

“Sixpence, or whatever it is, is a very good tip, and please remember your manners and say thank you.”

'Taxi Tips', illustration by John Dugan

She concedes this sometimes causes anger on the part of the taxi driver, but she has a strategy for that, too:

“While the taximan roared I removed the offending money from his palm, looked in my purse for the exact fare, and put it in his hand. ‘Since you do not like my tip,’ I said, ‘there is no need why you should have it.’ And I went into the house and shut the door firmly. I admit I trembled a bit at the knees, but nothing happened. After a good deal more shouting he got in his taxi and drove away.”

Did you know you are also supposed to tip hairdressers? I have never tipped a hairdresser in my life. Maybe that’s why my hair always looks so disorderly.

Miss Streatfeild also gives advice on how to get out of doing something you don’t want to do (“keep as close to the truth as possible” so “you can speak with what sounds like real regret”) and the right way to get up and leave a social gathering.

There is certainly a lot to remember if you want to grow up gracefully! But as Miss Streatfeild kindly points out,

“…the eyes of the world are far less on you than you think, because even the grandest person is often looking inward, as it were, studying themselves. So if on some occasion your manners slip, do not go over and over it in your mind, blushing when you think of it, the chances are fewer people noticed than you think, and those that did are not, as you suppose, making your blunder the sole topic of conversation. The great thing is to mark your slip, remember how it happened, and be determined it will never occur again.”

You may also be interested in:

Growing Up Gracefully, Part One
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Two
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Three
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Four

and

The Years of Grace: A Book For Girls