‘Peter’s Room’, Part Seven

Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered

One last bit of Gondalling, in which they finally arrive in Angora. Again, the plot doesn’t make much sense. Jason goes straight to the King because “the matter is of deepest urgency”, but when they meet, Jason doesn’t say a word about the evil Regent’s plots. Instead, he has a nice meal, then when he leaves, Rupert hands over the forged document and claims that he escaped before the Gaaldines could torture him. Rupert goes back to join the other Guards and is horrified to realise they’re about to go and meet the Angoran King, so Rupert’s treachery will soon be revealed. He must quickly kill Jason and escape to Gaaldine, although he wonders whether he’ll be safe there.

This is the point where Ginty says “Let’s get up and act this properly”, suggesting that sometimes their Gondalling was sitting and talking, and sometimes they acted it out.

Rupert/Patrick goes to kill Jason/Lawrie, who is shocked at Rupert’s betrayal but tells Rupert to “shoot me quickly and make your getaway” (in a way that Lawrie would never do). But just as Rupert is about to fire, the others rush in, now aware of Rupert’s treachery. Jason says Rupert must be taken home and tried as a traitor, which means he will burn at the stake. Rupert urges the others to shoot him now, but Malise/Peter says he couldn’t do that, indicating his broken arm from the battle (and Peter actually has a broken collarbone now, so the Gondalling foretold that) and Nicholas/Nicola says Rupert/Patrick deserves to burn (for Rosina, the geese and not caring when she fell off Buster). Rupert announces he will shoot himself and the children break out of Gondalling to discuss this.

Peter says suicide is “too easy” and Nicola wonders how Rupert can do that if he’s Catholic. Ginty wants to save Rupert by sending him into exile “and we could all go into voluntary exile with him”. But Peter thinks Rupert deserves to burn for being a “coward and traitor”. Patrick loses his temper and points out that Malise Marlow, the Civil War ancestor who supported Charles, actually betrayed his own side when the Royalists were losing and showed the Parliamentarians how to get into the Royalist castle. And then Patrick’s Royalist ancestor, Anthony Merrick, was captured and shot.

“There was a moment’s violent silence, loud with old betrayals and antique feuds and ancient enmities. And then Nicola said, ‘Lumme, what a heel!’ and the long dead things went back to their own place. Peter, very pale, said nothing.”

Then Patrick raises an actual pistol to his head to shoot himself, Nicola is frightened to see he’s wearing his Rupert face and, “panic-stricken”, bashes his wrist with the actual sword she’s carrying. The pistol falls and discharges, shooting a hole in the window beside Lawrie’s head and nearly hitting Rowan, who’s outside in the spinney. Because of course, when Peter checked the old pistols were safe, he didn’t do it properly. Didn’t I say that Peter and guns should never be allowed in the same place? Everyone hastily re-arranges the scene so that when Rowan arrives, they all look completely innocent, the pistol having fallen off the wall accidentally (although Lawrie is “quietly bleeding to death into her trousers pocket”). Rowan is not convinced, but can’t prove anything and at least she takes all the guns away. I’m just remembering when Peter was carrying around a pistol earlier, in case they met the neighbourhood drunk, and he playfully held it to Nicola’s head – imagine if it had gone off then. He’s so irresponsible!

Nicola, thoroughly fed up, announces she’s leaving Gondal, despite Lawrie saying she can’t, they need her and it’s “four to one”:

“I don’t care if it’s a billion to a quarter,” said Nicola, discarding family democracy at the same time as she put on her macintosh. “I think the whole thing’s quite mad. And I think those Brontës of Gin’s must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!”

Then Peter, who never wants to hear the word ‘Malise’ again in his life, banishes the others from the Hide. He takes the Malise paper and farm journals and “stuffed the whole thing away at the very bottom, underneath everything”, which is exactly how Peter always responds to trauma. Then he ponders how everything in the Hide transmogrified itself:

“The sovereigns had become farthings: Malise had turned from hero to villain: even the holiday itself had changed from whatever he’d planned into this Gondal nonsense: whatever Mr. Tranter might say, it did look as if Ted Colthard’s grandfather had–well–you never knew–”

Yes, Peter, let’s put all the blame on the devil on the roof. It couldn’t possibly have gone wrong due to your own character flaws.

Then there’s a nice scene between Nicola and Rowan, in which Rowan is leaning on a gate, “Saying ‘Aarrh’ to the crops. It makes them grow,” and Nicola discusses her plans for the rest of the holidays:

“Then I think I’ll have elevenses and then I’ll get Buster and go for a ride. And tomorrow, if that’s all right with you, I’ll come up to the lambing pen.”

Good for you, Nicola. And I hope the rest of your holidays are much better than the first bit.

Lawrie blames everyone else, but she’ll be fine, Gondalling away by herself in her bedroom. Patrick and Ginty are the most upset by the abrupt end of Gondal. Ginty says, “You could sort of find out how people feel when things happen to them, couldn’t you?”, which is what fiction does and suggests Antonia Forest isn’t completely against Gondalling. And Patrick says:

“I wish we could have gone on long enough to find out [what Rupert decided] … once we really got going, what was happening to Rupert felt much more important than anything that was happening to me … we could have gone back to before all this happened and seen why Rupert got like this … Anyway, it was much more fun being Rupert than me.”

So Gondalling did seem to have a psychological benefit for Patrick – it allowed him to consider how other people thought and felt, which is not something he seems to have done before this. After all, the only real danger they faced from Gondalling was due to Peter’s irresponsible attitude to guns. A winter holiday of escapism is not going to cause much harm to most children.

Ginty and Patrick are very sad that “from now on ordinary everyday life will have to serve”, but I don’t have too much sympathy for them, because they both have youth, good health, good looks, lots of money, servants and their very own ponies. And the book concludes with Patrick suggesting, “Let’s get The Idiot and Catkin and go for a ride.”

THE END

I can absolutely see why Victoria University has chosen Peter’s Room as a set text for their children’s literature course. Apart from being an enjoyable read, there’s so much to explore within the text, especially about the role of fantasy and fiction in children’s (and adults’) lives.

My personal favourite bits were the discussion about the Brontës, the talk Rowan and Nicola had about careers, and the scene with Nicola, Buster and the fox. I found the Gondal bits fairly tedious. I can see why they had to be there, but did they have to be so badly written and clumsily plotted? Of course, the children were ‘writing’ those bits and wouldn’t be expected to be brilliant at it, but I wondered if the clumsy prose reflected Antonia Forest’s opinion of High Fantasy. Did she like Lord of the Rings and Narnia and those sorts of books? I’d guess not from this book. I also got the impression that despite her stern warning about the dangers of Gondalling, she’d had a fair bit of daydreaming experience herself. And after all, she lived inside the imaginary world of the Marlows for decades.

The next Marlow book is The Thuggery Affair. Oh dear. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds…

‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six

Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running

My entire knowledge of fox hunting with hounds comes from watching Paradise Postponed and Brideshead Revisited, so I am just going to assume Antonia Forest has done her research and that this chapter is an accurate description of one of the peculiar things that the English upper classes do to entertain themselves (or used to do, as I think it’s illegal in England now). Mrs Marlow leaves it until the morning of the hunt (at breakfast, while having “an unusually early cigarette”) to explain the rules. Karen and Ann, the sensible ones, are mere spectators and Ann asks why the others do it, when it makes them nervous. “To see how one makes out, I suppose. It’s like Mount Everest. It’s there,” says Rowan off-handedly (Rowan is fearless and brave). Rowan is also the only one to notice how depressed Nicola is, but is too busy to investigate further. Then Mrs Marlow comes downstairs looking like this:

Caricature of Elizabeth the Empress of Austria. Published in Vanity Fair, 5 April 1884.

“I’ve never ridden anything else out hunting,” she explains airily as her children gape at her. “Your grandmother couldn’t abide breeches on women, so it was a question of riding side-saddle or being told how appalling one looked from behind four times a week.”

Lumme! I think Mrs Marlow ‘married beneath her’ when she wed that young sailor who wasn’t even expected to inherit any property.

Mrs Merrick, when they reach the stables, turns out to be far less enamoured of posh horsey activities than her husband or son, and gratefully hands over the Major’s “hot as ginger” chestnut to Rowan. Ronnie, the handsome Merrick cousin, offers to ride the chestnut instead of Rowan, but “both Rowan and Nicola understood instantly that this was the last thing Ronnie wanted”, so Rowan, of course, says she’ll do it. Because she’s so used to sacrificing her own well-being and comfort to make men’s lives easier.

Nicola goes to get Buster and finds Patrick having a meltdown because they might be late. His state of mind is not helped by his father serving drinks to Mrs Marlow and Ronnie. Then they all ride to the Meet, where the grown-ups go to the pub for a few more drinks. Keep in mind they were all up till two am drinking at the party. No wonder people are always falling off horses during hunts and breaking their limbs and necks. I notice seventeen-year-old Rowan is in the pub as well. Still, if she’s old enough to drive a car, run a farm and parent her young siblings, I guess she’s old enough to drink in a pub.

Meanwhile, Buster, usually very placid and dull, is very excited about being back with his “darling hounds” after three years away from hunting and Nicola is having trouble controlling him. Her worry about this is exacerbated by everyone joking about “Buster the Thruster” being back and indeed, Buster is “so larky and self-willed” that once the hounds catch scent of a fox, Nicola has to do all she can just to stay in the saddle. The others are Gondalling away and Lawrie uses the excuse of being King to use the gate instead of jumping the wall. Patrick and Ginty jump without hesitation, Peter grimly follows them (“because he was Malise”) and Nicola is alarmed to see she is “being carried irresistibly towards the wall”. Go Buster! He not only jumps every wall and hedge he can find, he bounds over an enormous ditch with a thirty-foot drop. Patrick is astonished when the rest of the Field catch up with Nicola and Buster:

“No one’s jumped the Cut since the Master’s grandfather did it on Bandsman …

Nicola forebore to say that for one thing she’d had no idea what she was jumping and for another Buster had given her no option and went on munching smugly at her sandwich.”

Good for you, Nicola!

Lawrie’s hired horse soon goes “lame” and Lawrie sulks all the way back to the stables, whereupon the clever horse makes a miraculous recovery and Lawrie walks home inventing excuses and slipping “into the delicious comfort of being Jason”. Then Peter’s “fraying courage” snaps completely and his horse, “unsettled by her rider’s uncertainty, catching the infection of his fright”, stops dead, throws him off and he breaks his collar bone. Despite the pain, he’s relieved that now he won’t have to hunt any more this season and he considers that by next season, he’ll be “months braver than now”. You go on thinking that, Peter…

Finally Buster, brave but tired, clips a wall going over and Nicola falls off. Patrick, right behind, nearly lands on top of her but carries on with only a glance back. Nicola is

“shaken less by the fall than by Patrick’s Rupert face looking back. Even if he had been Rupert jumping, once he had nearly jumped on her he ought to have turned into Patrick again.”

I think this is meant to be another example of the dangers of Gondalling, but it’s probably just Patrick being Patrick. He’s never shown much sympathy before when Nicola or anyone else has fallen off a horse. Mind you, he isn’t even concerned about poor Buster on his knees in the mud and technically, Buster is Patrick’s pony.

Then there’s a really lovely bit of writing, when Nicola walks Buster home and realises the fox that everyone is supposed to be hunting is actually walking along beside her, using her scent and Buster’s scent to throw off the hounds. But three of the hounds are tracking the fox and they’ve nearly caught up:

“She felt curiously neutral. If she did not want to see Charles James, so clever, so resourceful, caught at the last, neither did she want to see the white hounds, so tenacious, so resolute, disappointed.”

In the end, there’s a frantic dash up the hill as the exhausted fox races for home and the three hounds chase after him. Afterwards, the hounds return with no sign of blood, so I’m choosing to believe the fox made it to safety because there’s been enough dead animals in this book already. And then Buster takes Nicola home in the moonlight and she finally arrives back in the Merricks’ stableyard, exhausted, unable to move, half-asleep.

Next, Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered

‘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

‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest

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.

'Peter's Room' by Antonia ForestHowever, 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”

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Seven

You might also be interested in:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest

‘End of Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Nine: Right Way Round

The narrative point of view in this book is all over the place, in a way that would exasperate most of the editors I’ve worked with. While the story is mostly told from Nicola’s perspective, it’s not uncommon for the reader to find herself suddenly inside the head of a completely different character for a single paragraph (for example, look at the end of Chapter One, when there’s an abrupt and unnecessary change to Ann’s point of view, before it swaps back to Nicola for the final two paragraphs). But I think Antonia Forest chose well when she decided the Nativity Play should be seen (mostly) through Patrick’s eyes. He knows enough about the people in this chapter (those on-stage and off-stage) that it’s not too confusing for him, but we get extra insight into them from his outsider’s perspective. He also understands more about the religious story than many of the participants – certainly more than Lawrie, and even many readers (for instance, I had only the vaguest notion about St Stephen before reading this).

Anyway, this chapter starts with the Merrick family arriving at the Minster to watch the play. Daks has been rescued from Esther’s house and is curled up happily in their car, waiting to be transferred to the Marlows. The Merricks sit up the front of the packed Minster (Three thousand people! No wonder Esther was terrified!) beside Mrs Marlow, Madame Orly, Karen and Rowan. Patrick is shocked when the exquisite voice leading the choir procession turns out to belong to Nicola, although not half as shocked as Nicola’s grandmother (“Surely not”, she keeps muttering, even when Nicola’s walking right past her). Patrick’s also impressed by the Reading Angel, until he realises it’s Evil Lois and then he thinks:

“…how queer it was that what people were like had no connection whatever with what they could actually do. Like Coleridge: like Mozart: and now here was this dire twerp of a Lois Sanger…”

At this point, Rowan and Patrick chivalrously give up their seats to some querulous old women, but luckily find their way to the empty gallery, where they can look down the central aisle to the whole scene and give us a lovely description of what’s going on. Patrick is impressed by Miranda, an unmoving falcon-angel who reminds him of Regina, and by Ann’s serenity, and by the sight of dear idiotic little Sprog being carried in by the King’s page.

But it’s Lawrie who steals the show playing the youngest shepherd, forced by his brothers to guard the sheep instead of visiting the infant Christ, then rescued by the Archangel Gabriel and sent off to the stable, where he gives his only possession, his shepherd’s crook, to the baby, “Lest He too, one day, should be a shepherd”. Lawrie’s performance has lots of clever links back to real-life scenes in the book, most clearly when Lawrie decides not to weep noisily in disappointment as the stage directions say, but to use the “pit-bottomed blackness” she’d felt when she discovered Nicola was to be Shepherd Boy:

“But she knew how she’d behaved: she remembered perfectly how she’d put her hands over her face; she’d rehearsed it quite often in her bath cubicle.”

Even Rowan gets choked up at this scene. Of course, being Lawrie, she’s completely aware of how good she is in the role, running up to see Patrick and Rowan when she’s not on stage and gloating about Esther’s absence and how it’s “maddening I didn’t know in time to invite Ellen Holroyd”, her theatrical mentor. As Rowan says, Lawrie really is a ghastly child.

We get some glimpses of Nicola’s viewpoint – her relief that Sprog is behaving himself on stage, her sudden terror when the entire congregation rises to its feet in place of applause, then her deep breath as she prepares to sing her final solo:

“Try to sing it with regret,” Dr Herrick had said. “Once in Royal David’s City. Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.”

Nicola, for the first time, manages to do it as he asked, and there’s a lovely description from Patrick of her “immaculate succession of notes, lifting and drifting among the soaring pillars and arches as he had seen thistledown lift and drift one evening in the watermeadows, floating away at last above the trees”. Patrick watches her silent, brief conversation with Miranda and muses how different people can be in different situations, “as if everyone had a spoonful of chameleon blood and changed colour a little, depending on their companions.”

Chapter Ten: And After

Afterwards Mrs Marlow does the usual Marlow thing, refusing to acknowledge how amazing her daughters were, but fortunately Mrs Merrick is there to praise Ginty’s beauty, Ann’s sincerity, Lawrie’s acting skills and Nicola’s singing. Mr Merrick reminds Mrs Marlow he has a puppy for her and Mrs Marlow has quite a lot to say about Nicola’s “frightful impudence” in asking him to collect Daks. Mr Merrick kindly points out that Nicola asked for a favour, rather than ordered him, and it was all to help Esther. None of the adults are very impressed with Esther’s “neglectful mother” (there is no mention of Esther’s even more neglectful father). Finally, Mrs Merrick asks if Madame Orly, who’s been strangely silent, is all right and Mrs Marlow explains that it’s just that her mother is in shock that her “grand-daughters could be anything but a grubby nuisance”.

Meanwhile, Nicola and Miranda are discussing how the play went as they walk back through the silent, snowy grounds. They think Lawrie was excellent (“Of course, Lawrie is frightened of lots of things. I suppose that’s how she knew.”) and Miranda says she enjoyed being in the play, once she got over her initial terror, but that the whole Christmas story seemed so unbelievable:

“And then it seemed so queer, that p’raps that was the reason people believed it … I mean, it’s either complete nonsense, or else it’s so unlikely, it would have to be true.”

I don’t see why things being extremely unlikely make them more believable, but then, that’s why I’m a sceptic and an atheist. Earlier Miranda had explained her family wasn’t Orthodox, but even if she’s from a Reform Jewish background, presumably she does believe in a God and follows some ‘God-ordained’ rules. Hopefully there’ll be more about this in future books, because Miranda’s such an interesting character.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and a furious Miss Keith is waiting for them. She thanks Miranda for her help but “shall, of course, be writing to your father to explain” (why not Miranda’s mother?) and orders them all to see her in her office on Monday. Blood for breakfast! But Nicola’s natural optimism comes to the rescue:

“…after all, Monday was a long way off, and Thursday and end-of-term, by some curious converse, really quite near. And after that came Christmas. So it couldn’t be too awful.”

THE END.

And a big happy sigh from me. This has been my favourite Marlow book so far. I liked the first school book, but this took it to a new level, with such clever plotting and complex characterisation and thoughtful observations on life and lots of humour. Now I just have to wait for Girls Gone By to publish the next book.

You might also be interested in reading:

‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term, Part Two
‘End of Term’, Part Three
‘End of Term’, Part Four
‘End of Term’, Part Five
‘End of Term’, Part Six

‘End of Term’, Part Six

Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out

The play looms and there’s further discussion about it in the art room. Miranda says it’s odd they’re all so unreligious about the play and Lawrie makes an unexpected contribution:

I should have thought,” said Lawrie decidedly, “that it was more important to make the audience feel religious than be it yourself.”

When Miranda asks if that’s possible, if you yourself don’t feel religious, Lawrie says that of course you can – that’s acting. Lawrie has the occasional thoughtful observation, but it has to fight its way through the tangle of ridiculousness that fills her head. No wonder she drives her teachers round the bend. I bet there are lots of priests and vicars and pastors who have given up believing what they preach, but have to fake sincerity each Sunday at the pulpit because leaving their career would be too much of an upheaval in their lives.

Lawrie’s observation only deepens the “chilly sense of inadequacy” Nicola feels in her Shepherd Boy role, especially as even Bunty, the Second Former carrying Sprog in the play, says Nicola and Lawrie should swap roles. But then on the morning of the play – major drama! Esther gets a letter from her terrible mother saying they’re moving to a new flat which doesn’t allow pets, so not only does Esther have to stay at school for the first part of the holidays during the move, but Daks will be sent “to the kennels”, which Esther interprets as the poor puppy being killed (not an unreasonable notion, given the way her parents have behaved so far). This is just too much for Esther on top of everything else, and when neither Miranda nor Nicola can console her, she’s taken off to the san by Matron, who for once, sounds “quite kind” because Esther is so obviously distraught.

I have to say, as someone who was sent off to board when I was ten, LEAVING MY DOG BEHIND, I am having ALL THE FEELINGS about Esther right now.

Anyway, Miranda and Nicola come up with a clever plan. Miranda will invite Esther to her house for the first part of the holidays (Nicola can’t because of Grandmother) and Nicola will buy Daks and then Laurie can bring him to school next term as her pet. They’ll have to phone various parents to organise this, though, and Nicola’s mother loathes the phone, especially phoning strangers, so Nicola has the good idea to call Mr Merrick. The only thing is, he might be at work and “if you telephoned the House of Commons the person who answered would, obviously, be Mr. Churchill”. (I could just picture Churchill, sitting alone at a desk in the foyer, answering phone calls in a fog of cigar smoke.)

Luckily, Miss Kempe spots her two most “sensible, reliable” pupils and sends them into town to shop for last-minute play requirements, so they can call from a phone box. (So much easier to create plot complications when no one has a mobile phone.) Nicola then learns more about Miranda’s life – that she lives at a very grand address and must be “really rich”, but also that “very, very occasionally you get people who don’t like being friends with Jews”, including a girl in IV B who “talks about Jew girls” and “Marie Dobson would like to”. Nicola is shocked and horrified:

“She had a muddled feeling she ought to apologize for the stupidity and bad manners of her countrymen, only, since they were Miranda’s too, it would sound pretty silly.”

Given Miranda is one of the chief bullies of Marie, I wonder what’s cause and what’s effect. Does Miranda bully Marie unmercifully because Marie is anti-Semitic or does Marie use (or think, as she doesn’t seem to do it aloud) anti-Semitic abuse against Miranda in retaliation for the bullying, or are the bullying and the anti-Semitism unrelated? (Miranda also refers to the IV B girl as “that common little soul with the perm and the Jaguar”.) These characters are all so complex, with complicated motivations – even the admirable ones (and Miranda is mostly admirable) are far from perfect.

It also turns out Miranda’s family is Polish and her real family name is some long, unspellable Polish name. I wonder if that’s why Antonia Forest used the example of Polish Catholics being persecuted earlier?

Mr Merrick, by the way, agrees to collect Daks from Esther’s mother and deliver the pup to the Marlow house, even saying he’ll adopt Daks if Nicola’s mother won’t. Mr Merrick is pretty much the only kind, sensitive and sensible adult in this entire series.

Back at school, the girls try to tell Esther they’ve started sorting things out, but Matron refuses to let them disturb Esther or even give her a message. Then there’s a great bit when Val the Head Girl comes in, in utter disbelief, to tell Nicola “Your Member of Parliament wants to speak to you” and hooray, it’s all sorted with Mr Merrick! But when they try to find Esther to tell her, they discover she’s run away home, leaving a note for Miranda! Should they tell the teachers? Will this get Esther into terrible trouble? What if Esther manages to make it back in time for the play?

Then Nicola has her brainwave. She gathers Lawrie and Tim and tells them the news, astutely leaving it to Tim to put it all together and say it out loud. With Esther away, Nicola and Lawrie can swap. Lawrie will be Shepherd Boy, Nicola will go back to singing her solos, and Miranda will be Candle Angel instead of Esther. But they can’t tell the teachers, otherwise they’ll use “ghastly drip Helen Bagshawe”, the official Shepherd Boy understudy.

Miranda would love to be in the play, but worries everyone else will mind, with her being Jewish. She tosses a coin to decide, “tails I don’t”, then when it comes down tails, decides to do it anyway. They make it to the Minster all right, but are pulled up outside the changing rooms by the teachers, including Miss Cromwell, who’s just spoken with Esther’s mother. Then it all comes out. Tim is in big trouble for lying that Esther was on the other bus. Then Lawrie puts her foot in it when she realises they won’t let her be Shepherd Boy after all:

“But I must. It’s why I let Nick play in the match. I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy –”

Miss Cromwell asks with whom Lawrie made this bargain and Lawrie “waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling”, presumably at Athene and Jupiter and St Luke and Zeus and St Therese, and Miss Cromwell nearly explodes. Blood for breakfast! All is lost!

Except, no, here comes Dr Herrick, who explains that Esther’s understudy is Nicola, so of course, Nicola must sing and no, of course, Helen can’t be the Shepherd Boy, she’s hopeless. So it’s sorted, except who will be Nicola’s Candle Angel partner? Miranda is the only logical choice, but Miss Kempe worries that “some people would take great exception” to a Jewish angel in the Minster and anyway, what would Miranda’s father think about his daughter “being shanghai’d into a Nativity Play”? Janice is again the soul of reason, pointing out that outsiders won’t know and a Jewish angel is hardly like “the Oberammergau Christ turning out to be the district’s leading Nazi”. (I forgot to say earlier that Grandmother’s Christ figurine in her bedroom is an Oberammergau Christ, and I wondered at the time if that might be a subtle hint at her Nazi-sympathising.)

Miss Kempe moans that she “can’t start arguing the metaphysics of the case” (you should probably be in a different book series, then, Miss Kempe), but helplessly agrees to go along with it as long as Miranda’s father won’t object. So Nicola finds Miranda, who’s furious about being snubbed earlier, but Nicola manages to convince Miranda that they were only worried about her father. Miranda says he won’t mind:

“I mean, it’s only a play to me. It’s not as if – well, as if I was going to believe anything different, or anyone wanted me to, or anything.”

But as they’re waiting in the Minster for the play to start, a small child is mesmerised by Miranda’s convincing angel-impression and Nicola starts to feel a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of re-enacting the first Christmas.

Next, Chapter Nine: Right Way Round

‘End of Term’, Part Five

Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

Miranda has been watching the play rehearsals secretly, so she’s there to witness Miss Kempe’s frustration with Jess’s terrible rendition of Shepherd Boy, Dr Herrick making Ginty the Archangel Gabriel, and Tim giving an impertinent but useful suggestion about stage direction. Then, what a surprise, Jess suddenly can’t do Shepherd Boy! Her father has to fly to South Africa to investigate I.D.B (which I think is Illegal Diamond Buying) and is taking his whole family with him! (As if expats working in the colonies didn’t always put their children in English boarding school. Personally, I would have given Jess a broken leg or glandular fever or something else a bit more plausible.) Miss Kempe tries to convince Miss Keith that Lawrie should have the part, but the best she can manage is being allowed to have Nicola.

Nicola is very happy when she’s told, about not having to sing a solo, although surely having a lead acting role would be just as stressful? But then Lawrie bursts in, convinced she has the role. They race off to the noticeboard to check, and yes, it’s Nicola.

“Look, Lal” (Nicola used the baby name she hadn’t used for years), “I’m most awfully sorry. Truly I am.” Which was true. The pleasure of being Shepherd Boy was gone for ever.

Nicola is much more gracious about it than Lawrie would ever be. Lawrie tells Nicola she hates her and to get away and fetch Tim, which Nicola obediently does. Tim’s reaction is even worse:

“Why didn’t you say you wouldn’t do it? You knew how Lawrie would feel.”
“But – Yes, I know, but –”
“You really are the end,” said Tim, eyeing her with an angry, hostile look. “Honestly, there are times when I could hit you, you’re so stupid.”

Nicola has no control over the play’s casting, as Tim knows perfectly well, but the really awful thing is Tim’s presumption that she understands Lawrie better than Lawrie’s identical twin. Lawrie, literally sick with disappointment, goes off to the san with Tim, while Nicola contemplates her ex-friendship with Tim, remembering all their quarrels and that Tim had only written to Lawrie in the holidays:

“[Nicola] took it for granted that people liked her better than Lawrie. Only Tim didn’t. Tim liked Lawrie best … And then she was ashamed – a cold, squirming apprehension that probably she’d butted in, often, when she wasn’t really wanted.”

Poor Nicola! At least she has Miranda as a friend now. As well as Esther and Sally and Elizabeth and nearly everyone else, because Nicola is simply a nicer person and better friend than Lawrie. I can see why Tim would find Nicola’s Moral Uprightness a bit much, but I can’t see why Tim puts up with Lawrie’s self-centredness and immaturity. Unless Tim likes being the Superior One in their friendship, always knowing more than Lawrie? Or thinks Lawrie is going to be a superstar in the future and Tim likes the idea of being the best friend of a celebrity … except I don’t think Tim cares that much about social status.

Chapter Seven: A Change of Team

The next day, Tim has the nerve to try to pretend nothing’s happened, and then when Nicola doesn’t respond to her cheery greeting, says, “What’s up with you? Still sulking?” Lawrie is also Not-Talking to Nicola, so everything’s a bit strained. It all blows up in art class when they’re drawing the play and they realise Miranda has been watching rehearsals. Nicola, worried about her performance as Shepherd Boy, quietly asks Miranda for her opinion, but Lawrie butts in to say Nicola is “pretty awful”. Miranda loses it and it is GLORIOUS:

“The trouble with you is, you’re a spoilt brat … If everything doesn’t go the way she wants it, she yells the place down. Bellow, bellow, bellow. Anyone’d think she was six.”

Miranda also points out that Nicola wanted to be in the netball team just as much as Lawrie wanted to be Shepherd Boy, without making the same fuss, and they’d actually be winning their games if Nicola was in the team. And Miranda blames Tim:

“…if you weren’t always telling her, Lawrie, I mean, how madly brilliant she is, she mightn’t be such an ass.”

But the best bit is when she turns to shy, conflict-averse Esther to back her up and Esther immediately, unequivocally agrees that Lawrie is an ass. This silences even Tim! It’s great.

But poor Esther is otherwise having a miserable time. She’s been forced to take on Nicola’s soloist singing duties in the play, even though she has debilitating stage-fright, and she knows she can’t even run away because she doesn’t have a proper home to run to anymore. It’s a good thing she has Nicola and Miranda as friends, because the adults in her life are being actively harmful.

The netball team loses yet another game and Lawrie injures her leg in gym just before the final game of the term. This presents a moral dilemma, because she was planning on playing brilliantly in the final game and gaining colours:

“…she’d be almost as good as the people in books who played with broken bones and sprained ankles and no one knew till they’d fainted at the end – and she’d always wanted to do that.”

But even Lawrie concedes that with a hurt leg, it’s going to be difficult to play as well as she usually does, let alone better (“People in books must have different types of bones or something”). During an illegally-long hot bath, she contemplates (in a side-long, Lawrie-ish way) the things Miranda said about her and wonders if she, Lawrie, might have been cast as Shepherd Boy if she wasn’t so babyish and spoilt. Then she comes up with a plan. She’ll let Nicola play in her place (instead of Sally, the official sub). This, she decides, is such a nice thing to do for Nick that somehow, as a reward, Lawrie will end up being Shepherd Boy. Also, if they get found out about the netball swap, Nicola will be in so much trouble, she won’t be allowed to be Shepherd Boy, and Lawrie can revel in schadenfreude.

The plan goes surprisingly smoothly the next morning, as they manage to fool Ann, Ginty and Matron. Lawrie stays in bed being Sick-Nicola, while Nicola messes up her hair and goes down to tell the netball team. They all think it’s an excellent idea, and agree not to tell anyone, “specially not Marie Dobson”. Tim needs some convincing and Nicola thinks:

“It was queer and difficult being friends with someone who disliked you so much. At least she supposed they were friends and she supposed it was dislike, though neither seemed quite the right word.”

Let me assist, Nicola. Yes, Tim dislikes you. You’re free to dislike her back. No, you’re not friends. There, sorted.

There are some amusing bits where neat, precise Nicola is forced to be messy and disorganised in order to be a convincing Lawrie. They take the train to the school where they’re playing their netball matches, telling Marie to walk with the Seniors, then ordering her out of their train carriage. (The teachers don’t seem to notice this blatant bullying, which presumably happens at every away-game, so I don’t think Nicola should have any concern about them noticing the twin-swap.)

Now, I don’t even like netball (typical Wing Defence), but this game is pretty exciting. Everyone plays well, especially Nicola – so well that Lois and Janice, watching the game, realise it’s not Lawrie playing. Janice says, “Lois, do have the sense to let it alone. You shouldn’t have got Nicola out in the first place.” Lois hotly denies this and prattles on about prefects having to do their duty, while Janice is coolly amused and dismissive, pointing out that Lawrie will get into just as much trouble as Nicola if Lois decides to report them. When Miss Craven comes over, Janice wickedly says, “Lawrie played particularly well. Didn’t Lawrie play well, Lois?” and Lois reluctantly agrees that Lawrie deserves her colours. I’m liking Janice more and more.

On the way back, Marie manages to squirm into the carriage with the rest of the triumphant team and then gloats that she knows a secret. Except then she finds out that everyone else knew about the twin-swap and didn’t tell her because they knew she’d sneak to Craven or Lois. So Marie bursts into tears, exclaiming it’s not fair that Nicola told everyone about Guides last year. Even though Nicola hasn’t told anyone. Marie is so pathetically awful – it’s completely understandable that the other girls don’t like her. If only a teacher or an older girl would take Marie under her wing and teach her some social skills, then work out what she’s good at and let her have some success and responsibilities in that. Or they could have left her in the B class with her friend Pomona. Instead, they throw her into the netball team, when she can’t play, and ignore it when the others exclude her from everything. At least Nicola realises “we’ll have to be a bit careful … she has feelings same like the rest of you”, although Lawrie “who never really believed anyone but herself had any, remained unconvinced”.

Next, Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out