‘Autumn Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

Third Remove have a meeting to discuss the play and figure out the casting, even though Tim hasn’t finished writing it yet:

“Tim liked doing things which could be finished in a swift, concentrated rush; and she had found, with some dismay, that a play demanded sustained effort.”

(You probably shouldn’t try writing a novel, then, Tim.) Anyway, Tim explains what the play’s about, which is helpful because although I’ve read The Prince and the Pauper, it was such a long time ago I can’t remember much of it. Lawrie is going to play Tom Canty, the beggar boy who changes clothes with Prince Edward for fun, then finds himself stuck in the Palace and regarded as the prince after Edward is mistakenly thrown out by the guards. When King Henry dies, Edward has to fight his way back to Westminster Abbey to be recognised as the true King and be crowned. Nicola is Edward, of course, Pomona is Henry, Marie is John Canty and the rest of the form play a variety of beggars, guards and courtiers. Tim is going to be the narrator and do the lighting and curtains and direct everyone. To Tim’s annoyance, Pomona turns out to be really good at acting. No great surprise, she’s had more experience than anyone else…

Chapter Sixteen: A Question of Elocution

This is such a good chapter! Nothing terribly exciting happens – they just rehearse their play – but there’s so much going on in terms of characters interacting and revealing fascinating parts of themselves and how their little society works. Even the minor characters start to blossom in unexpected ways (for example, “Elaine Rees, who at her own request had been given the smallest parts available, was gradually achieving courage enough to speak above a whisper”). Tim has the pleasure of watching her words (well, her and Mark Twain’s words) come to life on stage and Lawrie is revealed to be a genuinely gifted actor. Nicola’s devotion to duty comes to the fore and she enjoys painting all the backdrops, with the help of Miss Jennings, the art mistress. (Miss Jennings is the Cool Teacher. She is “ruefully amused” at her students’ artistic incompetence, telling Third Remove “that their efforts, poor as they were, were too funny to be depressing.”)

There is only one problem, but it’s a big one. Tim finally takes her part in rehearsals to read the prologue and it’s a disaster:

‘Your voice is all wrong,’ said Lawrie, too distressed on the play’s account to consider Tim’s feelings. ‘I can’t explain, but you don’t make one see things. D’you remember how Lois read on the hike, Nick? That’s the proper way. Yours is awful.’

I can see why Third Remove like Nicola more than Lawrie. Lawrie’s so self-absorbed. The play is her thing and she doesn’t care about anyone else’s feelings. And whenever there’s a crisis, she just bursts into tears and expects Nicola to do all the work of fixing things. You can tell Lawrie’s always been the baby of the family.

Nicola tries to help Tim, but can’t really explain how Lois Sanger read so well. Tim bravely decides she’ll go and ask Lois for some tips. “Even the Upper Fifth have the elements of humanity in them, I suppose,” she thinks dubiously. (Remember when you were in Year Seven, or First Form, or whatever it was called at your school, and the senior students seemed so grown-up and terrifying? And then you finally got to wear a blazer and have your own common room and treat the juniors as adorable idiots – uncomfortably aware that you were about to enter the adult world and would soon be starting at the bottom all over again?)

Anyway, Lois agrees to listen to Tim read (and agrees Tim is awful) and provides a demonstration (and Tim sees what the twins mean, but knows she’ll never be able to read as well as Lois). Tim is sunk in gloom. Will they have to give up the play? And listen to the other Third Formers gloating about Third Remove’s failure? But then, a miracle! Lois says:

‘Look. I’ve been reading this. I think it’s immensely good. If you can’t think of any other way, would you like me to do the reading for you?’

Of course, there’s lots going on under the surface. By doing this tremendous favour, Lois gets to help the “Marlow brats” without having to acknowledge the injustice of her actions at the Court of Honour. It also turns out the rest of her Guide patrol are now passive-aggressively undermining Lois, presumably because Jill, the second-in-command, told everyone what happened. (Except why didn’t Jill say something at the Court of Honour? She knew the truth.) Tim is pleased because the play is saved and having a senior involved will soothe Miss Cartwright, who’s starting to make anxious noises. There’s a lovely bit where Tim and Lois separately acknowledge how alike and Machiavellian they are. Lois ends the chapter

“…with a faintly uneasy twitch of nerves that Tim’s mental processes and her own were not unlike. And it was disconcerting and not too pleasant to hear it done aloud.”

Next, Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

12 thoughts on “‘Autumn Term’, Part Seven”

  1. I started to give you all kinds of hints about what awaits for Nicola and her future friendships, but then I deleted it all… Suffice to say there is a new best friend for Nicola in the wings, who is more worthy of her!

    Lawrie is so awful but I love her to bits. Although I don’t think I could love her so much if Nicola wasn’t there to balance her out.

    It’s interesting, even though objectively there is plenty of action in Forest’s books (spy rings, drug smuggling, abduction, near-abduction, railway accidents etc), my favourite parts are often the sections where, as you say, not much actually happens but the characters interacting (and conversations about irrelevant topics!). This is Antonia Forest’s real strength I think, and those are the scenes that stay with me.

    (Btw, did you notice in their school reports, Nicola ‘mimes with enthusiasm’ but Lawrie ‘mimes convincingly’? 🙂

    1. Now I’m wondering if Nicola gets moved up to IIIA or IIIB next term! I think the only other Third Former who’s been mentioned so far is Miranda West, so perhaps she’ll play a more significant part in later books…

      Ha, yes I did notice the miming bit, because my reaction was the same as Commander Marlow’s – what on earth is miming?! Then I went back to read it once I saw Lawrie was better at acting than Nicola!

  2. Forgot to agree that in Forest’s world, adults/authority figures (with a couple of exceptions) are either baffling, misguided, arbitrary and sometimes less mature than the ‘children’ they are supposed to be in charge of, and the young people are often extremely sophisticated – sometimes in their moral reasoning, sometimes in their erudition (Nicola gets through a LOT of books, despite what it said in chapter one about conditions needing to be just right before she can settle down to read). I longed to be as smart and witty and well-read as these characters were!

    I really will shut up now 🙂

    1. British children’s books often have clueless teachers and parents (look at all the useless Hogwarts teachers and Harry’s terrible relatives), but there’s usually at least one or two wise figures. Here there don’t seem to be any at all, except for maybe Miss Cartwright, but she doesn’t do much. The books are told from the perspective of the young people, though, so possibly we’re meant to infer there’s more going on with the adults that Nicola doesn’t see?

      Tim is well-read (and probably knows lots about art, too), but I keep thinking how narrow their education is (not that we learn much about their school lessons). I bet their understanding of history is limited to British royalty and British military victories, and that they know almost nothing of twentieth-century politics or science or technology. Do they even have a science lab at their school? I can understand why the author didn’t go into details about the curriculum, but I want to know more!

      1. Don’t forget that the early books are set very soon after WWII, so there wasn’t nearly so much 20th century stuff to learn, apart from the Russian Revolution, WWI and the rise of Hitler (which I didn’t cover until O level). Our first year History lessons were all about the Vikings. We didn’t do Kings of England until 2nd year – and then only as far as Henry VII. At least some of the Third Remove know that Edward was the son of Henry VIII. But, on the whole, education was a different beast “back then”.

    2. Maybe Jill was in the same predicament as Nicola. Lois’ story was close enough to the truth that Jill had to rethink her version of events to see if she was mistaken in what she remembered and that left her in dither about what was right and what she could say with confidence. Then later when the pressure is off and she begins to think it through it more clearly she goes back to being more sure about her version of events but it’s now to late to do anything except be passive-agressive.

      1. Yes, that whole Guiding crisis was such a clear depiction of how authority figures and peer pressure can undermine truth and justice. It was very astute writing from Antonia Forest.

  3. Apart from the boarding element, Forest based Kingscote to some extent on her own school (South Hampstead Girls’ High School) in the 1920s and 30s. Science was taught, but AF didn’t enjoy it, which is why, I think, there’s no focus on it in these books. Certainly politics wasn’t taught, but it still isn’t, save as an optional subject at A level; as for technology, that’s what cookery is! (At my school in the 1960s, the boys did woodwork and the girls did needlework and cookery.)

    Wait till the next school story, End of Term: the wonderful Maths teacher Miss Cromwell (met only briefly in Autumn Term) has far more exposure.

    1. Thanks, Sue, that’s very interesting to hear about Forest’s education. As I was reading this, I was thinking of Rosalind Franklin at St Paul’s Girls’ School in the 1930s – she certainly did plenty of maths and science. (And I had a similar boys-do-woodwork, girls-do-sewing-and-cooking high school education in the 1980s). But I’m glad to hear there’s a wonderful Maths teacher coming up in the next school book!

  4. And they do science. The next useless headgirl (after Karen) is a scientist and Lawrie can’t light bunsen burners!

  5. Michelle, greatly enjoying your first time read and commentary of Autumn Term. I am sometimes amazed at how little academics are mentioned in school stories (when I think of the hours of homework I had from age 12 on) but I agree that the extracurriculars are more interesting. Also, I realize many of the fictional schools we enjoy reading about were not (at the time written) preparing their students for higher education.

    Don’t Knock the Corners Off by Caroline Glyn (great granddaughter of Elinor) was in my school library when I was 12, and conveyed the horrors of math more vividly than anything I have ever read. The bullying at the heroine’s non-feepaying school is also terrifying (but convincing). But those were day schools so not as interesting.


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