‘Autumn Term’, Part Eight

Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

Exams are over (“Third Remove had consoled one another by remarking loudly that they’d all done equally badly”) and the day of the play dawns. Even though I’m not that interested in theatre, I enjoyed reading about the girls’ ingenious solutions to the problems of putting on a play with a small cast and almost no budget. However, Tim is starting to worry, especially when Miss Cartwright asks if they’re ready:

“…for [Tim] was uneasily conscious that perhaps she had been almost too successful in keeping Cartwright at a distance; and if, by any evil chance, the play should collapse dismally, she had no doubt but that Cartwright could, if she chose, be a formidable antagonist. The Pomona row would be nothing in comparison…”

Luckily, Nicola has organised posters, programmes and tickets, which Tim had completely forgotten about (“Nicola was really an excellent person to have around,” thinks Tim, YES TIM, SHE REALLY IS). Then the twins go off to meet their parents, who don’t even know there is a play because apparently they never read their children’s letters. But at least Mrs Marlow doesn’t embarrass the twins by wearing gaudy make-up or a fancy hat or trying to kiss them. The older Marlow sisters seem to have very low expectations for the play, assuming it will be a sweet tale about fairies and talking animals and anyway, “no one can ever hear what Thirds say unless they sit on the stage, practically.”

Backstage, Lawrie is sick (literally) with nerves and even Lois looks “white and highly strung” as they prepare for the curtain to rise. Nicola is polite to Lois, but still hasn’t forgiven her:

“But one couldn’t, thought Nicola stubbornly, suddenly like people because everyone else did, or forget that they had been fairly swinish, even if they were doing their best now; and she would be glad when the play was over and she needn’t even smile at Lois in corridors.”

At last Tim switches on the ‘radiogram’, puts on a record of Greensleeves (her aunt’s favourite song), the curtain goes up and … it all goes beautifully. Lawrie is even better than she was in rehearsals (“she was liking the audience”), the twins work well together, Pomona is really good, Tim works all the lights and curtains and music on cue. Marie does get a bad case of stage-fright, but the others, especially shy little Elaine, ad lib effectively to cover this up. Then comes the final Coronation scene and the curtain falls:

“No curtain calls, Tim had said in a moment of pessimism, forestalling the possibility that none might be required. But she had not been prepared for the sudden roar of applause which came from the body of the theatre; it would be ill-mannered not to answer that. She signalled to [the cast] to stay put and raised the curtain again, watching Nicola’s face break from its expression of rapt gravity into a sudden grin of pleasure.”

Rapturous applause that goes on and on. Then the audience calls for the producer. Tim, stunned, is forced onto the stage to take her bow and I might have got a tiny bit teary at that point.

Chapter Eighteen: Marie Puts Her Foot In It

Backstage there’s jubilation, then Third Remove have to “subdue their faces and voices to the proper expressions of modest unconcern” when they go to meet the parents and rest of the school in the Assembly Hall. The senior Marlows tell the twins they enjoyed the play, but Ann blunders when she says out loud that Lawrie was marvellous, better than Nicola. The others are horrified, but I’m not sure if it’s because they think praise will go to Lawrie’s head and she’ll become unbearable (a plausible concern) or they’re afraid Nicola will feel hurt (but Nicola impatiently says of course she knows Lawrie is better). Later, when the twins are alone, Lawrie remarks:

…that she wished their father and mother would say how frightfully good they’d been instead of just looking calm and pleased.

‘But they never do,’ protested Nicola. ‘You know they don’t if it’s anything proper. Even when Kay got Matric with distinction in practically everything, they just said it wasn’t bad and she must keep it up. You don’t want them to make a special fuss like when we got our Brownie Wings, do you?’

‘Yes,’ said Lawrie candidly, ‘I do. I like being told.’

Anyway, Commander Marlow quickly turns the subject to whether Third Remove really did do everything themselves, with no help from the seniors or staff. Rowan, honourable as ever, admits Lois did a brilliant job with the reading, then they all learn that Tim did practically all the work:

Karen and Rowan looked at one another.

‘Produced it–’ said Rowan.

‘Wrote it–’ said Karen.

‘Press-ganged Lois Sanger–’

‘And saw that her form-mistress gave no trouble,’ concluded Karen. ‘Next term someone had better keep a very special eye on T. Keith.’

‘Why?’ asked Lawrie.

‘Dangerous,’ said Karen, grinning at her father. ‘Organizing ability highly developed. Too much spare time owing to present position in school. Highly explosive combination unless superfluous energy directed into constructive channels.’

Yeah, good luck with trying to direct Tim into ‘constructive channels’, Karen. Although it’s nice to see Karen showing some perspicacity at last – until now, she’s been portrayed as academic, but fairly clueless about everything else in life. Finally I understand why she was made head girl.

After the parents leave, Miss Keith and Miss Cartwright congratulate Third Remove on their “corporate form effort” that wasn’t “merely the work of one or two enthusiastic people who ran around doing everything while the rest waited hopefully to be told what to do next”. As usual, the teachers don’t have any idea what was really going on. But Miss Keith does say they might do some scenes on Speech Day, which is a tremendous honour, and Miss Jennings comes up to congratulate Nicola on their backdrops and Nicola’s performance.

Nicola, by now feeling a bit overwhelmed, escapes backstage to tidy up, followed by Marie who is being over-friendly to make up for her awful performance in the play. Then Lawrie arrives with Miss Redmond, the Guide Captain, who announces grandly that the insurance company has determined the twins didn’t cause the farm fire. (Mind you, she doesn’t apologise or ask the twins to come back to Guides.) Nicola, who knew perfectly well they hadn’t set the fire, says a brief and polite thank you, and Miss Redmond departs, a bit disconcerted by the lack of gratitude. But then Marie accidentally reveals she hadn’t been inside the farm that day, which leads to the revelation that she lied at the Court of Honour.

It’s a lovely way of showing how much Nicola has matured since the start of term, because she accepts Marie’s confession calmly, with apparent indifference. She doesn’t lash out at Marie or rush off to tell Miss Redmond, as she would have done a few months earlier. Lawrie gloats about how they’ve got something to hold over Marie as a threat now, although Nicola points out if Lawrie could get over Lois’s treachery, she could get over Marie’s as well. Lawrie, typically, avoids the question of Lois. And then Lawrie points out that, with the success of the play, the twins finally have something they’re good at, just like the other Marlows.

‘So we are,’ said Nicola, much struck by this. ‘That’s very odd. It feels quite natural, somehow, doesn’t it?’

And on that soothing note, they go to bed.

Chapter Nineteen: Holidays Begin Tomorrow

End of term! Which Kingscote celebrates with a two-hour assembly at which Miss Keith reads out the list of exam results, honours, form trophies and so on. Sounds riveting. Why can’t they just stick lists up on the noticeboards? It isn’t even the end of the school year. Lawrie, basking in her new fame as theatrical star, enjoys a conversation with the Sixth Formers in which they marvel over this year’s Third Remove, the oddest they can remember and filled with “brilliant eccentrics”. One Sixth Former predicts Tim’s future:

‘I can foresee the most frightful things happening when that Tim child is head girl. Nothing will ever go wrong exactly, but everything will be hideously unexpected … The staff will have a ghastly time.’

I don’t expect they have anything as democratic as student elections at Kingscote, which probably means the head girl is selected by Miss Keith. But maybe she’ll think the responsibility will do Tim good?

The one last excitement for Third Remove is that they’ve won the Tidiness Award, to Tim’s disgust (“We’re not that kind of form at all”). Also, it turns out Nicola has been awarded honours for her exam results and everyone else has failed spectacularly. Also, Miss Keith gives Tim a tiny compliment when she says the play’s performance justified her faith in Tim – although Tim points out that the headmistress “nearly frightened herself into a fit saying that when she thought of all the awful things it might do to my character”. It just occurs to me that Tim’s parents didn’t come to the play. Did she even go home for half-term? She’s had about two conversations with her aunt all term, so it’s not as though she has the consolation of a supportive relative at school. Poor Tim, no wonder she’s a bit spiky.

The Marlow sisters pack to go home and Nicola unwraps a parcel that’s just arrived – a photo of Giles’s new ship signed “Affec – G.A.M.”, so “it was good to know he wasn’t still furious”. Not that he actually apologised or anything. Lawrie is busy planning next term’s triumphs (winning the junior diving medal and so on) but Nicola is older and wiser:

“It was probably better to let things happen as they wanted to, instead of trying to arrange them, without knowing all the circumstances … much more interesting … much less disappointing …”


Except it’s just the beginning of the series and I know they’re going to go home and get caught up in exciting adventures with spies and smugglers and drug-dealing pigeons. And what will happen next term at school? Will Nicola get moved up into IIIB or even IIIA, away from Lawrie and Tim? Will Ann coax the twins back into Guides? Will Ginty ever stop being a pain? And will the simmering tension between Rowan and that “boyish and handsome” Lois Sanger ever spark into romance? (There’s Marlow fanfiction out there, isn’t there? I bet there is. But it’s bound to be spoilery, so I can’t read any till I’ve read more of the books.)

In conclusion – Autumn Term was great! Funny, insightful, well-paced and highly recommended for those who enjoy British boarding school books.


You might also be interested in reading:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Autumn Term’: Part Two
‘Autumn Term’: Part Three
‘Autumn Term’: Part Four
‘Autumn Term’: Part Five
‘Autumn Term’: Part Six
‘Autumn Term’: Part Seven

14 thoughts on “‘Autumn Term’, Part Eight”

  1. I have so much enjoyed this guided tour through your eyes — nearly as good as reading it again myself for the first time. And I’m glad you weren’t disappointed!

    Heaven forbid anyone should show emotion, or enjoy praise, or even give praise to their children who have done something pretty remarkable! One of the contrasts between Lawrie and Nicola that I relish is that Lawrie never holds anything back, but Nicola is extremely self-contained. She never shows anything – it’s only we, the readers, who know how she feels.

    Marlow fan fic? You betcha. Lots of it, and some of it is nearly as good as Forest herself. But don’t check it out or you will horrifically spoiled 🙂 I really hope you do get to read the rest of the series. And thanks for letting me come along for the Autumn Term ride!

    1. Thank you so much for recommending the series, and for all your insightful comments on these blog posts! I think the next two Marlow books might be my birthday present to myself…

      I was going to say the stiff-upper-lip, never-praise-a-child thing is so very, very British, except I grew up in a family (and era) that did exactly the same thing and we weren’t British! There has to be some sort of happy medium between that and the current child-rearing trend of ‘All Must Have Prizes!’ and ‘Everyone is Special!’, which can be equally damaging to children when taken to extremes.

      I really like Nicola – she’s so determined to do the honourable thing, and Rowan seems similar in temperament. And I like Tim, even though she shows some slightly sociopathic tendencies. Not sure where I stand with Lois yet…

      I will avoid looking for Marlow fanfic, then! I had a quick look at the Marlows LiveJournal you linked to on one of your blog posts, but it looked very spoilery for the rest of the series, so I didn’t investigate further. Thanks again!

  2. Having seen a link to your blog on the AF facebook page I have just read your entire blog on Autumn Term in one fell swoop, laughing out loud in many places. I really enjoyed it and I hope you get to read all the others. I second Kate’s comment that the middle books are the best ones.
    Trennels on livejournal is a good site for discussing all the lovely details of AF books; some of it would be spoilerish though until you’ve read a few more.

  3. Thanks, Ann, glad you enjoyed it. Now I understand how all these Antonia Forest readers ended up on my blog today – it was Facebook! Thanks also for the spoiler warning about the Trennels Livejournal. I’ll wait till I’ve read more before venturing there.

  4. Remember this was written in 1948. Post war diets were severely limited (the ones you read about in Enid Blyton were mostly a decade later, with rationing long over). Education then, especially in private schools, was not whatever you might get now in Sydney Girls High.

    And Forest was ruthlessly unsentimental about omitting superfluous details. In her Christmas holiday book, she just skips December 25 completely (I was shocked when I read it) because she has nothing she wants to say about people opening presents, any more than she has anything she wants to say about the teaching of French or sewing. It’s quite bracing.

    In the same vein, she doesn’t expect her authority figures to be very authoritative, not like Blyton and her chief inspectors. Remember Swallows and Amazons? The kids want to go sailing. Mum worries that they’ll all drown. Dad just says “Better drowned than duffers”, which from a modern perspective is a horrifying abdication of parental responsibility. But Arthur Ransome had spent his life being sued by Oscar Wilde’s lover, reporting on and taking part in the Russian revolution, and marrying Trotsky’s secretary. He knew there were worse things than going sailing. (See The Marlows and the Traitor for Forest’s demonstration of this.) Kids 50 years ago were a lot freer from supervision than we can imagine now, and the somewhat hands-off approach of a boarding school reflects that.

    The Marlowe books cover about three years of their lives, but were written over more than 30 years. Forest updates the language, the food, the attitudes and the mores as she goes. She’s got a brilliant ear for dialogue; my only reservation is that it always seems as if it ought to be coming from kids a year or two older.

    And since you asked at one point, yes, she was Catholic. Her treatment of religion, which seems purely sectarian and nothing to do with belief, is one of her weak points, I think, though it never kept me awake at night. But her psychological insight into her characters good and bad is, as you’ve pointed out, remarkable.

  5. Thanks for your informative comments, Juno. Regarding food, did you mean Antonia Forest created all those sugar-filled meals as escapism for her 1948 readers, who were still enduring food rationing? Enid Blyton did the same thing – the first Famous Five book was written during the war and more than half of the following books in that series during rationing. The descriptions of the picnics and midnight feasts are the best thing about Blyton books!

    Oh, and I have plenty of thoughts about Swallows and Amazons, too…

  6. Goodness, the Famous Five were earlier than I thought. But a lot of their feasts sound home-grown or home-made: bread, lettuces and radishes and milk, I suspect, from a farm near the campsite (campsites were often on farms, with the farmer making a few bob out of them; there’s not a lot of vacant land in England).

    You could grow your own as much as you liked, but sugar and sweets were rationed as late as 1953 in Britain. This didn’t mean you couldn’t get them at all, just not in great amounts – and it might make sense to save them up for a special occasion. I sometimes wonder if the midnight feasts in the dorm aren’t a literary memory of the hampers Billy Bunter and his school chums got in more prosperous days. But I don’t know how far they were true-to-life and how far wish-fulfilment.

  7. I first read the Marlow school stories (well, the first 3) aged 15 in 1981. I’ve got a few more now, but don’t own a full set. I’ve always liked them more than other school stories as I could relate much more to Nicola (loves the Navy and sport, gets on OK in lessons, doesn’t feel the need to conform all the time) than most other school heroines.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your take on this book and look forward to seeing what you think of the rest of them. I must get my copies back from the person I lent them to. I hope you like the rest of them as much as this one. My personal favourite is Cricket Term, which is the third of the school stories and follows The Ready Made Family, which I think is the best of the non-school books.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Fenny. Yes, I think Nicola is my favourite (so far). I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, especially the school books.

  8. I’ve just come back to this and enjoyed it again because I’m in the middle of ‘a brief history of Montmaray ‘
    (and loving it!)- I wanted to look up a couple of things and got distracted.
    Are you in Sydney? I’m happy to lend you the other books if you promise to write them all up like this! Also, I see Madeleine St John tags – have you seen Ladies in Black? It’s wonderful!

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the first Montmaray book, Pip! There’s two more after that …

      I am in Sydney, but would hate to borrow one of your precious books and have it get lost in the post or something like that. Thank you for reminding me I need to order the next two from GGB. I do have another classic children’s book that deserves a detailed write-up waiting in my To Read pile, so that’s coming up soon-ish.

      I haven’t seen the new musical of The Ladies in Black, but I loved the book (and Split Enz) so it does sound very appealing!

      1. Yes – I’m looking forward to the sequels!
        I do have two copies of a few of the Antonia Forests so I’m prepared to risk it! Just let me know. You don’t want to rush it.
        Go and see it! It really is good.

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