‘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.

23 thoughts on “‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five”

  1. Back in End Of Term Patrick watches Lois reading in the Christmas play and muses on how ‘what people are’ has to be separated from ‘what people can do’ (or words to that effect) and I often feel this is true of Antonia Forest herself. I’m sure if I’d have met her in real life I’d have hated her politics, opinions, views on religion etc. and yet Nicola Marlow and by extension the rest of the characters are my favourite fictional people and her books among my most favourite books.
    Another example of the way the servants are treated by the likes of the Marlows and Merricks – Mrs Bertie goes to the Twelth Night party ‘to help out’ and Mrs Marlow is thanked by Mrs Merrick for lending her. Then she has to get up at the crack of dawn to cook a big breakfast early enough for them to all go off hunting. I always hope that she gets a bit of sleep later in the armchair in the kitchen while they’re all off hunting. Oh, and that she had a really good gossip with her own friends while she was behind the scenes at the party.
    When I imagine future worlds for the Marlows I always hope they get away and meet lots of different people and distance themselves from their own background.

    1. I feel the same way about writers like Nancy Mitford – she sounds as though she was a total snob and a really nasty human being, but her novels are brilliant. I can usually make allowances for long-dead authors having dated views on life, as long as their writing is good and they have a sense of humour.

      And yes, poor Mrs Bertie! And the way Peter puts on a regional working-class accent that’s meant to be hilarious…

  2. Ginty turns fifteen, not sixteen, on her birthday. Peter’s Room, Girls Gone By Edition, p. 71. Patrick is slightly older than her (discussed in Attic Term) although they are closer in age than Patrick and Nicola. The Trennels that is apparently built partly on slave trade profits is the eighteenth century country house, not the original Tudor farm house. Peter’s Room, Girls Gone By Edition, p. 65. The Marlows were originally yeoman farmers, before they got into sailing and the Navy. I personally don’t think don’t think Antonia Forest meant to be snobby or certainly racist; she may have just been a bit different in the way she approached some things – a little like Patrick, and you probably can’t separate a writer entirely from the way they see the world as a writer. But others disagree I guess. I like a lot of the summary and the Avalon video.

    1. Thanks for your correction about Ginty’s age, Elizabeth – you’re absolutely right. I think I got confused because I assumed getting a horse as a present was such a big deal that it must have been her sixteenth birthday.

      I think, even for her time, Antonia Forest was racist. At the same time Antonia Forest was casually using ‘nigger’ in her Marlow books, Noel Streatfeild was writing “the person who believes in the equality of men is never in any danger of rapping out the word ‘nigger’ whether the nearest coloured person is in the next chair or a hundred miles away.” But I also think it’s possible to enjoy books even when you disagree with the author’s perspective on life, especially if the books were written decades ago and the author is dead.

      1. Noel’s father was an Anglican bishop and her grandfather was a clergyman with other clergymen littered around her family tree, and, IIRC, she was related to the quaker Elizabeth Fry. So quite a different cultural upbringing compared to most kids of her time.
        Her autobiography “A Vicarage Family” is a good read – it sheds a lot of light on the protagonists in her stories.

        1. I haven’t read A Vicarage Family, but it sounds great. I really enjoyed Beyond the Vicarage, about her life as a writer. She came across as someone who really cared about others in a practical, sensible way. I discussed that book here.

  3. Maybe I am wrong, but where does Forest use nigger at all, let alone casually. I know Agatha Christie certainly did, without I think the racist intention that would be meant today, but I can’t remember the use of the term anywhere in Forest, although I have certainly read all the books. Maybe it is used somewhere in reference to a book title or something but I certainly don’t remember this. Having possibly dated attitudes in some areas does not necessarily make someone racist, and I have never thought of Forest as being racist.

    1. Casual racist comments come up in a few of the books I’ve read so far. For example, I just had a quick look at The Marlows and the Traitor. On p 81, Peter says Nicola “would have made a very good Little Black Sambo” if there’d been coal in the coal cellar and on p 113, “Lawrie said with a chuckle: “You do look funny, Peter. Like a not-quite nigger minstrel.” I’ve got the Girls Gone By edition with the original text, though – perhaps those references were changed in later editions?

      I should point out that I’m not white, so I’ve had a lifetime of dealing with racist slurs – and so I’m going to be more sensitive about the issue and more likely to notice racist comments in a book. But I don’t think that people who read and enjoy these books are racist. When I come to the racist bits, I just roll my eyes at it and then ignore it. If I boycotted every author or book that was racist or sexist or classist, I’d be missing out on a huge chunk of twentieth century English literature!

  4. And I have to add that I personally do think that racism is a serious issue, and if I completely disagreed with a writer’s perspective on the world and additionally thought that they were a casual racist, I actually would not want to read the writer’s books and probably wouldn’t care if they were forgotten. But I never thought this was true of Antonia Forest.

  5. Love, love, love Avalon! Perfect (and surely the mansion is an accurate representation of the Merricks’ house). I was about Ginty’s age when it was released and it was the soundtrack to many a daydream scene… And it’s even got hawks!!

    The treatment of Doris and Mrs Herbert is definitely wince-inducing. Wait till you see how Patrick talks to his social inferiors in The Thuggery Affair — talk about born to rule. Actually The Thuggery Affair might be an apt place for a thorough discussion of race and class in Forest.

    1. That Avalon video, along with the BBC series of Brideshead Revisited, is pretty much responsible for the Montmaray books! I watched both of them at an impressionable age…

      The Thuggery Affair is the next book, isn’t it? The one with the drug-dealing pigeons and no Nicola? You’re not making it sound very appealing, Kate.

      1. Avalon, Brideshead, Love in a Cold Climate, Lord Peter Wimsey… I think we may have been impressionable at the same time, Michelle. No wonder I loved Montmaray so much 🙂

        I would class The Thuggery Affair as an ambitious but flawed experiment — still worth reading though, and it will definitely spark some debate!

        1. Alas, I’ve never taken to Lord Peter Wimsey or Harriet. I only tried one Dorothy Sayers book and that was more than enough. But perhaps I started with the wrong book.

  6. Yes, I didn’t remember this, and seem to be a very unfortunate comment that does not reoccur I am still sure. I never much liked The Marlows and the Traitor and I agree that I must not have read it carefully. And use of these words in the past, while very unfortunate, was not necessarily meant in the same way as now. Conrad’s ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ is still published, and I don’t think the title has been changed. However, I still think that casual racism is a major charge, and I am not aware it has ever been made against Conrad. Although, yes I have read some Conrad, and having attitudes of the time, yes. Agatha Christie’s use of the rhyme ‘ten little niggers ‘ was changed, and she later may have regretted the use of the word nigger.

    1. Conrad’s book was published in 1897, long before the era we’re discussing, and yes, a recent edition changed his title (and it was originally published as The Children of the Sea in America anyway). The Marlows and the Traitor was first published in 1953, just two years before Streatfeild wrote that polite people would never think of using the word ‘nigger’ (and Streatfeild wasn’t exactly a radical progressive).

      I’ve come across some other casual racist slurs in Antonia Forest’s books, but I’ve only read five of them and I’m certainly not an expert in her work or her life. I provided the evidence you asked for and I’m simply discussing my thoughts about what I’ve noticed in her books. It’s interesting that you think it’s far worse for me to call Antonia Forest racist, than it is for her to have used words like ‘nigger’.

      And yes, I did notice, and like, that she addresses English anti-Semitism through Miranda in End of Term. Of course she was concerned about anti-Semitism – she was Jewish (until she converted to Catholicism) and I’m sure she did experience anti-Semitism, especially before the war. But it’s still possible for someone to be Jewish and have experienced bigotry – and yet also have bigoted or ignorant beliefs about people with brown or black skin.

      Anyone else have comments on this issue? What do you think?

  7. I am sorry for the racist slurs you have experienced, but Miranda West experiences racist comments related to being Jewish, and I still don’t think there is any evidence that Antonia Forest didn’t take such comments seriously. Possibly she occasionally experienced them herself.

  8. Lawrie is not a particularly polite person, but yes, I am sorry that once she does say ‘nigger’, and I am also aware of the controversies in Mark Twain etc. but it is true I do not like a writer I admire being called a racist because of one use of the term and although she was not a Victorian she did grow up in a different era.

  9. There’s also a dog which gets named LBS in one of the books you haven’t got tot yet, Michelle, although by the last book in the series that name seems to have been dropped because it’s just called Sam by then. I can’t think of any other examples.
    I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but Streatfield had travelled quite a bit, and also lived in London when London was becoming more culturally diverse; whereas Forest lived in Dorset – rural, and 100% white. The occasional use of racist language in her books is depressingly and embarrassingly typical of her generation – think of Prince Philip – but I would suggest that it is a case of ignorance rather than active bigotry, if that makes sense?

    1. That’s more or less my take on it too. To my recollection, it’s the characters who occasionally use racist language. That doesn’t absolve Forest, and she certainly doesn’t seem to question or criticize it in the same way she does anti-Semitism. But I would say that on the spectrum of racist/offensive writing, it’s not nearly as bad as the author/narrator using those slurs (as, for example, G.K. Chesterton does) or building racism into the narrative through the use of ethnic stereotypes. And I don’t find it to be unrealistic language for characters growing up in a lily-white part of England in the 1940s and 50s. The characters make casual references to minstrel shows and Little Black Sambo because all this language is completely abstract to them – they don’t connect it to actual people who they might meet. That level of cluelessness is a problem in itself, and there’s no indication that Forest realizes it’s a problem, but is it realistic for white kids of that time and place? I think so.

      Maybe I just read a lot of racist writers (I majored in Victorian lit) but I tend to distinguish between the thoughtless use of language that can be lifted out of the text without leaving a mark and the more systemic, malignant kind of bigotry that informs a writer’s whole approach to character development and world-building. At her worst, I think Forest is only guilty of the first, not the second.

      But then, I’m not exactly objective; I first read these books as a kid, and I’m Jewish, so the school stories always made me feel represented – it’s hard to take a step back and think of how they would look to a new reader.

  10. Um. Except Forest grew up in Hampstead, and only moved to Dorset as an adult. And, speaking as a Dorset-dweller, although it’s not as culturally diverse down here as it is in major cities, we do consume the same media and we are subject to many of the same influences as people elsewhere. It’s not a hotbed of antediluvian ideas now, and I don’t see why it would have been 60 years ago.

  11. I’m inclined to agree with Ann that it might be a case of ignorance rather than malice. Unthinking racism is sadly still a feature of a certain generation and class of rural England (not just there of course) as I can attest from my own relatives, who in other respects are generous and thoughtful, and despite vigorous and horrified attempts at consciousness-raising by their own more progressive children. Hopefully those attitudes are dying out. But it’s a battle that needs constant fighting.

  12. I was an English 40s child and the n word was severely taboo in our family – so I was shaken when my mother was looking at swatches of something to see one designated “nigger brown”.

    Alas, we were surrounded by casual use of the word in a mainly white society. USA – did you ever notice the final crowd scene of A Face in the Crowd?

    Little Black Sambo was simply an accepted story book *at the time* (and oh, we loved the tiger butter!) – of course it was later pointed out that it was Indian, not African (see tigers).

    Purely by the way, at a very early age I decided I was Indian (Native American) when the rest of the world was Cowboys.

  13. Thanks for all your thoughts, everyone. I mostly agree with those who are saying that Antonia Forest’s racism was thoughtless, rather than malignant. I mean, she wasn’t Enoch Powell or Oswald Mosley, actively promulgating hate speech. (By the way, Enoch Powell was furious when people called him racist – or ‘racialist’, as the term was then – after his Rivers of Blood speech. Racist people almost never accept that they’re racist. Even Pauline Hanson, the Australian politician who’s made a career out of being racist, also claims she’s never said anything racist.)

    But ignorant, careless racism is still racism. It still hurts the people it’s aimed at, because it tells them that they aren’t worthy of the same respect and dignity that white people take for granted. Antonia Forest, an intelligent, thoughtful writer, chose to use racist slurs in her books. Yes, children like the Marlows probably would have used that language in the 1950s and 1960s, but other children’s authors of her era chose to avoid words like ‘nigger’ because they understood it was hurtful and rude.

    Still, as I said, it doesn’t stop me enjoying the good parts of these books. I just sigh a bit when I get to the racist slurs, then move on.

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