‘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

7 thoughts on “‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six”

  1. I’m very indignant on Buster’s behalf. He is NOT ‘dull’! Buster is the best fictional pony ever.
    While thinking about that, it occurred to me that most of the characters are riding animals which have the same characteristics as themselves –
    Nicola/Buster – sensible and brave.
    Ginty/Catkin – flighty, makes a fuss about nothing.
    Peter/Prisca – mostly seems reliable but has a ‘famous stop’.
    Lawrie/hired horse -good at looking after itself, cunning.
    Rowan/3 yr old thoroughbred – too young for what they’re doing, trying very hard not to offend anyone.
    Pam/Chocbar – calm, looks nice, behaves as expected to.
    Patrick/The Idiot Boy – well, it’s in the name, isn’t it.

    1. Ann, I love that rider/ horse analysis. The Idiot Boy! Yes, he is!

      I hadn’t paid much attention to Buster before this, but he’s so adorable in this chapter. I loved the way he edged his way through all the horses so he’d be right at the front, ready to follow his “darling hounds”. And then after all his dramatic hedge-clearing and Cut-leaping, he turns into an “old gentleman” again at the end, and takes Nicola safely home.

  2. Ann, that is a wonderful observation! Lawrie’s pony is even acting! Brilliant!

    I’m not going to begrudge Rowan a drink at the pub, though with all she has on her plate she will probably be an alcoholic by the time she’s twenty.

    “Delicious comfort of being Jason” is one of the things that convinces me that Antonia Forest knew exactly what she was talking about.

    Love the scene with Nicola and the fox — experiencing the real, rich rewards of being truly in the world and the moment, rather than fantasising like all the others, who may believe they are enhancing what they’re experiencing by adding Gondal, but are actually distancing themselves from it. At least I think that’s what Forest intends.

  3. I love the hunt scene so very much. If I had to put a single Antonia Forest chapter in an anthology, this would be it. The thing that stands out to me about Peter’s Room is how many set-pieces it has – these gorgeous scenes that are set a little apart from the main narrative, almost like short stories embedded in the text. Sprog’s death, Nicola and Rowan in the kitchen at night, Nicola walking Buster home from the hunt. And the way it captures the intense, shifting moods of adolescence – in the space of 24 hours or so, we have the party and Nicola’s deepening sense of left-out-ness, her depression before the hunt, the terror and elation of the hunt itself, and then this transcendent, unforgettable experience coming home from the hunt.

    1. Yes, Katy, that was exactly what I was thinking when I finished this chapter – that it was almost a complete short story in itself, and that last part with the moonlight walk and the fox was really beautiful writing.

  4. Personally I would disagree that Patrick is a total idiot; I think he thinks differently and and can get carried away by his imagination but is mostly well intentioned. Possibly we are going to get a disagreement. Also, he doesn’t much like Wordsworth. But Patrick in relation to Dostoevsky is quite interesting.

  5. I like Patrick- teenagers are selfish and inconsiderate so these are realistic traits. He is also highly intelligent and socially inept. He is much more realistic than some of the perfect characters in other books

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