This is a LONG post but I wanted to finish off the book.
Chapter Nine: The Prosser
Nicola’s hand has healed, with a cool scar that is “miles bigger than Peter’s titchy one” and Miss Cromwell gives them all their exam results. Unfortunately, very few of Lower IV.A actually read their exam paper instructions, even though Miss Cromwell warned them to do so, and they failed to notice a tricky bit that said that the first section was worth very few marks compared to the later sections. Most of them just worked from start to finish, so even Miranda and Meg Hopkins end up with scores in the forties and thirties. This is horrendously unfair, think the class, but I’m with Miss Cromwell on this one. Better they learn this lesson now than during their O or A levels.
However Nicola, who wasn’t even in class when everyone else got the warning, actually read her paper properly and so Nicola is top of the class this term. Combined with her good marks throughout the year, this means she wins the Form Prize! And maybe, possibly, this will get her closer to the Prosser … except then Berenice, Meg Hopkins’ friend, tells them that poor Meg is very distressed because her horrible father stops speaking to her whenever she doesn’t come first or second in class AND the school had told Meg’s parents she was in the running for the Prosser, which is now in doubt for her, so her father may never speak to her again. Miranda asks Janice if the “trap-for-heffalumps bit” will really rule Meg out of the Prosser and Janice says probably not, if the teachers have already decided. Poor Nicola’s hopes fade again.
Still, at least she gets to go into town to choose her book prize and have coffee with the other prize winners. Ann even lends Nicola her boater, against school rules. Ann is being very sensible and mature here, because she’s also had to give up Guides due to turning sixteen and she donates her uniforms and all her badges to the school. Nicola thinks she should at least keep her badges to show her grandchildren, but Ann says “Who says I’ll have any grandchildren?” Maybe she’s planning to become a nun. She does keep her silver trefoil Guides badge, though.
In Wade Abbas, Nicola has £2 to spend on any book she likes, “as long as it’s suitable for presentation on Speech Day”. I looked up how much that would be now and it seems to be worth about £20, which would now buy her two new paperbacks or one not-too-expensive hardcover from Waterstones. Nicola notes that the new books in the shop that look interesting cost more than £2, but fortunately, they’re allowed to look through the second-hand books, too. Ah, the sheer joy of being given some money and able to choose a book of your own and knowing it’s a special prize book! In a fit of nostalgia, I went looking for my school prize books from when I was about Nicola’s age. Here we are, I chose Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes, which I still love:
(It was very disappointing to get to senior school and realise they gave out boring scrolls instead of books for prizes, even for School Dux.) Nicola searches for ages, then finds a beautiful 1834 two-volume set of the Iliad, in Greek with notes in Latin, so old it’s priced at 7/6. Miss Cartwright is amused by the selection, asking if Nicola thinks she’ll ever learn to read them, but agrees that they’re splendid. As the two of them are walking to the coffee shop, Nicola asks how Marie Dobson is and it’s revealed that MARIE IS DEAD! She had flu that affected her heart and seemed to be getting better but then she suddenly jumped up “to switch on Top of the Pops” and her heart stopped.
I very much doubt that a teacher would know or repeat the Top of the Pops bit – I think it’s just so that Antonia Forest can emphasise how shallow and stupid Marie was. I am offended on Marie’s behalf. This was the sort of thing on Top of the Pops at the time, although I suppose if the school thinks The Mask of Apollo is scandalous, they’d have a fit about Freddie Mercury in skin-tight satin trousers, singing about a call-girl.
Anyway, Nicola is understandably shocked about poor Marie (“Marie wasn’t—not—not enough of a person to die”) and so are the rest of Lower IV.A. This section is beautifully written, psychologically astute and very funny:
“…they felt required to be sorry and speak well of the girl: two things not honestly possible. Propriety, however, and an alarmed awareness that if Marie could die, so could any of them, had led most people to abandon honesty, as if a little harmless insincerity would propitiate the fates.”
After much arguing, the girls all decide on the wording for a letter signed by the whole class to send to Marie’s parents. Tim eventually agrees to sign it, but is very cross about the whole thing:
“Stupid girl…I just don’t see why she had to die. It’s so unnecessary. I always think dying’s unnecessary.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad if we’d liked her,” said Nicola gloomily.
“You mean you want people you like to die?”
“No. Just I’d rather be properly sorry if I’ve got to, if you see what I mean.”
Lawrie hates it so much (“I don’t see why they had to tell us anyway”) that she disappears up a tree and won’t come down until they agree to stop talking about the subject.
Poor, pathetic Marie. That’s the end of her, then.
After that, it’s Speech Day when Nicola will find out about the Prosser. Her mother, Karen, Chas and Rose are late because their car broke down, so Nicola can’t find out before the ceremony if she really will be leaving school. Poor Nicola is sick with worry as she sits through the speeches. She does get to go on stage to collect her prize, and the Classics don is very impressed with young Karen’s sister (“such a pleasure to find someone as young as herself with a genuine interest in the classics”) and Nicola feels a bit of a fraud (“now she’d have to learn Greek to make it true”). Perhaps Edwin Dodd can teach her.
Then they announce the Prosser Award and it goes to … Lawrence Marlow. WHAT?! Because they think she’s going to become a famous actress and they were impressed with her maturity in giving up the role of Ariel because she couldn’t do it justice! Lawrie, typically, hasn’t been paying any attention during the speech and has no idea what’s going on.
Then the school sings Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A girls’ school, singing that, of all hymns. That’s it. I’ve had it with this ridiculous school.
Chapter Ten: The Play
When Mrs Marlow is congratulated on her talented daughters, she says, “Nicola, perhaps, though I’m told it was something of a fluke. Lawrie, I’m afraid, has just been rather lucky—”
I’ve totally had it with Mrs Marlow, too. It was NOT luck with Nicola. She STUDIED and she READ THE INSTRUCTIONS and she DESERVED HER PRIZE.
Chas says, “Lawrie is Lucky, but Nicola is Nicer”, which is true.
Poor Meg Hopkins. Even though Nicola realises Lawrie’s award allows all the Marlows to stay at Kingscote, she thinks she’d rather Meg got the award than undeserving Lawrie. Then Miranda, sick with nerves before the play and unable to eat (the dress rehearsal was a nightmare), asks Nicola to keep her father company at dinner, because he likes Nicola. So they go off to Wade Abbas’s fanciest hotel and have champagne and discuss his personal collection of mourning ornaments, then she watches the play with him. Miranda doesn’t get on with her mother, but her father seems very nice. In fact, all the mothers in this series are pretty awful – either actively awful, like Esther’s mother and the Marlow grandmother, or passively awful, like Mrs Marlow. Mr West is nice and so is Patrick’s father.
The play looks magnificent and Miranda and Jan and everyone else in the cast are amazing. Rowan turns up to pick up Mrs Marlow, Karen and the children in the Landrover and has a chat to Jan. After Jan leaves, Rowan explains Jan’s father is a surgeon, so couldn’t make it, and Jan’s mother is mysteriously never mentioned (either dead, mad, crippled, run away or in jail, possibly). Chas liked “the pirates” in the play and Rose felt sorry for Caliban and couldn’t understand why everyone hated him, but Nicola explains:
“There just are people like that and you can’t like them–” Like Marie Dobson.
Which is a bit unfair on Marie. It’s not as though she went around trying to rape people, the way Caliban did. Although the Kingscote production probably edited that out.
Nicola finally gets to have a brief chat with her mother, who is vaguely apologetic. She says Rowan made her tell Nicola about having to leave school and she couldn’t relieve Nicola’s worries earlier because Miss Keith only told her about the Prosser that afternoon. All these adults are totally useless.
I suppose Miss Cromwell’s all right. Nicola sees her, an Unstrange Shape, in the driveway and attempts to explain why she’d been on the roof that day, but Miss Cromwell already knows. (Maybe Miss Cromwell really was on the roof, as the cover illustration showed?) She also already knows about Meg’s awful father, but none of the teachers have been able to change his horrible behaviour so far.
Back in the dorm, Ginty’s sulking because she wasn’t in the play and Lawrie is having a tantrum because her prize is a collected Shakespeare First Folio when she wanted separate plays. When Nicola agrees to swap it for her Idiot Boy share, Lawrie changes her mind, then has a sobbing fit because she wanted to play Caliban… Honestly, how can the teachers possibly have given her a prize for being mature and self-aware?
Chapter Eleven: The Cricket Final
Actually, it’s the school diving cup first. I think there have been way too many sports competitions by now. In their divisions, Nicola comes third, Miranda fourth, Lawrie sixth, Monica second and Ginty bombs out. Her friends say it’s nerves, but Ginty claims she deliberately did badly so that Monica would win, because Monica had dropped out of the play for her. Unsurprisingly, Monica is not happy about this. Ginty’s friends don’t seem very nice, except for Monica.
Evil Lois wins her diving division, then the Sixth Formers get ready for the cricket final. Lois is doing her usual ‘Oh, I pulled a muscle’ trick in case she plays badly in the cricket and Janice calls her on that. Janice also thinks it would be quite fun if the Lower IV.A win and Lois is furious at the very notion that “those ghastly brats” might triumph. I get the feeling Lois is going to get her comeuppance soon.
Lower IV.A bat first and the twins open the batting because they’re used to fast bowling from their brother and Rowan. They face down Evil Lois’s fierce bowling and Janice’s less-fierce bowling for a whole hour and score fifty-two runs. I liked Janice’s comment later: “The first hour, whoever you bowled to, there was the same face, daring one to do one’s worst. It felt quite uncanny.” Lawrie is eventually bowled out, but Nicola stays in until they get to 91, then valiant Pomona and Berenice plod along for a while, to Lois’s immense frustration, till they’re all out for 106.
Then it’s the Sixth Formers turn to bat. They really only have Lois and Janice who are any good, and Nicola manages to bowl and catch Janice out for a duck. Then Esther, bless her, manages a hat-trick, although “petrified by success, her remaining balls could have been safely hit by an energetic seven-year-old”. The rest of the Sixth batters are rabbits, with Lois making sure she does all the batting and calls all the runs. Finally it’s just Lois and useless Val Longstreet, and Nicola can’t bring herself to bowl out the Head Girl on her last day at school. It looks like the Sixth will get enough runs to win, but wait, Lois has slogged the ball, Nicola runs to stop it, Val gets confused about whether she has to run another or not, Nicola hurls the ball at the wicket and takes out the bail … and Lower IV.A wins! Hooray for Nicola! Evil Lois is defeated at last!
Lois refuses to join in the reminiscing of the other Sixth Formers on their last day ever in the Common Room and sulks in a corner. I suppose we should feel sorry for her, because it doesn’t seem likely she’ll ever improve. But who knows, maybe she will?
Chapter Twelve: Breaking Up
There’s one final assembly, when Nicola gets to collect the Cricket Cup. Then she reads a letter that Edwin has sent. It turns out the “A.M.” martyred at Tyburn was Anthony Merrick, and that young Nicholas, the actor, married Bess Burby or Burbage. This reminds Nicola that Crommie had mentioned an actor called Richard Burbage AND he was listed in Lawrie’s First Folio. So she goes off to the library to find out, where she meets Janice. Janice says she’d nearly “shouted with rage” about Lawrie getting the Prosser, but explains it was probably Keith’s way of stopping other parents complaining about yet another Marlow getting it – Lawrie’s theatrical talent is so unusual, you see. Janice also mentions she loathes Keith and hasn’t much liked school. She says, “I don’t much care for being shut up with hordes of other females”, which does not sound very lesbian of her, so poor Miranda probably won’t get to bump into Janice at Gay’s The Word or the Gateways in ten years time and begin a passionate lifelong affair. Janice is supposed to be studying science, but her elder brother has turned into a hairy pop star and is no longer joining her uncle’s solicitor firm, so she’s thinking she might do that.
Janice also explains that Richard Burbage was the Elizabethan version of Olivier and Gielgud — the first Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Prospero. So if Nicholas Marlow married his daughter, then Lawrie is his descendant. But best not to tell her that.
Miranda comes in to ask Janice for her address so she can write to her. NOOO, MIRANDA, DON’T! It’s over! Say a dignified farewell, then find someone else, for your own sake!
As Nicola is rushing off to meet Miranda on the roof, she runs into Lois and they are forced to interact. Lois says “we do rather seem to have got across one another…well—it’s been rather a pity, that’s all.” Urgh! Nicola says “Good-bye, Lois” (no good luck) and that’s it, although she reflects that it’s been interesting knowing Lois — not good, but interesting.
And that’s THE END.
I liked this. There was a bit too much sport to make this my favourite book of the series, and Ginty and Lawrie were both completely awful, but there was lots to enjoy. My favourite bits were:
– Miranda and Nicola’s friendship
– that Nicola and Tim seemed to get on fairly well in this book
– the girls’ reactions to Marie’s death
– Miss Cromwell! She’s pretty good, for a Kingscote teacher
– Esther’s developing confidence and Pomona being so reliable and unflappable
– everything Janice did, but especially the conversation with Miss Craven and Evil Lois, with Janice stirring away…
It doesn’t look as though I can buy The Ready-Made Family from GGB, due to COVID, and I’m not enthusiastic about the next two Marlow books, because reliable sources tell me they’re not very good. I was planning to read the whole series, but my experience with Rivers of London has taught me it’s better to end on a high note. So I think this might be my last Antonia Forest read-through at Memoranda. Thank you to everyone who’s commented on these posts and special thanks to Kate C for introducing me to these books. Multos gratias!