‘The Cricket Term’, Part Three

Chapter Four: Assorted Disappointments

I’m so confused by the timeline of these books, even allowing for the time travelling that allows decades to pass between one school year and the next. I’d assumed that this book was set in the first term of the school year because they’d just had a long, eventful holiday, but I think it’s actually the last term, because Jan is about to finish school. So does that mean this term runs from about April to June, and the holidays in which Karen got married were actually the Easter holidays, not the summer holidays? But wasn’t The Thuggery Affair set in those Easter holidays, when Nicola was staying with Miranda in London? Or maybe that was half-term, not Easter? Maybe I should just not think about this too hard.

Much like Hogwarts, the number of students in the form seems to change according to plot requirements. For my own reference, here are the students in Nicola’s form, Lower IV.A, whose form teacher is Miss Cromwell:

Nicola Marlow, Games Captain
Lawrie Marlow, in some danger of being demoted to Upper IV.B next school year
Thalia (Tim) Keith
Miranda West
Esther Frewen, Stationery Monitor
Sarah (Sally), Form Prefect
Jean Baker, Form Prefect, dim but kind, used to sit next to Lawrie at the back of the classroom
Linda Stratton, now sits next to Nicola, will probably be demoted to Upper IV.B next year
Barbara (Barby) Wateridge, Door Monitress
Marie Dobson, currently has COVID, I mean “a feverish cold”, so not back at school yet
Pomona (Pippin) Todd
Elizabeth (Liz) Collins, used to be in Third Remove with the twins
Margaret (Meg) Hopkins, shy but gets high marks, friend of Berenice
Berenice Anderson, good at cricket but Nicola doesn’t like her much
Rosemary Wright, will probably go into Upper IV.B
Elaine Rees, another probable Upper IV.B
Margaret Sutton, another probable Upper IV.B

There may be other, unnamed students. I wonder what happened to Jenny Cardigan? I liked her name. We don’t find out who is Flower Monitor or Tidiness Monitor this term.

So, due to flu last term, they have school on Saturday mornings, half-term break is cancelled and all outings are banned. Sounds like a great way to create exhausted, demoralised, rebellious students. Miss Cromwell is as strict as ever, but it’s revealed “no actual harm came of standing up to Crommie every now and then” and she does occasionally exhibit signs of a sense of humour.

Pomona has been moved up to Lower IV.A from the B form and Miss Cromwell accidentally announces it in a way that allows Tim to be mean about Pomona’s weight. Fortunately, many of the other girls, including Nicola, think that Pomona is “much improved” since her tantrum-throwing Third Remove days, so hopefully she’s not being bullied as much as she used to be.

Miss Cromwell then orders Nicola to go and see Miss Kempe, who’s in charge of the play, but when Nicola finally tracks the teacher down, Miss Kempe assumes she’s Lawrie:

“I am Nicola, actually,” said Nicola apologetically.
Are you now? Yes, perhaps you are, after all…”

Miss Cromwell also wants all the staff to know about the twins’ new seating arrangements in class – maybe the identical twins thing is going to be an important plot point again.

The Kempe meeting is just about how to manage Nicola singing Ariel’s songs, but does confirm that Lawrie will be Ariel, full stop. (Lawrie remains convinced she’s Ariel, question mark.)

Nicola is, predictably, taking her Games Captain role very seriously, or as Tim tells her, “doing your Marlow thing … being very very competent and very very keen.” Nicola has booked the cricket nets and pitch for practice every evening, but someone has been crossing out her name on the list. Is it Tim? No, Tim is so uninterested in cricket that she doesn’t even know they use nets. Of course, it’s Evil Lois, who stalks up and announces that lower forms are only allowed the terrible pitch behind the Pavilion and only twice a week. After she’s gone, Tim suggests that maybe, Lois is doing this behind Miss Craven’s back. Tim admits that Lawrie has told her the whole story about Lois lying and getting the twins in trouble at Guides and then throwing Nicola out of the netball team. Nicola is shocked by Lawrie’s inability to keep a secret (really? it’s Lawrie, for heaven’s sake) and Tim is amazed at Nicola’s refusal to tell Miranda or anyone else while Lois is still at school.

“You mean it might get around and she’d be clobbered? Why on earth should you mind that? You don’t even like her.”

But Nicola is being all noble and stiff-upper-lip and Marlowish about Lois. Nicola does have the good idea of having cricket practice early in the morning, before breakfast, so take that, Lois. Meanwhile, Tim is trying to design Tempest costumes and thinks about painting “real” magic signs on Prospero’s cloak, to Nicola’s alarm, because it might raise real demons – although on the positive and hilarious side, the demon might carry off Val Longstreet, their useless Head Girl. It’s nice to see Nicola and Tim getting along for a change.

Then the cast list goes up for The Tempest:

Prospero – Janice!
Miranda – Rachel Wilmot, understudy Naomi Lane
Caliban – Geraldine Hume
Ferdinand – Honor Seton
Ariel – Lawrie, understudy Miranda
Ariel singer/doppelgänger – Nicola, understudy Helen Bagshaw
Antonio – Denise Fenton, understudy Victoria Taylor
Juno – Elisabeth (Isa) Cardigan (Jenny Cardigan’s sister! Is A Cardigan!)
Reapers – Morris Group
Mariners – Emma Hillary, Monica
Nymphs – Natalie Hart, Eve Price and others who learn ballet
Strange Shape! – Pomona!

Ginty, who deliberately didn’t try in her audition, is devastated that she’s nothing, not even a Strange Shape. Her five friends, including Monica, are all in it and are surprised she isn’t even a nymph, but then one points out that the Marlows dominated the Christmas Play and really, she’s lucky to have extra time for swimming practice. And then Ginty pulls a four-leaf clover out of the lawn and then Monica bravely goes to Miss Kempe to say she wants out of the play. Ginty really is lucky: “it was fantastic to be the sort of person for whom others leapt to sacrifice themselves.” Ginty is a bit like Lawrie, awful but realistic.

Chapter Five: Postcard from Home

A short chapter in which two things happen.

Firstly, Nicola finishes reading The Mask of Apollo, but then Rowan sends a postcard reminding her to send it back to the library because it’s overdue and Miss Cromwell finds out about Nicola having an illegal book. Nicola admits committing this Mortal Sin and explains why she liked the book so much and Miss Cromwell is sympathetic, perhaps because Nicola has been doing so well at her schoolwork lately. Nicola says she thinks it was only breaking a regulation, but Cromwell says,

“Four hundred people living check by jowl need regulations, if only to protect the weak from the bullies and the foolish from their folly.”

(I haven’t noticed much protection from bullies for poor drippy Marie, and the teachers have been responsible for plenty of folly so far.)

Then Miss Cromwell asks Nicola why the book was limited to senior students and Nicola says it’s possibly “Because Nico liked men better than women, you mean?” (Oh Nicola, just wait till you read The Charioteer.) Her punishment is to read a long list of Cromwell-approved books, including Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, which really is a punishment.

The second thing is that all the early morning cricket practice pays off and in the first round of the tournament, Lower IV.A thrash Upper IV.B in less than forty minutes, with Esther bowling someone out, Pomona being a reliable wicket keeper, and Sally and Miranda making a good batting partnership. Evil Lois watches with feigned nonchalance, then slithers away, ha ha.

Next, Chapter Six: Letter from Home

‘The Cricket Term’ by Antonia Forest

I am very happy to be back at Kingscote with Nicola and her friends and enemies for Book Eight of the Marlows series, although it’s been three years since I read End of Term and some of the details of that have faded from my memory. Unfortunately, Girls Gone By decided not to publish Book Seven, The Ready Made Family, but hopefully I won’t need to know about family events from the previous book to understand what’s going on in The Cricket Term.

The cover of this book is not quite as bad as The Thuggery Affair, but it’s not great:

'The Cricket Term' by Antonia Forest front cover

Presumably that’s Nicola in her old blue uniform, looking sad as she clutches something. A failed exam paper or a distressing letter? A student wearing the new red uniform hovers in the background appearing concerned. Is that Miranda? Esther? A prefect? It can’t be Lawrie, who has never in her life been worried about anyone else’s feelings. The back cover features a teacher in a billowing gown, looking like a benevolent vampire as she gazes upon the two girls:

'The Cricket Term' by Antonia Forest back cover

I have so many questions. Why are they all on the roof instead of watching the cricket match? Who is Head Girl this year? Will Evil Lois conspire to throw Nicola off whatever team sport is being played this term (cricket, presumably)? Will there be a school play, with more drama surrounding the casting than on the stage? Is Miranda still in love with Janice? Has Esther finally been reunited with Daks? Is Marie still a pathetic drip? Let’s find out.

Chapter One: Home—

At Trennels, Nicola, Lawrie and Ann pack their bags to return to school — that is, Nicola packs her own suitcase and Ann packs for Lawrie, even though their mother orders Ann to stop acting as everyone else’s unpaid servant. In yet another horrifying revelation about Kingscote’s rules, girls are only allowed to take ONE BOOK to school each term! And it has to be an approved book, which The Mask of Apollo isn’t for Nicola, because it’s only suitable for those in Upper Fifth and above! I haven’t read The Mask of Apollo, but I can’t imagine what’s so scandalous about it — unless the teachers are worried that girls will then start reading Mary Renault’s non-historical books, like The Charioteer and The Friendly Young Ladies, and develop worrying ideas about same-sex relationships. Nicola’s other chosen book is Ramage, some Hornblower-ish novel. Ann, the prig, refuses to smuggle Apollo into school for Nicola, and Lawrie is being a brat and refuses to do Nicola a favour unless Nicola swaps her share of The Idiot Boy, Patrick’s “outgrown pony”. Why would Nicola have a share of The Idiot Boy? Has something happened to Buster? Ginty, by the way, is off snogging Patrick at his house. Maybe not snogging, perhaps just discussing hunting or falconry or Catholic martyrdom.

Oh, good grief, now Karen, the family’s brilliant scholar, has dropped out of Oxford to marry some ancient don who has three children! This is only a year since she left school, so she can’t be more than nineteen years old. What is wrong with this family? Isn’t it bad enough that poor Rowan had to leave school to act as unpaid labourer on a farm she’ll never inherit? Now Karen’s an unpaid housekeeper and nanny for a man probably old enough to be her father (please don’t tell me he was her teacher). I don’t know why they can’t live at Oxford, but they all moved to Trennels, then when that got too much for everyone, Karen moved her new family into the farm manager’s house, kicking out poor Mrs Tranter while Mr Tranter is in hospital. This works out for Karen, because she can send the children to the village school and then Colebridge Grammar and she gets her laundry done by her mother’s servants. Nicola belatedly realises how crafty and self-centred Karen is (“Honestly, you’re like Lawrie!”) and Karen smugly admits this.

Karen’s new stepchildren are Charles/Chas, Rose and Phoebe/Fob, of indeterminate school age. The elder two seem to like Nicola, possibly because she saved Rose’s life? Or at least, found Rose after the child ran away to Oxford a few weeks before? I don’t know whether their mother is dead or divorced. Meanwhile, they’re all eating bread-and-dripping and drinking orange-and-cream, which sounds revolting, while Karen toils away creating some elaborate pudding. She can’t possibly let her family eat “T.V things in packets” because that’s “so unenterprising”. This book is written, and presumably set, in 1974, but apparently none of the Marlow girls have gotten around to reading The Female Eunuch yet.

Chapter Two: Interval

Karen’s husband, Edwin Dodd, has copied some bits out of a sixteenth century Trennels farm log for Nicola (adding a glossary and notes in Latin because Edwin’s a pompous old show-off). The journal is about young Nicholas Marlow, who runs away from school after being beaten for saying something either blasphemous or treasonous, then is presumed dead for years, then turns up at his elder brother’s house and reveals he was at sea with Walter Raleigh. Nicola is, of course, very excited by this. Young Nicholas has also watched “AM” (a Marlow or a Merrick ancestor?) “suffer for the Faith” and die at Tyburn. Then he goes off to be a “player”.

Briefly, Nicola wished she were still friends enough with Patrick Merrick to go charging over, saying ‘Look at this!’

Poor Nicola, thrown over for Ginty. But you deserve better than Patrick, Nicola.

On the way home, Nicola meets Rowan and they discuss a money-making scheme to breed horses and have pony-riding at Trennels. Rowan also gives Nicola some advice about Evil Lois — “Just watch she doesn’t queer your pitch this term too” — and Nicola rightly points out there’s not much she can do about it if Lois does start plotting. Nicola is hoping they’ll win the inter-form cricket match and Rowan advises her not to focus too much on dramatic batting and double centuries, but to concentrate on fielding, bowling and batting singles. Rowan and Nicola both agree that given a choice of being awarded the DSO or scoring fifty against the dastardly Australians, they’d choose fifty against the Australians every time.

I think cricket is the second most boring game in the universe, after golf, so I hope there’s not too much of it in this book. But it sounds as though there will be.

Also, Nicola notes that the older Marlow sisters are unimpressed with Karen:

What with Kay’s silence over Edwin until she’d all but married him, and her crafty effort over the farmhouse, relations between her elder sisters seemed practically non-existent these days.

Did Karen suddenly drop out of Oxford and get married because she was pregnant?

The girls have a gloomy Last Dinner at Trennels before their mother drives them and Daks to the train station, with Nicola proudly wearing a battered old school hat handed down by three of her older sisters, to her mother’s horror.

Next, Chapter Three: -And Away

You may also be interested in reading:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Thuggery Affair’ by Antonia Forest

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

_____

  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

My Favourite Novels About Britain At War

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

Jamaican airmen stationed in England during the Second World War find that the ‘Mother Country’ is less welcoming than they’d expected.

2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault

A soldier wounded at Dunkirk and recovering in an English hospital falls in love with a conscientious objector working as a hospital wardsman.

3. Marking Time and Confusion from the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet family’s privileged lives are changed forever when England goes to war.

'Westwood' by Stella Gibbons4. Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Plain, bookish Margaret and her beautiful friend Hilda are drawn into the orbit of a pompous playwright in Blitz-battered London – but who is exploiting whom?

5. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Four Londoners – all on the outskirts of society because they’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, all terribly damaged by the war – have their interlinking stories gradually revealed in a clever narrative that travels backwards through the 1940s.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Three: The Friendly Young Ladies

Here is a true story about this book. (You know how people say this, then the story turns out to be not very extraordinary at all? This is one of those stories.)

When I was fifteen, my family moved house right at the start of the summer holidays, to yet another country town. I didn’t have any school friends, because I’d just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anyone of my age left in the surrounding streets – they’d all gone somewhere more interesting for the holidays, and besides, I would have been too shy to approach them if they had been around. As a result, I spent the entire summer in the town library. One day, I came across a dark green paperback with an old-fashioned painting on the front cover and ‘Virago’ written on the spine. I had no idea what ‘Virago’ meant, but I thought I’d give this one a go.

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary RenaultWell. It was a revelation. The girls in this book weren’t like the girls in any other books I’d read, or even like girls I knew in real life. All the girls I knew thought that the point of life was to make yourself as attractive as possible, so that lots of boys would fall in love with you, whereupon you would choose the most popular boy, fall in love with him, marry him, buy a nice house, fill it with nice objects and have a couple of nice children. I’d never had the slightest interest in doing any of those things, but I’d assumed I would when I finally ‘grew up’. This book dangled in front of me the tantalising possibility that I might grow up and still not want those things. The girls in this book wore whatever they felt like, and sometimes wore nothing at all; had fascinating jobs but no husbands or children; had lots of intriguing, oblique conversations with one another; and lived with their best female friends on houseboats. The word ‘lesbian’ was never mentioned, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it, anyway (it was the eighties, and I was a very unworldly teenager). As it was, quite a lot of the book went over my head, but I didn’t mind. I was absolutely loving swimming around in all that deep, opaque water.

I had to return the book eventually, but when I went to look for it a few weeks later, it was gone. Stupidly, I hadn’t written down the author’s name, and I couldn’t even recall the title – something about ladies? I wasn’t quite stupid enough to ask the librarian if she could locate ‘the green book about ladies’, but I made attempts to find it over the next few years, at that library, at other libraries, at various bookshops. Then I gave up and almost (but not quite) forgot about it.

Twenty-five years later, my friend H was on holiday in the UK and browsing through second-hand bookshops.

“Hey,” she e-mailed me. “I found this great book I think you’ll like. It’s really clever and funny, and it’s set in 1930s England, and it says on the back that it’s the antidote to The Well of Loneliness, so I thought of you straight away! Not that you’re anything like The Well of Loneliness.”

“I haven’t ever been able to bring myself to read The Well of Loneliness,” I e-mailed back. “Sounds too depressing.” Then something swam up from the depths of my memory. “Hang on. This book isn’t about two girls living a bohemian existence on a houseboat, is it?”

“Yes, and the little sister of one of them runs away from home and comes to live with them, and there’s this hilariously awful doctor who fancies himself as God’s gift to women and tries to seduce all three of them – for their own good, of course.”

“This book isn’t green, is it?”

“Yes, and it’s got a lovely painting of two girls in 1930s clothes on the cover.”

“And is there a scene where the little sister gets badly sunburnt, so they use green face powder to disguise it?” (For some reason, this was the scene that had stuck with me. Green face powder. Would that really work?)

“Maybe,” she said. “Haven’t got up to that bit yet. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished.”

And it was the very same book – well, the cover was different, but it was still green. It was Mary Renault’s 1944 novel, The Friendly Young Ladies, and it was just as good as I’d remembered. Lots of sharp social satire, and some wonderful insights into the convoluted thoughts and emotions of the characters. For example, here’s the self-satisfied doctor, who sees himself as a saviour of lonely female patients:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

There are also some funny, irreverent comments about writing and publishing. One character, who writes cowboy books, describes herself cheerfully as a “competent hack” and says,

“Personally I always think people are rather sickening who make out they could write better than they do. It’s like losing a game and then saying you didn’t try.”

And here she is, complaining about an editor who says he wants to see more romance in her manuscript:

“I did put a girl in. I’m sure I did. Her name was Susie, or Sadie, or something. And I mentioned her again at the end . . . I always think it would save such a lot of trouble if you could just indicate it with a row of crosses, or BERT LOVES MABEL, or something quick, and get on with the story.”

So, lots to enjoy – except for the conclusion, which I’d forgotten entirely. And this brings me to why this book is ‘dated’.

As with The Charioteer, there are no descriptions of any form of sex. In an afterword, written forty years after the book was first published, Renault says,

“I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter.”

That’s interesting, although I don’t agree with her. By her argument, if the characters have come to life in the first half of the book, then the reader ought to know how they’ll interact in the second half, so why bother writing the rest?

Renault also criticises the “silliness of the ending” of this book. She’s quite right, it is extremely silly, although so are some other aspects of the plot. As a discussion of this involves plot spoilers, I’ve hidden the next three paragraphs. Use your mouse to highlight the blank space (or use your browser to ‘select all’ text) if you’d like to read on.

It turns out Leonora, the tomboyish elder sister of runaway Elsie, had an unsatisfying sexual experience with her friend Tom when they were both teenagers. As a result, Leo has turned to women, and eventually ends up in a happy, satisfying, long-term partnership with the beautiful, talented Helen, who loves Leo devotedly but not possessively. It seems an ideal relationship, supportive without being suffocating. Leo is also close friends with Joe, who lives up the river from them. He’s handsome, clever, sensitive, a brilliant writer, from a wealthy family but not at all snobbish, able to fish, paddle a canoe, climb mountains, rescue drowning women and build houses with his bare hands. And, in the final chapters, he ‘cures’ Leo of her lesbianism by having (dubiously consensual) sex with her. Then Leo abandons Helen and goes off with him to America.

I mean, what?!

Renault thinks the conclusion is silly because Leo and Joe would have a chaotic domestic life, and this would prevent Joe from writing. I think it’s silly because Leo’s previous unsatisfactory heterosexual experiences are due to her being a lesbian, not the other way around, and that Leo abandoning Helen makes absolutely no sense.

Despite the conclusion, I think this is a terrific read. If you’re interested, Charles Taylor has written a very thoughtful review of the book.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

“The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

“I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

To which, another retorts:

“[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

(Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

Top Ten YA Books

Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

9. I am David by Anne Holm
A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.