Children’s Literature (3)

In last Saturday’s Guardian Review, John Mullan reviewed AN Wilson’s “The Mystery of Charles Dickens,” and quoted him on a famous section of “Dombey and Son” –


“The death of Paul Dombey is so schmaltzy that we simply refuse to be moved, but then, dammit, we read and the tears well down our cheeks.”

This struck me as almost exactly the reaction to Paul’s death that the fictional Nicola Marlow has in Antonia Forest’s “The Cricket Term” (1974). How many children’s book characters have opinions on Dickens, or any other authors, for that matter?

Antonia Forest is my third Children’s Literature Hero(ine).

(Someone said they expected Lewis or Tolkien on this little list – well, yes, they should both have been included in the Hon Mentions for Narnia and “The Hobbit”, but I don’t primarily think of them as children’s writers.)

I suspect Forest requires more explanation than most. She is now almost unheard of, she was never a household name, and many of her books are out of print. But her fans are fanatical.

According to Wikipedia, she lived from 1915 to 2003 and was born Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein. She was part-Jewish but converted to Catholicism in 1946. She published 13 books, 12 of which deal with the Marlow family, past and present.

They deal with them in a slightly odd way. Her most admired are the four boarding-school stories “Autumn Term”, “End of Term”, “The Cricket Term”, and “The Attic Term.” These are fairly conventional-in-form stories about the lives of the twins at 20th-century boarding school – conventional except in being at least twice as good as the best of the rest. (My view.)

But the Marlow family also have holidays, and there are seven books about them out of school, books which also include their brothers, their neighbours, their pets. In these books they have very varied adventures, ranging from foiling drug smugglers, to acquiring a new brother-in-law with three motherless children, to inventing swashbuckling adventures for themselves in imitation of Emily Bronte.

And there are two books (really one story in two volumes) about their past history. “The Player’s Boy” and “The Players and the Rebels” are possibly my favourite historical novels ever, and if you want to know more see my Goodreads review here:

Astonishingly, when Forest first wrote “Autumn Term” in 1948 she intended it to be a one-off.

There are some downsides to loving Forest, especially for a Protestant socialist.

The Marlow family lives on a Dorset farm that has been in their family for four hundred years (at least.) Their father is a naval commander; their elder brother is in the Navy, and their younger brother is a naval cadet. The local MP lives on the next-door farm, which has belonged to his family for four hundred years (at least.) There are eight Marlow children, and the family seems a little aggrieved that it’s expensive to send six girls to boarding school. In the holidays (apart from the adventures listed above) they go hunting, keep falcons, sell each other ponies, and attend a fantastically posh-frocks Twelfth Night party.

Forest was also not merely a Catholic, but a traditionalist Catholic, who disapproved of Vatican Two and the introduction of Mass in English. She conveys these views through the neighbouring Merrick family, especially teenage Patrick who is the only traditionalist boy at his Catholic boarding school.

Don’t get me started on who does the housework, or on the views of many Marlows that rules are for other people. (Rowan picks up her younger siblings from school in a car which she is too young to legally drive. “If you mean, is it legal, obviously not. If you mean, can I drive well enough, yes I can.” We are meant to like Rowan. But what was their mother thinking?)

Some of these aspects are accentuated by the fact that between “Autumn Term” (published in 1948) and “Run Away Home” (published in 1982) about two years have passed in Marlow-time, but 34 years in real time, and each book has a “contemporary” setting for its date. Which leads to a lot of oddities: everyone revering Churchill and the cleaning lady calling the children “Master Peter” and “Miss Nicola” in earlier works, and the coinage changing from imperial to decimal.

“The Thuggery Affair”, about drug smuggling, has dialogue written in possibly very accurate teddy-boy slang, which is almost incomprehensible now, and may even have been in 1965.

Heigh ho. The books are wonderful. The prose, which I love, makes almost no concessions to children. “The Thuggery Affair” begins

“The gusty air, sodden with midnight rain, still smelt of darkness and time out of mind, though the last of the dark had dwindled into daybreak and the reflections of the pollarded willows wavered across the snail-grey surface of the river. Lawrie Marlow sploshed her gumboots gently in the inch or so of water in the bottom of the canoe, wondered a little was it safe for it to be there and decided not to mention it.”

(Instead she fantasises about her own heroic death rescuing her brother from drowning, going so far as to compose “a front page story for the Colebridge and District Mail”. I do love the monstrously egotistic Lawrie.)

NOTE AND CONCESSION: Unfortunately, when researching this post, I flicked through “The Thuggery Affair,” and I have to concede that it isn’t the best otherwise, has a lot of melodrama, and – ouch – has the words “prehistoric aborigine” used as an insult between siblings. 1965, remember.

But back to what’s good – the dialogue. I’m sure it’s Forest who inspired me to create my Rules for Really Good Dialogue:

Really Good Dialogue should: a) be entertaining to read; b) be in character; c) move the plot forward; d) be naturalistic but not too naturalistic, see a) ; e) follow on logically, eg you cannot follow “Did you know that war has been declared?” with “How terrible. Jenny has just finished her research paper,” even if you really want both these pieces of information to feature in the conversation.

These rules are really hard, but Forest’s dialogue keeps them better than any author I know, with the occasional exception of c), because:

Her characters are real people, and real people who grow. Part of this means (here is where we came in) that they talk and think about other things than the plot and each other. Nicola has unfavourable opinions about Dickens. Lawrie never reads “The Lord of the Rings,” despite her siblings’ recommendation, because “in ‘The Hobbit’ the goblins ate the ponies.” Such a tiny point in “The Hobbit,” but how it resonates. Nicola and her elder sister Karen start “The Ready-Made Family” arguing about Jane Austen.

Nor is it all books. Their friend Tim Keith, unlike Nicola and Lawrie, doesn’t like cricket, but she doesn’t approve of teams playing for a draw. “Much better to be just beaten, which is what you are.” There is a tiny but moving chapter in “Peter’s Room” which has nothing to do with the plot, but simply describes Nicola’s agony over the death of her pet.

You may note that I’m quoting mainly from the holiday books, having said that the school ones are more admired. I gave away most of my copies long ago, because I was wrongly embarrassed to own books with titles like “End of Term.” I wish I hadn’t.

Unlike many authors of school stories, she is aware that teachers have flaws and prejudices, and that your school life isn’t the most important section of it. (The contrast with, say, “The Chalet School” books is marked, and deliberate.) The narrative voice is detached from either pupil or staff.

Two more points: in the character of Miranda West she describes genteel British anti-semitism back in 1959. “Very, very occasionally, you get people who don’t like being friends with Jews…. People I’ve made friends with skating, and invite them to tea, and then they find out in a terribly embarrassed way that their mother’s going out.” (Or something like that.)

And when I was a younger fan, I wrote to her. She wrote back, two detailed, individual letters engaging with my points. According to her Guardian obituary, other people had this experience too.

This is the last of my Children’s Lit posts, though I’m still open to guests on this topic. Next time (26th June?) something different.

Love from the PPI Blogger


1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    22nd June 2020 at 11:24 am Reply

    One of the beauties of children’s books is that they are for children, an obvious comment. I do believe as we read we learn to Reflect on the book and this comes gradually so that when we look back at these children’s books, as you are obviously are doing, you see things in them that he wouldn’t see as children. That means, when reading the book (sorry I never heard of the author) you can enter into the stories and really enjoy them, which you obviously did and I wish as a child I have read some of her books. I loved school stories As a child, coming from a working class background, and going to an inner city poor school, they were so far from anything I have experienced and I thought they were wonderful. Anything that engages children in reading books or comics is to be encouraged and even if we look back at some of the things with and shudder it was part of the journey which brought us to where we are today.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections on this author.

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