Vulpes Libris

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Celebrating Antonia Forest: the grown-up children’s author

Perhaps it was inevitable that Antonia Forest should go out of fashion for a while. When you were born in 1915, put life on hold for war work, have your first novel published in 1948, and take the rest of a long life to write eight books about the same family, two books about their ancestors, and a lone novel with a different cast, a certain mis-match between you and the zeitgeist is hardly surprising.

The Marlow family may have been born into a world where children’s fiction just was middle-class, where boarding school was natural and crying in public the ultimate humiliation, but Forest’s ear for children’s language was acute, and her sense of emotional nuance and ambiguity even more so. In Peter’s Room (1961), the four younger Marlows, with their neighbour Patrick, are inspired by the young Brontës’ stories of Gondal and Angria to spend a snowbound Christmas acting out their own adventure. Were this not a children’s book, literary critics would long ago have flagged up the intertextual and genre-subverting nature of this text. As it is, when did Enid Blyton or Elinor M. Brent Dyer write anything like this? ‘Rupert’, played by Patrick, faces torture:

I will tell you – anything you want to know.

The play broke up in anger and astonishment.

‘But you can’t,’ cried Peter, outraged. ‘Rupert can’t do that.

That’s not what we arranged,’ exclaimed Lawrie furiously. ‘I was going to come and rescue you just when you were at your last gasp. You can’t just tell like that.’

‘I can,’ said Patrick, very pale, and shoving his hands into his pockets to hid their trembling. ‘I’ve just said so. Like you did about Jason at the beginning.’

‘But why?’

‘Because that’s how Rupert is. Fighting’s one thing, but he can’t stand the idea of being tortured.’

‘When did you know?’ asked Ginty curiously.

‘Just now,’ he lied. In fact, he’d known since that night in the garden… And for some reason he found it imperative to explore, under cover of Rupert, the twilights of cowardice and betrayal: partly, he wanted to know how it felt, partly, Rupert was undoubtedly that sort of person.

Not that Forest neglects the pleasures of the traditional school story. Her first novel, Autumn Term (1948 ) begins with Nicola, youngest Marlow but for her twin Lawrie, stopping the school train to recover her most prized possession. They’re following four highly successful sisters there (cause for a delicate mixture of pride and embarrassment, including why the oldest, Karen, makes a poor head girl), but their efforts to emulate and/or outshine their elders lead to one disaster after another. Only when their maverick friend Tim puts on a play which startles the whole school do they find their own way to exist there. Indeed, all the books explore theatre, role-playing and the ambivalent nature of the actor. Eventually there were three more Kingscote School novels: End of Term (1959), The Cricket Term (1974) and The Attic Term (1976). In the closed world of a boarding school term Forest investigates friendship, rivalry, hero-worship, siblinghood and enemies, as when Nicola recognises, not without humour, the difference between her two chief enemies: Lois is the more blameworthy ‘because Marie was grubby and drippish and couldn’t help it, whereas Lois was far from grubby or drippish, and could help it very well.’ That we also understand Marie’s fearfulness and insecurities, and the senior Lois’s tangled, neurotic and entirely convincing reasons for behaving as she does towards the much younger Nicola, is a measure of the skill of Forest’s characterisation.

Again and again questions of courage, betrayal, the difficulty of human relationships, and the humour and tragedy of the gap between how life ought to be and how it is, power and yet undercut apparently conventional plots. After Autumn Term, the Nuremberg trials inspired a thriller, The Marlows and the Traitor (1953), the traitor being one of Navy cadet Peter’s instructors, who takes them prisoner to cover his tracks. In Falconer’s Lure (1957) a summer holiday in the country becomes something else when their cousin and host is killed: their parents must take over the house and farm, Trennels, and the girls never go back to the London home of their childhood. Peter’s Room follows End of Term, and through the game Patrick, Nicola’s mentor and companion in riding and – fascinatingly – hawking, is drawn instead to beautiful Ginty. In The Thuggery Affair (1965) Forest takes on Mod-style teenage deliquency, and the slang to go with it. As she said herself, ‘Unfortunately, I think I was the only person to understand what my characters were saying, but still, try anything once.’ What is perhaps more unfortunate is that in the absence of Nicola, Forest focuses on Lawrie. We know very little about the pseudonymous Antonia Forest, an only child who was born Patricia Rubinstein, in Hampstead, to a Russian-Jewish father and an Anglican mother of Irish origin, but who herself converted to Roman Catholicism in 1946, and lived all her adult life in Bournemouth. Twins in fiction so often present two sides of the same personality: given clever, attractive, well-intentioned Nicola’s centrality, what ‘other side’ does Lawrie represent, a supremely gifted actress but otherwise a fearful, babyish, selfish, self-aggrandising and incompetent younger twin? Of all the Marlows only Ginty – beautiful, charming, clever and therefore (in Forest’s scheme of things) thoroughly spoilt – is treated as harshly by her creator, though Ginty’s glamour is also given its due, and never undercut by the comedy which Forest finds in Lawrie.

Always alive to the big moral issues which underlie family life, Forest’s next book, The Ready Made Family (1967), brings Karen home from Oxford to announce that she is marrying a widower twice her age, who has three children, and temporarily they will all have to squeeze into Trennels itself; the tensions mount, until Rose, the oldest child, runs away, and Nicola goes to find her. The last book which Forest published – Run Away Home (1982) – extends this to explore a custody battle in which the Marlows take a hand. By now, Forest’s opinions, which seem natural to the earlier books, are beginning to date badly: to her boys are preferable to girls, twins would always dress identically, the working classes are a backdrop to ordinary (i.e. middle class) life, fear is shameful, villainy and deliquency are caused by personal not societal failure, teenage sexuality is all but non-existent, and the Vatican Two reforms betrayed the Faith.

Indeed, a discussion of religion runs through all the books. The Marlows are technically Anglican but practically unreligious, while Patrick is from an old Catholic family. Nicola’s best friend Miranda is Jewish reform: the small anti-semitisms she describes came from Forest’s own experience, while Patrick’s family history of recusancy and martyrdom for the faith to which Forest converted is seen in all its historic glamour, and informs his own ambivalent attitude to courage and belief. End of Term, centred on the school Nativity play, explores these questions with most wonder and delicacy, while The Attic Term, one of the subtlest and most discomfitting of her books, takes on the Vatican, and sex.

Forest’s non-Marlow book, The Thursday Kidnapping (1963), concerning four children who accidently find themselves in charge of a baby, is the only one I haven’t read: when I began to collect Forest it was extremely rare and therefore very expensive. The Kingscote books were licensed to Puffin in the 70s, but the others were never big sellers and soon out of print, so I had to pay a lot of money to buy her two historical novels. The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels are essentially one book. Nicholas Marlow runs away from a 16th century Trennels and, to hide him from Christopher Marlowe’s murderers, is apprenticed to one of the sharers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men: Will Shakespeare. Forest breathes life into the familiar details of the Elizabethan theatre from Richard III to Twelfth Night: Nicholas conceals his breaking voice for long enough to play Viola – once – before the Queen. Now, in the era of Queer Studies and postmodernism, the books’ apparent obliviousness to some issues dates them and their author, but this, too, should not obscure her achievement. I can’t be the only writer of historical fiction to be much influenced by how her acute sense of language and period create the right voice and vision for this world; with her psychological and moral subtlety it results in a compelling portrait of a boy surviving in an age where political and religious differences could kill. And, quietly, the books get to the heart of writing and drama. Having witnessed the shambles of the Essex rebellion, in which the company has only just avoided being embroiled, Nicholas realises how it resembles the inglorious end of the traitors in an old play, Henry IV. ‘”Will,” he said, shaken, “it was like that. How did you know?”‘ and Will replies drily, ‘”I daresay there’s a family likeness in these affairs….”‘

For perhaps the same reasons that militated against best-sellerdom, Forest has a hard core of passionate fans. Autumn Term is now in Faber Children’s Classics, while Girls Gone By has republished many of the others, including in some cases introductions by Forest herself which give a rare insight into her work by this most private of authors. And at the end of this month Girls Gone By are publishing Celebrating Antonia Forest, which is edited by Sue Sims, to whose paper ‘The Life and Fiction of Antonia Forest’ I owe much in this piece.

28 comments on “Celebrating Antonia Forest: the grown-up children’s author

  1. rosyb
    July 10, 2008

    Wow – thanks Emma, that’s a pretty comprehensive overview and very interesting about the overarching themes and religion etc. I have read a few of the Marlow books including Autumn Term, The Ready-Made Family and End of Term and probably another of the Term ones – but I can’t remember which.

    The Ready-Made Family I perhaps remember best in terms of seeing such complex feelings and relationships through the eyes of an unsympathetic younger sibling who can’t really understand passion or love in that sense.
    But the attachment to some characters and not to others is the main reason why I only read some of them. Although the ones I read I liked a lot.

    They are complex and sophisticated, but I think as a child (or me as a child anyway) you do get attached to certain characters and I found I was drawn to some – Nicola particularly – but really couldn’t be bothered with the ones centring on Patrick and Ginty very much. Perhaps I was too young to be drawn to the romantic element – I don’t know. They just seemed to lack the humour and insightfulness about everyone around them. Lawrie might have been annoying, but she had enough good qualities to balance out the annoying ones.

    But I do also remember finding books themselves a bit annoying sometimes in terms of how they judge people – I seem to remember Rowan and the oldest brother (can’t remember his name – Oliver?) gone on about because they were brave and silent and generally a bit boring. I know this was through Nicola’s eyes but there was an approval and judgement cast over all the characters which was so often bound up with being in the navy or whatnot. People are judged for not being endlessly dutiful in whatever which way. Perhaps a sign of the times she was writing? But a little lacking in teenage “fun”. Perhaps that’s why i liked The Ready Made Family because it was judging Karen and then made you understand more. Although I suppose that was just replacing one set of duties with another when you think about it. So she was “good” because she was “dutiful” – again.

    Someone was asking on the “Coming up” thread when we mentioned this piece whether Antonia Forest was still in print? Are any of them still in print? Is Autumn Term?

    I know that they are becoming collectors’ items now (along with the Chalet school books we were discussing before).

    Thanks again for putting this together. Great piece.

  2. Lucy Diamond
    July 10, 2008

    Ohhh….I just loved the Marlow books. I so enjoyed reading this piece, thank you, Emma! I’m off to order Autumn Term for my eldest daughter immediately…

  3. Emma
    July 10, 2008

    Rosy, I do agree. I think a lot of it is simply her date – she keeps up-to-date with clothes and slang and so on, but there’s such a strong stiff-upper-lip thing going on, which sits much better with the earlier books, or even 1930s ones, than it does. But oh, her characterisation is vivid – I was dipping into them all to write the piece, and thinking how incredibly deftly she portrays, say, the teachers. My only quarrel is that there’s not a nice mother from first to last…

    Autumn Term’s in print, the other school ones were in Puffins, and are now easily available for a pound or five on Abebooks. Girls Gone By republished the non-school ones and the historicals: some of those are now out of print again, but therefore still much more available on Abebooks than a few years ago when they only had hugely expensive collectible hardbacks: the GGB website has links to the second-hand dealers who have them.

  4. Jackie
    July 10, 2008

    This author is virtually unknown here in the U.S., I don’t ever recall hearing about any of these books or seeing them in stores or libraries. Which is unfortunate, since they seem to give a strong picture of England in certain periods, which would be intriguing.Sort of like time capsules. They don’t sound as fluffy as many American books for youngsters. Thanks for introducing this American to the author.

  5. EmmaB
    July 10, 2008

    Bravo! A really thoughtful, perceptive piece on Antonia Forest, whose books I have always loved! And it’s fantastic to see more attention being given to this neglected, but supremely gifted, author. Since the advent of the web, it has become clear that there are large numbers of people who remember (and still read) Forest with enormous pleasure – verging on fanaticism! – not just me, as I foolishly used to think. Check out the Trennels community on Live Journal as just one example.

    I think the piece brings out Forest’s gifts for character, psychology and moral exploration very well. Possibly you make them sound a little solemn -I would also mention that they are often extremely exciting – Forest has a gift for action and the set-piece, just as much as psychological subtletly. The hunting scene in Peter’s Room is thrilling to read (regardless of what you think about hunting) and she can do the same with a cricket match or a gallop across the moors… They are also rich in humour, as you said, with much wit in the dialogue and narration, and they have a real feel for landscape with many memorable passages in the holiday books.

    The question of her elitism is an interesting one. As a child, her books never struck me as “upper class” – perhaps because so much children’s fiction was set in boarding-schools etc – or perhaps because Forest did such a good job of making her characters seem so ordinary: they may have gone to boarding-school, but they were always scrambling around for money; they went hunting – but only on borrowed mounts or a rented “old screw” – and then fell off! I admit I never liked Patrick – the real landed-gentry character – though clearly Forest did.

    The Thuggery Affair though, with its portrait of Jukie the delinquent – well, it struck me as sophisticated, searching, convincing and non-judgemental, and far superior to many other attempts at the same thing by other authors. Forest is so good at showing the nuances, the many-sidedness of life, that it came as a great surprise to me, for one, to discover after her death that she was a hard-line Catholic and fairly reactionary in her views. I would have assumed quite the opposite, because all her most attractive and central characters – Nicola, Nicholas, Will Shakespeare – are notably open-minded, uncertain, intrigued but fairly agnostic in their outlook (her portrait of Shakespeare really is fantastic by the way).

    You say: “By now, Forest’s opinions, which seem natural to the earlier books, are beginning to date badly: to her boys are preferable to girls, twins would always dress identically, the working classes are a backdrop to ordinary (i.e. middle class) life, fear is shameful, villainy and deliquency are caused by personal not societal failure, teenage sexuality is all but non-existent, and the Vatican Two reforms betrayed the Faith” –

    I do think that’s a bit sweeping. I do think Run Away Home is a weak book – books at the end of long series usually are. But although it seems to me Forest disliked society women specially (a lot of her nasty mums fall this category) her books are bursting with wonderful female characters – Nicola, Miranda, Tim, Janice etc are much more likeable to me than Patrick or Peter, and there are some interesting female teachers at Kingscote too. Certainly Forest would have viewed the intense glittery girlishness of so much contemporary child/adolescent – and for that matter, adult – culture with distaste – but to be honest, so do a lot of women now, watching the rise in eating disorders, and intense female insecurity from an early age, all based around looks. Maybe there will be a resurgence in Nicola Marlow style tomboyishness. Also I don’t think fear is ever shameful in Forest, although certainly some characters try hard not to show it (but most kids probably still try hard to conceal their weaknesses from their peers) and I don’t think her treatments of villainy and delinquency really point to causes at all, certainly not in any overt way. I also think Forest IS very interested in teenage sexuality – the whole Patrick/Ginty plot-line – which is probably more powerful for being not completely spelled out – and at the time she was writing, her publishers probably would not have let her spell it out.

    Fantastic piece, though. I especially loved this line: “the humour and tragedy of the gap between how life ought to be and how it is” – yes, that sums up Forest very well.

  6. EmmaB
    July 10, 2008

    “People are judged for not being endlessly dutiful in whatever which way…Although I suppose that was just replacing one set of duties with another when you think about it. So she was “good” because she was “dutiful” – again.”

    Rosy – I don’t agree with you here. The only duty-obsessed character in Forest’s books is Ann, who is clearly obnoxious and the reader is supposed to find her obnoxious. Most of the out-and-out “baddies” in Forest are bad because they are manipulative or devious or otherwise very plainly damaging to other people. I don’t think she’s hostile to non-dutiful types generally. The most non-stiff-upper-lip and clearly self-obsessed/self-indulgent central character is Lawrie and Forest presents her in an ambivalent way: shows that she is funny and good company and talented and likely to be successful – but also that she can be extremely inconsiderate/insensitive to other people.

    You are right about the older brother, Giles, though – he really is a pill.

  7. rosyb
    July 10, 2008

    Well, I kind of knew you’d arrive all guns blazing. 😉

    Rowan is boring and dutiful – taking over the farm, saying very little, no humour, no liveliness. Again, the flighty or “fun” characters – like Lawrie – ARE judged. The main character you are supposed to sympathise with – Nicola – trumpets on about the navy and how brilliant her older brother is and has a picture of Nelson on her bedside table for goodness sake!

    Of course, this is also quite original in a girl. But there is a certain – what should I call it? The “squashing into shape” that goes on in Blyton. Sometimes you feel the need for someone to stick their Vs up and just be rebellious.

    What I meant about Karen was that she is seen to be rash and stupid (marrying whatsit – can’t remember his name) and then you see that she is, in fact, taking on a whole other set of duties in terms of taking on a new family (no easy task). Approval restored.

    And there is a sense of the kind of George-style tomboyishness isn’t there? That boys, basically, are better. The one of the lads thing. I’m not so convinced that that is as liberating an attitude as you are making out here.

    Oh heck, I’m not sure VL is ready for a real sibling ruck. 😉

    I’ll add some winkies just to be sure. ;);):):0

  8. EmmaB
    July 10, 2008

    No, no, no and no!

    Rowan is a witty character, who has landed herself in a bit of a mess – a career she hates. How – if – that will resolve itself is just not clear. She urges Nicola to follow her own wishes, go off travelling round the world, NOT to do the sensible thing, NOT to worry about adult opinions and pensions for goodness sake!

    Lawrie is not “judged” for being fun and flighty. These are redeeming features, surely. She is sometimes pretty callous because she is so self-centred. I think she is a Marianne Dashwood character in a way – wrapped up in herself and blind to the needs of others – but found attractive by everyone, including (usually) the reader.

    There isn’t any “squashing into shape” either – not in the series as a whole. I do think in the earliest school story there is an element of that – but actually Forest was pretty clear that people are people, and can’t be reformed – they develop, certainly, but they are the way they are. Sometimes that’s good – sometimes not so good.

    Karen isn’t given approval for taking on a whole new set of duties – not at all. She hasn’t got married because she is interested in looking after her step-kids – that is very clear – but because she actually is attracted to her husband – who does in fact turn out to have more to him than everyone supposes.

    And now we’re entering very contentious waters – “George-style tomboyishness” – that because the main character is interested in sport, falconry and the navy that these are intrinsically boys activities and somehow representative of an hostility to girls….well, Forest was clearly extremely interested in lots of things, including the theatre, for example. I don’t think she was a big fan of domesticity, say, but would you really prefer her books if the heroine preferred cooking to falconry? Actually her characters do like dressing-up when the opportunity presents itself…but actually the fact that her heroines generally have other things on their mind is maybe rather appealing.

  9. EmmaB
    July 10, 2008

    We’re probably getting a bit esoteric here in any case – the key point is, these are really great books, and more people should read them!

  10. rosyb
    July 10, 2008

    Now, the trouble with this is that I am now being forced to argue more strongly than I might wish.

    Let’s get things clear: I enjoyed The Ready-Made Family very much and also the other titles I mentioned above. I think these books are quite sophisticated in terms of the questions they look at and the characterisation. But really, if I want to find Rowan dull – well I do. And I did! 😉

    And I really disagree about Lawrie who I thought was very judged. (But of course isn’t Marianne judged too? I think so.)

    I can’t ever hope to argue with a died-in-the-wool Forest fan such as yourself but I never said:

    “George-style tomboyishness” – that because the main character is interested in sport, falconry and the navy that these are intrinsically boys activities and somehow representative of an hostility to girls…”

    So that is not fair at all. I meant that it is reiterated (if my memory serves me right) over and over about how Nicola’s favourites are her brothers not her sisters. And for no good reason that I could ever ascertain.

    But, as I said, I am arguing the toss here as these are not necessarily huge and terrible criticisms and I did enjoy the books.

    (I really hope we aren’t putting off anyone else from commenting. Don’t mind us, everyone, we are from a very argumentative family. It’s all hot air.)


  11. EmmaB
    July 10, 2008

    …and with your last comment in mind I’ll keep my peace…

  12. Lee
    July 10, 2008

    Fascinating piece and discussion, so I’ll be adding AF to my TBR list.

  13. Emma
    July 10, 2008

    Not getting involved with the sibling argument up there (see AF, for the complexities of siblinghood, which so many children’s authors neglect).

    But yes, I did have to leave out lots I would have liked to include – how she can make even me excited by a cricket match, and the supremely brilliant portrait of Shakespeare et al… But I decided I ought to say something about every book, given that she’s so little known and ought to be much better known, and even I know you have to stop a blog post somewhere…

    If anyone reads any of mine, and finds someone hiding their shaking hands at moments of stress, they can know it’s a straight hommage to Forest…

  14. Lisa
    July 10, 2008

    Excellent article. Also very intrigued by the extract you posted. You have tempted me into reading some AF now.

    P.S I must admit that I find some of those book covers quite creepy…

    PPS Loving the sisterly banter above.

  15. Moira
    July 11, 2008

    I was fascinated by this article. I hold up my hand to having never heard of Antonia Forest, except in the vaguest way possible – which is amazing because from your description, Emma, her books sound like exactly the sort of thing I would have enjoyed reading.

    But those sisters, eh? What can you do with them?

  16. Sophy
    July 11, 2008

    I hugely enjoyed the post; your descriptions brought back a powerful sense of the books I know well, and made me keen to read the others, particularly Peter’s Room, some again and some for the first time.

    Thanks to EmmaB for “intense glittery girlishness” – I quite agree, and try to provide my daughters with counterbalances and alternatives, for example the Marlow books.

    As to sibling altercations – sorry to be such a yes-sister!

  17. Leena
    July 11, 2008

    What a brilliant post! I never read Antonia Forest as a child, but I read Autumn Term a year ago or so and enjoyed it quite a bit. I actually bought it at Emma’s recommendation, if I remember correctly…

    Lisa, I’m curious – creepy covers? How? (Apart from Peter’s Room, in which the boy seems to look like he’s brandishing a dagger with a leer on his face…)

  18. Emma
    July 11, 2008

    Glad you enjoyed it, Leena. The covers are interesting, aren’t they – very much of their date. When Faber paperbacked them as Faber Fanfares they were more conventional. The Puffin editions of the Kingscote stories were done by the eternally brilliant Margery Gill. But the new Faber cover of Autumn Term doesn’t do it justice, I think – very dull.

    For the avoidance of doubt I should point out that Sophy, commenting above, is my sister…

  19. Jackie
    July 12, 2008

    Maybe Lisa means the “…Traitor” cover above? It looks threatening, all those swirls.

  20. Ros
    July 17, 2008

    Sorry to disappoint you, Rosy, but the books are not as easily available as Emma suggests. A quick check on Abebooks indicates lots of copies of Autumn Term for a pound or two, but the cheapest copy of The Cricket Term is over £25 plus shipping from New Zealand, with prices going up to well over £100. The Attic Term and End of Term are similarly expensive. These titles don’t often come up on ebay, either. So unless you’re serious about them (and have a large chequebook), this isn’t the easiest series to get into.

  21. Lisa
    July 17, 2008

    Jackie, yes, that’s it. And I find the Player ones slightly weird. Very much of their date, maybe, as Emma suggests. Shame that the books are hard to get hold of. Maybe a decent central library?

  22. Emma
    July 20, 2008

    Gosh, the prices have got worse – you could get a Puffin of the Cricket Term for £5 or so, but that was about five years ago – about the time (I hardly dare admit) I paid £75 for a Faber Fanfare of Peter’s Room.

    Going back to Forest (and, she says explicitly in End of Term, Nicola), preferring boys to girls, can it be accidental, though it might well be unconcious, that not only does Nicola have a feminised boy’s name, but the name of the most approved-of older sister is actually gender-neutral: Rowan? Interesting too, that the most unsatisfactory girl – Lawrence – has an explicitly boy’s name, while Karen and Ann are purely female (and arguably boring with it), and Virgina/Ginty even more so, in the way that her name carries extra sexual overtones.

    And what of Forest herself? Her chosen pseudonym, ‘Antonia’ is another feminised boy’s name, while her real name, ‘Patricia’, is of course a feminised ‘Patrick’.

  23. Julia Barnes
    July 29, 2008

    I passed my whole childhood being in love with Rowan for her caring and witty intelligent conversation ( bringing sandwiches round to Nick after her play). Did nobody else like her?
    Lawrie was my favourite character.
    Julia B

  24. Emma
    July 29, 2008

    Yes, I liked Rowan – I’m sure you’re meant to. There’s a nice scene in Peter’s Room where she talks to the much younger Nicola about being a vet, and not letting the family push you into doing what they need, which you don’t want… Which of couse is exactly what’s happened to her and farming.

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