A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.’
‘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.