On the bus home, the bright red emergency lever at the top of the back door stands out: FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY. And there she is, eleven-year-old Nicola Marlow in Autumn Term, on the train for the first time to attend Kingscote School, pulling that same emergency lever simply because she lost her swiss-army knife out of the window. Nicola’s ‘emergency’ sets the scene for a series of nine further books by Antonia Forest, full of hijinks, adventures and family calamities.
Born in 1915, Antonia Forest (the pen name of Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein) was once called ‘the Jane Austen of children’s literature’ by author Victor Watson. Born in Hampstead to Irish and Russian-Jewish parents, Forest lived her entire adult life in Bournemouth, where she was briefly a government clerk and librarian before devoting herself to writing. Remaining incredibly private throughout her lifetime, Forest not only refused interviews but also resisted any biographical information appearing about her on book jackets. Her real name was not made public until after her death in 2003.
Over her lifetime, Forest wrote thirteen books for children, published between 1948 and 1982, ten of which centre on the large Marlow family. Written over 34 years, the stories cover just two years in the lives of the eight Marlow children, both at school, on holiday and at their family home. While the gap in years leads to some interesting jumps in context, the books are absolutely convincing in their minute grasp of psychology, complex family dynamics and powerful emotional resonance.
Initially published by Faber, the books have languished out of print for decades, a situation which has only recently started to change. In 2011, the Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English called this situation ‘outrageous’ and mentions Forest first in its section on neglected works, citing her as ‘one of the best children’s writers of the 20th century’. While Forest never reached the height of her popular contemporaries Elinor Brent-Dyer or Enid Blyton, she had (and continues to have) a devoted set of fans passionate about her work. The reach of her fandom is complicated, however, because the original series are very hard to get a hold of – the rarer books easily reach over $200 NZ dollars on second-hand trading sites. Luckily for me, Wellington City Libraries hold six of the series in their archives, so over the last couple of months I’ve finally discovered the magic that is the Marlow family.
Known invariably as ‘school stories’, the Marlow series have been unfairly dismissed by people who think they fall into static tropes and clichés. Nothing could be further from the truth. Forest doesn’t just stand outside of the typical school story genre – she redefines it. Every one of her characters has an immediacy and credibility that is bluntly real. There is no fakery, in either the characters, plot or relationships, and it is this realism of school and home life, as well as the beauty of the prose, that define the Marlow stories as more than their so-called ‘genre’. Forest’s skill in characterisation is unparalleled, particularly her capturing of the tiniest of psychological complexities.
When we first meet the siblings in Autumn Term (1948), the six Marlow daughters are off to school, with Nicola and Lawrie, the youngest, attending for the first time. Mostly narrated through Nicola’s perspective, we are introduced to the large family. Karen is head girl of Kingscote, intelligent, responsible, but a passive leader; Rowan is sporty, pragmatic, and head of the netball team; Ann is the ‘good girl’, diligent, honest, and patrol leader of the Girl Guides; Ginty is socially popular, attractive, and well-known for her hockey playing but also for being a bit flaky; and Nicola and Lawrie (short for Lawrence – the Marlow parents were hoping for a boy), the twins, are joining their successful elder sisters very nervously. Never falling into the cliché of identical twins being identical in behaviour, the relationship between Nicola and Lawrie is as complex as that between their siblings. Nicola is outspoken, adventurous and bold; Lawrie is the actress, yet delicate, babylike and spoilt. They are similar only in their sensitivity and compassion. Of the two brothers, Giles is the eldest and is in the Navy, and Peter is at Dartmouth college.
In Autumn Term the twins are determined to prove themselves, but their efforts to emulate or outshine their sisters merely leads to one disaster after another as they are placed in the lowest-ranked class, kicked out of Guides, and fail to make the netball team. Only when their maverick friend Tim, the Headmistress’s niece, puts on a play in which they star, do they find their own way to thrive in school life. There are three further Kingscote School novels, End of Term (1959), The Cricket Term (1974) and The Attic Term (1976). Within the closed world of Kingscote, Forest investigates friendships, siblinghood, rivalry and hero-worship, while always writing with her characteristic bitingly sarcastic wit.
The Nuremberg trials inspired the thriller adventure The Marlows and the Traitor (1953), where Nicola, Peter and Ginty are taken hostage by one of Peter’s Navy instructors. In Falconer’s Lure (1957), a summer holiday in the country becomes dire when their host and cousin Jon is killed in an air-crash. The Marlow parents feel obliged to take over the house and farm, Trennels, and the Marlow children never go back to the London home of their childhood. Following End of Term is the highly literary Peter’s Room (1961), in which Nicola, Lawrie, Ginty, Peter and their friend Patrick are so inspired by the Brontë sisters’ inventive world, Gondal, that they decide to role-play their own version – and soon get sucked into an imaginary world in which it is difficult to escape. Peter’s Room is the most inventive children’s book I’ve ever read, and were it not a children’s book, literary critics would acclaim it for its genre-breaking subversion.
The second to last novel – and the last that I have been able to get a hold of – is The Ready-Made Family (1967). Karen arrives home from study at Oxford to announce she is marrying a widower twice her age, who also happens to have three children. As if this was not enough, she announces that her new family will all have to move in with the Marlows at Trennels until they can find their own home. Despite huge protests from siblings and mother alike, Karen goes ahead with her plan. Tensions soon run high, especially between Peter and the new brother-in-law Edwin, until Edwin’s eldest child Rose runs away and is nearly captured by a suspected child molester (saved, just in time, by the ever-reckless Nicola).
The Ready-Made Family was my favourite novel of the series, not necessarily because of the plot, but because even when Forest adds new characters to the mix – young Rose, Charles and Phoebe – all are beautifully and accurately characterised for their age (such as in one scene, where the five-year-old Phoebe only speaks in ‘meows’). It is impossible not to fall in love with the younger children and with Peter becoming the ‘male nanny’ of the family.
Forest’s omniscient narrator switches from character to character with effortless ease; not only do we see inside the head of all the Marlow siblings, but we also delve into their enemies, parents, cousins and neighbours. This allows the reader a vivid portrayal of the entire character cast, and the reader is soon aware that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters in Forest’s fiction; only complex people with complex emotions.
A great series for literature and theatre lovers, the Marlows love fiction and often discuss their reading habits or use novels to explain their emotions. Yet Forest also aims to explore life’s big questions. She does not hesitate to explore themes such as loyalty, honour, friendship, trust, loss, religion – even mental health, when she discusses Ginty’s anxiety and post-traumatic stress after the second world war. A practising Roman Catholic herself, Forest never preaches but instead weaves religion throughout the books. The Marlows are technically Anglican but practically unreligious, while their maternal Grandmother and Patrick Merrick (their neighbour and good friend) are Catholic. Nicola’s best friend Miranda is Jewish, and there is a class discussion on Judaism in The End of Term, which is also a novel centred around the school Nativity play. After a gentle discussion with Patrick about religion, Nicola describes a ride home in Falconer’s Lure: ‘They rode on through the starlit dark, and the smell of the ponies, the creak of leather and jingle of bits mingled with her thoughts until it seemed as if she rode through an older world – the world where Wade Minster was new and people believed – without reservation.’
It is her beautiful prose which makes Forest stand out as a writer for children. Forest is expert at describing domestic scenes and turning them into a vivid feast. Take even this simple scene from Marlows and the Traitor when Peter and Nicola are standing on the beach: ‘The rain streamed down their waterproofs . . . while the sky grew steadily more copper coloured as if a fire had been lighted behind it. And then, suddenly, the sky cracked open along their heads, and a ball of light rushed along the horizon and fell into the sea: the thunder bellowed, the hail came down like a white wall and the sea swirled about their thighs.’ Or Nicola’s nightmare in Peter’s Room: ‘The stars jittered like bird-scarers in the frosty sky: two owls, one in the oak tree outside the twins’ bedroom window, the other in the spinney, hooted back and forth: the shadows in the room moved with the travelling moon: and Nicola’s dream pressed remorselessly on into nightmare until she crashed through the rind of sleep, her heart hammering, her face wet with tears, her pyjamas soaked with sweat. . . as always the Shadows were in full retreat, dissolving as she tried to look at them.’
This beauty leads to significant moments such as thirteen-year-old Nicola’s epiphany in The Ready-Made Family, after a terrifying few scenes when she is in Oxford searching for young Rose and discovers that Rose’s mysterious ‘Uncle’ is planning to kidnap them. Nicola is on the train home, having been rescued, when she contemplates what happened: ‘At the time she could have found no words to describe this engulfing melancholy; but a year later, when her friend Miranda was called on during a Latin lesson to translate the time-smoothed phrase sunt lacrimae rerum, which she did, doubtfully, as “there are tears of things?” only to be asked by Miss Cartwright what that was supposed to mean, Nicola, though she could have offered no better translation, thought of that train journey and knew exactly what it meant.’
The final book Run Away Home (1982) leaves many questions unanswered. Forest was unrepentant about this, saying: ‘Some authors go on with these things too long.’ There is hope for new fans, however. After many years out of print, Faber reprinted Autumn Term in 2000 before giving permission to the independent publishers Girls Gone By to reprint further books. So far, Girls Gone By have reprinted Falconer’s Lure, Run Away Home, The Marlows and the Traitor, The Ready-Made Family, Peter’s Room and The Thuggery Affair. In 2011, they published Spring Term, a continuation of the Marlow saga written by Sally Hayward.
I often think about the short life cycle of a published book. Rough estimates suggest that over 1.6 million books are published every year across the world – and half of these will be self-published. Given that only a very select few ever become popular or so-called ‘classics’, the majority of these books have their glimpse of the limelight and then are swiftly left behind by the ever-moving publishing cycle. If they are never republished, the overlooking process is that much quicker. The Marlow series has been kept alive by a group of passionate fans, but without access it is difficult for more people, especially children, to become fans of the series. While certainly a product of their time, the series definitely don’t deserve to be forgotten. I can only hope that the reprints will mean the fandom flourishes as more people discover the wonders of the Marlow family.