Monday, November 26, 2012

Something Old

“PETER’S ROOM” by Antonia Forest (first published 1961)


Invited to write a “Something Old” for Reid’s Reader, Professor Harry Ricketts of Victoria University of Wellington has chosen to write about the series of children’s books written between 1948 and 1982 by “Antonia Forest” (pseudonym of Patricia Rubinstein, an English author of mixed Russian-Jewish and Irish parentage). Harry Ricketts calls his article :

Antonia Forest's Peter's Room and the Pleasures and Dangers of Gondalling

            I first came across Antonia Forest towards the end of 1994.

            My wife and I were spending Christmas at her elder sister's farm near Pahiatua. My sister-in-law's house was packed tight with guests, and we slept in the children's old games-room along with the pool table, the fading photos of school teams and other childhood memorabilia. Nothing I'd brought to read seemed quite right, so I scoured the games-room bookshelves, more in hope than expectation. And there, mixed in with various children's classics, were three Puffin paperbacks, Autumn Term, End of Term and The Cricket Term, by a writer called Antonia Forest. Being a cricket addict, I picked out The Cricket Term and couldn't put it down, had instantly to read another, and, when it came time to leave, I had to borrow the third unread volume. Back in Wellington, I soon discovered that there were more Antonia Forests in the public library, so I duly devoured those and have been a serious fan ever since. If it doesn't sound too grandiose to say so, Antonia Forest now seems to me the Jane Austen of YA fiction with all the subtlety, wit, textual richness, and social and emotional complexity, that such a claim implies.

            Forest wrote 13 novels in all, 10 about a large upper-middle-class naval English family called the Marlows. These were published over a 34-year period between 1948 and 1982. The Marlow novels alternate between life at an English girls boarding school called Kingscote and home life in the holidays. In fictional time, the novels cover a two-and-a-half year period. The central character is Nicola, 12 years old when the series begins. She and her twin sister Lawrie are the youngest of eight children. Nicola is an all-rounder, a perceptive coper and doer, usually in scrapes, and the series can be seen as in effect the beginnings of a Bildungsroman about her. We see Nicola's emerging moral consciousness as she encounters and deals with a range of character-testing and character-forming situations. Without ever turning into a goody-goody or a prig, she becomes for the reader a barometer of right and wrong choices, right and wrong actions and reactions. Peter's Room (1961), the fifth novel, is characteristic in this respect though highly distinctive in others.

            The novel takes place one freezing Christmas at Trennels, the Marlows' ancestral farm. The main characters are Nicola and Lawrie (nowthirteen), one of their two brothers Peter (fourteen) and one of their sisters Ginty (fifteen) - plus their neighbour Patrick (also fifteen, and Nicola's particular friend). Ginty has been set a holiday project on the Brontes and tells the others about the Brontes' imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Bored and forced inside by the winter weather, they decide to invent their own Gondal equivalent, assigning themselves Gondalesque names and characters in an all-male story of aristocratic skullduggery and derring-do. Their adventures (Forest provides several vivid excerpts) involve a wicked regent who sends his nephew, the boy king, and a group of followers with secret dispatches to a neighbouring kingdom. Mountain passes, snowy wastes, falconry, ambushes await.

            Lawrie, Peter, Ginty and Patrick each select a name and identity which allow them to role-play alternative versions of themselves. Lawrie - in real life, whingeing, superstitious and easily frightened but a good actor - becomes Jason Exina, the boy king: cheerful and plucky in adversity. The mercurial Peter becomes Malise Douglas (Malise being the name of an English Civil War ancestor). For Ginty and Patrick, Gondalling opens up more intriguing possibilities. Pretty but flaky Ginty becomes Crispian de Samara who fantasises about a "David and Jonathan" relationship with Patrick's character Rupert Almeda. Patrick, for his part, finds it "imperative to explore, under cover of Rupert, the twilights of cowardice and betrayal". In a separate development Patrick and Ginty initiate a private Gondal of their own, in which Rupert and a new character Rosina (Ginty) carry on a clandestine flirtation.

            Only Nicola stands somewhat apart. A reluctant Gondaller, she becomes Nicholas Brenzaida ie a male version of herself. Keen on Patrick, she soon senses that he and Ginty are conducting some sort of secret game. In various scenes, we are made glancingly but poignantly aware of her bafflement and hurt at this discovery, and are on several occasions encouraged to approve of her guts and stoicism.

            As soon as the children start to Gondal in earnest, Forest's prose crackles with scepticism:

            "We simply must stop there," said Nicola firmly as the stable clock struck half past six on Saturday evening. "Supper's at a quarter to seven tonight ...."        The others came to themselves, blinking a little as if a light had suddenly been switched on. They always felt oddly fagged when it was time to stop and resume the everyday flatness of their ordinary selves.

            The warning note struck here is soon reinforced and developed. The following day there is a carefully loaded discussion between Ginty, Nicola and their eldest sister Karen, "down from her first term at Oxford". In the course of the discussion, Karen (entirely unaware of what the others are up to) delivers an impromptu potted lecture on how for the Brontes Gondalling became both dangerous and addictive. To Ginty's consternation, Karen even suggests that, for Emily, Gondalling became a kind of imaginative equivalent to Branwell's drunkenness and drug-taking, a compensation for life or substitute for it or both. Ginty, aghast, refuses to accept this toughly anti-romantic view. The novel, however, increasingly seems to endorse Karen's verdict that
" 'most people Gondal after a fashion when they're young - Cowboys and Injins and such. It was just that the Brontes went on for longer than was reasonable.' "

            The denouement comes when, in the teenagers' made-up Gondal, the traitor Rupert Almeda is captured just as he is about to assassinate the boy king Jason. Rupert now faces the prospect of being burnt alive. To the dismay of the others, Patrick announces that his character Rupert is going to shoot himself and puts the muzzle of a (supposedly unloaded) antique pistol to his head. He is about to pull the trigger when Nicola, "suddenly panic-stricken", knocks the pistol out of his hand "with the hilt of the heavy sword she had been holding as Nicholas":
  Whereupon a number of things happened all together.

            Patrick exclaimed and doubled over, clutching his wrist: the pistol struck the edge of the table: there was a flash: the window-pane behind Lawrie's head starred and splintered: the explosion roared: the dogs woke and burst into hysterical barking: the cold bright air rushed through the broken pane: and from the spinney a furious voice shouted, "Hey! Stop that! What on earth d'you think you're playing at?"

Gondalling has got almost fatally out of hand, and only Nicola's quick action saves Patrick's life. Her immediate reaction echoes that of Karen earlier: "'I think those Brontes of Gin's must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!'" And with that, Nicola literally walks out on the fantasy.

This is not, however, quite where the novel ends. It concludes with Patrick and Ginty disconsolately mourning the loss of Gondal and their alter egos, and brought to the reluctant realisation that "from now on ordinary, everyday life would have to serve". This downbeat ending seems doubly appropriate. It allows the two characters a moment of Romantic tristesse but also suggests Forest's awareness that her own Marlowing is a form of Gondalling. Quite literally so. Forest was born Patricia Guilia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein, of Irish and Russian Jewish extraction, and her London upbringing had about as much in common with that of the upper-middle-class Marlows as the Brontes' had with their Angrians and Gondals.

            The point also holds true on a more subliminal level: writing and reading fiction can themselves be seen acts of Gondalling from which author and reader must (however reluctantly) eventually withdraw. When Forest's characters lament to themselves after a stint of Gondalling, " 'It's queer how real our people got' ", their response can be thought to reflect the feelings of both author and reader: Forest's sense of loss on emerging from the spell of composition and the reader's on emerging from the spell of reading. While Nicola embodies Forest's sense of the dangers of fantasy taken too far, the shiftier Patrick and Ginty more closely mirror what author and reader feel on closing this terrific novel.
                        - Harry Ricketts


  1. Thank you for this excellent article. As AF's literary executor, I think she'd have been very pleased with your appreciation and insight.

  2. It's great to see YA fiction from this period that is being taken seriously. As far as I can see, there is an awful lot of simply brilliant YA fiction from the 1950s to the 1970s which is in danger of being forgotten for no particular reason.

  3. My sister, author of The Marlows and Their Maker, is interested in contacting Harry Ricketts via snail mail. If this is possible could you let me know at sally AT sallyodgers DOT com?

  4. With the deepest regret, I do not make it my habit to give out people's surface-mail addresses. I suggest you go to Victoria University of Wellington's website and search for Professor Ricketts's work e-mail address if you wish to contact him.