REVIEW: The Marlows and the Traitor – Antonia Forest

Girls Gone By paperback cover

Girls Gone By paperback cover

(Girls Gone By Publishers 2003, originally published Faber & Faber, 1953)

Antonia Forest published her first book, Autumn Term, in 1948, and her last, Run Away Home, in 1982, but she was not a prolific writer, and, during and after the 1960s, unfashionable. Most of her books feature the Marlow family, unmistakeably upper middle class types, who go to private school, have and ride ponies, and are exemplars of old-fashioned virtues and traits. Her school stories are set at a traditional sort of girls’ boarding school, but they are anything but traditional stories: they are realistic depictions both of girls and staff, and nothing very implausible happens. There is unfairness which is never righted, for example, and several rows, the aftermath of which go on to affect the subsequent school careers of Nicola (the youngest-but-one) in particular.

The longevity of the series and the relative infrequency of Forest’s output means that after the first three books, which are set in 1947-8, the books are roughly set at the time they were written, though for the family only about two and a half years have passed. The school stories are generally quite easy to find second-hand, since they were re-published by Puffin, but the non-school stories, and her three non-Marlow novels – The Thursday Kidnapping, The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels – were rarely reprinted and are now hard to find. Girls Gone By republished all Forest’s books, but with limited print runs, and even these are now of limited availability.

I came across Forest’s books at my school’s library, and was immediately drawn into this world, different to my own, but far more realistic than the other school stories I read at the time. The Marlows were believably talented and their family dynamics – particularly for Nicola and Lawrie as the youngest with six elder siblings (four sisters and two brothers) – were well drawn.

In the second of the books, The Marlows and the Traitor, the four youngest Marlows – Ginty, Peter, and the twins Nicola and Lawrie – are staying with their mother at St Anne’s-Byfleet during the Easter holidays. Peter, who is fourteen, and a cadet at Dartmouth Naval College (his father and elder brother, Giles, are both in the Navy), feels the holiday overshadowed by what he calls ‘the boat thing’ – an incident the previous term where he failed to react to a gybe while sailing which led to one of his fellow cadets being knocked overboard, and a “blistering ticking-off on the hard” afterwards by their instructor, Lieutenant Foley. Not long after telling his sister Nicola about this incident, they both meet Foley unexpectedly, and are both startled when he completely ignores Peter.

Later that day, they both find an empty house called Mariners, and while exploring it, seem to find some connection with the Foleys: from the crow’s nest at the house they can see something called Foley’s Folly Light. The next morning, Nicola mentions this to her friend, Robert Anquetil, a local fisherman, and he explains that Mariners does belong to the Foleys and that Peter’s Lieutenant is Lewis Foley, youngest son of the family, and long-time friend of Anquetil’s. Anquetil says enough about Foley to warn Nicola not to return to Mariners, but she’s unable to dissuade her family from exploring there that afternoon. Things do not then go well.

I don’t want to add too much more with respect to the plot, but, despite being a children’s story, the events are plausible and the children’s actions realistic. Unlike many such adventure stories, the characters are well-drawn and three-dimensional, and Forest takes care to show the ‘traitor’ in a humane light, pointing out his good qualities as well as the bad (which Nicola, in particular, recognises and sympathises with, even if disagreeing with his ideology). The differences between the children are nicely marked, too: Ginty is the eldest of the four, aged fifteen, but since she has four elder siblings, she is unused to being in charge, and so is probably hardest hit, mentally, by the events of the book (and which Forest acknowledges in the following book, Falconer’s Lure). Peter is very interesting: generally competent, but with very bad personal judgment, afraid of heights (again a running theme in the books), and prone to exaggerating the smallest mistake into a massive failure. Then the twins are nicely differentiated, too, Nicola is more practical and bookish; Lawrie seizes the opportunity to escape, but she fails to capitalise on it, and is not, eventually, much help. Again, unlike in, say, Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, Forest pays an equal amount of attention in the narrative to the adults involved, and their reactions and actions are realistic.

Quite apart from the realistic narrative and sympathetic characters, there is also some fantastic descriptive writing. I like this, from near the beginning, when Nicola and Peter are walking in a storm:

The rain streamed down their waterproofs and the sea creamed round their gumboots, while the sky grew steadily more copper-coloured as if a fire had been lighted behind it. And then, suddenly, the sky cracked open above 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.

(p32)

I like Forest’s writing very much, and her books are interesting. They stand up very well to being re-read as an adult, and maybe because she never intended to write solely for children, they are psychologically complex and never simplistic novels, despite their youthful protagonists. The later books do, I think, suffer a little by being set during a time frame which is not synchronous with the characters – for example, the family were evacuated to Maidenhead after their home in London suffered damage during the Blitz, yet Nicola’s classmates can watch Star Trek in The Attic Term – but minimises this disconnect by the timelessness of her settings.

The Marlow family books in chronological order are:

Autumn Term (1948) – Nicola and Lawrie’s first term at Kingscote School starts ignominiously but ends in success;
The Marlows and the Traitor (1953);
Falconer’s Lure (1957) – summer holidays at Trennels Old Farm, the introduction of Patrick Merrick, and with a background of falconry and a death in the family;
End of Term (1959) – Nicola falls foul of Lois Sanger at school, and Lawrie is convinced that she should play the Shepherd’s Boy in the end of term Christmas play;
Peter’s Room (1961) – Ginty’s fascination with the Brontës leads to the children role-playing;
The Thuggery Affair (1965) – pigeon fancying, drug-smuggling and juvenile delinquency during a half-term weekend;
The Ready-Made Family (1967) – the eldest Marlow girl, Karen, returns from Oxford and marries a man with three children;
The Cricket Term (1974) – which contains one of the best descriptions of a fictional cricket match that I’ve ever read;
The Attic Term (1976) – Ginty fails to cope with the absence from school of her best friend Monica, and Patrick’s opposition to the Vatican II changes does not make things easy for him at his school;
Run Away Home (1982) – the family assist a young boy trying to return to his father.

I would recommend them all if you can obtain any.

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4 Responses to REVIEW: The Marlows and the Traitor – Antonia Forest

  1. Sounds fascinating, especially the increasingly solipsistic sense of time having mor eor less stodd still for the family only – completely new to me, thanks.

    • Ela says:

      One doesn’t get that sense from the books, partly because the milieu of the setting is relatively conservative, even if social attitudes have changed. The Marlows’ emotional reactions to events tend to be of the old-fashioned, stiff upper lip and get on with things attitude, which was probably still appropriate in the early 1980s, but less so now.

      This title is a nice place to start the series if you don’t like school stories (though AUTUMN TERM is pretty subversive for the genre).

  2. Oh, I’ve heard of these! I bet my library got rid of all their copies of her books a while ago, and I wish I’d been aware of her at the time. They did a vast purge of unloved children’s books around 2009, which was sad but gained me some very sturdy hardbacks of old favorites.

    (Just checked! And I was quite right, the library hasn’t got any of her books. Bother.)

    • Ela says:

      I am amazed that you’ve heard of these! The only book by Forest published in the US was ‘The Thursday Kidnapping’ – which is excellent. UK libraries also tended to have got rid of her books, which is sad.

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