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.’
‘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.
Antonia Forest (26 May 1915 – 28 November 2003) was the pseudonym of Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein, an English writer of children's novels whose real name was not made public during her lifetime. She is best known for the Marlow series.
Forest was born to part Russian-Jewish and Irish parents on 26 May 1915. She grew up in Hampstead, London, and was educated at South Hampstead High School and University College, London, where she studied journalism. During the Second World War she worked at an Army Pay Office.
It could be said that she embraced the way of life of the upper middle classes of the English shires with the zeal of the convert. From 1938 until her death she lived in Bournemouth, Dorset, and from the end of 1946 she was a Roman Catholic. Eventually she called herself "middle-aged, narrow-minded, anti-progressive AND PROUD OF IT".
Forest was an enthusiastic letter-writer, corresponding both with her readers and literary figures such as GB Stern. She never married, and for many years supported herself by renting out part of her house in Bournemouth.
Forest's best known work is a series of novels featuring one contemporary generation of the Marlows, an ancient landed family whose patriarch is a Royal Navy commander (later captain). Among eight children, all six daughters go to Kingscote, a boarding school where the four books named after school "Terms" are set.
|Title||Date||Setting||Twins' Form ‡|
|Autumn Term||1948||Autumn term||Third Form|
|The Marlows and the Traitor||1953||Easter holidays||Third Form|
|Falconer's Lure||1957||Summer holidays||Third Form|
|End of Term||1959||Autumn term||Lower Fourth|
|Peter's Room||1961||Christmas holidays||Lower Fourth|
|The Thuggery Affair||1965||Spring half-term||Lower Fourth|
|The Ready-Made Family||1967||Easter holidays||Lower Fourth|
|The Cricket Term||1974||Summer term||Lower Fourth|
|The Attic Term||1976||Autumn term||Upper Fourth|
|Run Away Home||1982||Christmas holidays||Upper Fourth|
- ‡ "Twins' Form" refers to the school stages of twins Nicola and Lawrie.
The series mingles genres, meaning the world of the Marlows is unusually fully described. The school stories particularly move beyond the normal constraints of the form, due to the wide-ranging interests of the talented protagonists and the strengths and weaknesses of members of the circle.
Antonia Forest's later books are notable for their use of a technique perhaps taken to its extreme in Richmal Crompton's 1965 story William and the Pop Singers: placing of characters who were created in an earlier age, and still seem essentially tied to that past time, in a very different world several decades later. So the same characters who initially recount their childhood experiences of the London Blitz eventually watch Up Pompeii! and, later still, make themselves up as punks, when they are only a few years older. The 1976 book The Attic Term is notable for its use of the teenage character Patrick Merrick to express Forest's personal opposition to changes in Roman Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council.
Forest had indicated she was working on a successor to Run Away Home, but no manuscript was found among her papers after her death in 2003.
Forest also wrote The Player's Boy (1970) and The Players and the Rebels (1971), which concern themselves with the ancestors of the Marlows in Shakespeare's time.
The Thursday Kidnapping (1963) was the only book by Antonia Forest not about the Marlows and the only one to be published in the U.S. It was a commended runner-up for the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book by a British subject. Two of the modern Marlows books were also commended runners-up, Falconer's Lure for 1957 and Peter's Room for 1961.[a]
Forest's books have received critical praise from the likes of Victor Watson, who called her 'the Jane Austen' of children's literature  and Alison Shell, who has studied Forest's theme of recusant Catholicism.
After many years out of print, her books have gradually been returning to the public eye with a Faber reprint of Autumn Term in 2000 followed by Girls Gone By Publishers reprints of Falconer's Lure, Run Away Home and The Marlows and the Traitor during 2003, The Ready-Made Family and Peter's Room in 2004, and The Thuggery Affair in 2005. The Player's Boy was reprinted by Girls Gone By Publishers in 2006, The Players and the Rebels in 2008, and The Thursday Kidnapping in 2009.
In 2011 Spring Term, a continuation of the modern Marlow saga, was published by Girls Gone By, written by Sally Hayward, an Anglican verger.
- ^Today there are usually eight books on the Carnegie shortlist. According to CCSU, there were about 160 commendations of two kinds in 49 years from 1954 to 2002, including six for 1957, four 1961, and five 1963.
- ^Guardian, 9/12/2003
- ^ abcHeazlewood, Anne, The Marlows and Their Maker, Girls Gone By Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-1-904417-90-3
- ^Heazlewood, Anne The Marlows and Their Maker, Girls Gone By Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-1-904417-90-3
- ^Nelson, Claudia in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, OUP, Oxford: 2006, ISBN 978-0195146561
- ^Forest, Antonia "The Thursday Kidnapping" New York: Coward-McCann, 1965
- ^"Carnegie Medal Award". 2007(?). Curriculum Lab. Elihu Burritt Library. Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). Retrieved 2012-08-24.
- ^Watson, Victor, Reading Series Fiction, Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-415-22702-X
- ^Folly 42 (2004) [clarification needed]
- ^Hayward, Sally Spring Term Girls Gone By: 2011 ISBN 978-1847451163