Girls Gone By Publishing recently announced that they would be reprinting Falconer's Lure, the third volume of Antonia Forest's Marlows series, in May this year. Approximately thirty seconds passed between me becoming aware of this and placing my order, and now I'm counting the days until it arrives. But more of that later...
To prepare myself for Falconer's Lure's arrival (and also because there is a Facebook Antonia Forest read-through going on), I decided to re-read the first two volumes in the series. Autumn Term was published in 1948, and in some ways it is a very old-fashioned children's novel.
Twelve year old twins Nicola and Lawrie are joining their older sisters for the first time at their boarding school, Kingscote. Determined not to disgrace the family honour, they resolve to star at everything -- coming top in exams, winning the Form Shield for IIIA, captaining the netball team, excelling at Guides, and anything else they can get their hands on. Of course nothing turns out the way they planned. Instead of going into the 'top' form, the way all the other Marlows did, they end up in Third Remove with the other 'backward, delicate or just plain stupid(s)' who require extra help. They aren't even allowed to play netball. All that's left to them is Guides, but even that goes horribly wrong. But when Third Remove rebel and decide to put on a play, perhaps the twins will get a chance to redeem themselves after all...
This summary makes the book sound like the most conventional of school stories. But it's so much better than that. Antonia Forest peoples her school with a cast of complex, realistic and not always likeable characters. Even our heroes, Nick, Lawrie and their new friend Tim (Thalia, the Headmistress's Niece), have their flaws. Nicola can be almost irritatingly stoic, but she is also impulsive (in the very first chapter, she stops the train to rescue her new pen-knife). Lawrie is sometimes babyish and self-absorbed, and Tim, clever and amusing, can also be coolly manipulative. The form mistresses can be unjust, the lofty older girls can be self-deceiving and have feuds of their own.
At every turn, Forest turns the reader's expectations upside down. And she subtly contrasts the stereotypes of school narratives with the reality the twins face. 'Don't pretend you're the tomboy of the Fourth Remove,' says one of their sisters to another. Nicola spins herself a fantasy of running away to sea, and when she actually does break bounds to visit her older brother Giles, the episode ends badly, not because she's discovered and punished, but because Giles himself is furious and disapproving when she appears. There is a constant dialogue in all the books between reality and fiction, and Autumn Term sets up this tension beautifully.
But the absolute triumph of Tim and the twins when they pull off their play of 'The Prince and the Pauper' at the end of term, is nonetheless perfectly satisfying, if somewhat unlikely. At least they realistically fail all their exams because they've put all their efforts into the play! These are some very accomplished and knowledgeable twelve year olds -- something I found inspiring rather than daunting, as a teen reader.
I just love these books and it was a joy to re-visit Autumn Term again, even though it's not actually one of my favourite Forests -- it might just sneak into my top five of the ten books in the series. I'm already looking forward to the next one.