Tuesday 12 November 2013

Classic Children's/YA: Liz Filleul on The Marlows Series by Antonia Forest

One of the coolest things about the classic children's/YA feature is discovering more about books and series I've never read. Antonia Forest's Marlows books have been on my 'to read' list for a decade or two without me actually getting round to them, but I'm going to have to change that after this fabulous post about them by Liz Filleul!

Number of books
10, published between 1947 and 1982. Their reading order is:  Autumn Term, The Marlows and the Traitor, Falconer’s Lure, End of Term, Peter’s Room, The Thuggery Affair, The Ready-Made Family, The Cricket Term, The Attic Term, Run Away Home.


Autumn Term is easiest (and cheapest to find) as it’s been republished as a Faber Children’s Classic.
The six non-school stories (those without ‘Term’ in the title) were recently republished by niche publisher Girls Gone By, but are currently out of print – try eBay or Abebooks.

End of Term, The Cricket Term and The Attic Term have been out of print since the 1980s – again, try eBay or Abebooks. Or write to Girls Gone By requesting they reprint the holiday books and the school stories! 

The premise

Antonia Forest didn’t set out to write a series, so the books are a mash-up of school, holiday and adventure stories about the Marlow family – twins Nicola and Lawrie and their siblings Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Giles and Peter. The four school stories take place at the Marlow sisters’ boarding-school, Kingscote. With the exception of The Marlows and the Traitor, the non-school stories are set at Trennels, the Marlows’ family farm. The books cover a period of 29 months in the Marlows’ lives, but Forest chose to set each story at the time she wrote it. Hence, in The Marlows and the Traitor (1953), Ginty reminisces about the Blitz, while in Run-Away Home (1982), Lawrie dresses up as a punk.

Why I like them

When I was growing up, the Marlows books were banned by my local library for being too middle-class. Yet, Kingscote, despite being an elite girls’ boarding-school, felt closer to my real-life grammar school-turned-comprehensive in England’s Black Country than any other fictional school I’d encountered – apart from Grange Hill. There are no midnight feasts or practical jokes at Kingscote; instead the books focus on everyday aspects of school life such as the annual Christmas play, netball and cricket matches,  friendship, rivalries and favouritism. And, just as life isn’t always fair in a real school, so it isn’t at Kingscote – Nicola, main character/hero of the series, is shafted on more than one occasion, and the villainous Lois Sanger never does get her come-uppance.

I like so many other things about the stories, too – the strong characterisation (the Marlow girls’ personalities are so distinctive that you don’t need to be told who is speaking – you can tell), the developing love triangle between Nicola, Ginty and their neighbour Patrick; the fact that every time I re-read a Marlows book, I notice something that I hadn’t before.

Best books

End of Term – arguably the best book in the Forest canon. Lawrie Marlow has her heart set on getting a major role in the end-of-term play, while Nicola wants to get into the junior netball team. Lois Sanger’s meddling ensures things don’t turn out the way the twins had hoped. End of Term contains two particularly gorgeous scenes – the description of the Christmas play and Nicola and Patrick’s ride into Wade Abbas at half-term.

The Cricket Term – Forget double Ashes: the greatest rivalry in cricket is Nicola Marlow v. Lois Sanger as they lead their respective forms to the final of the inter-form cup. Nicola has other worries too, as her parents’ financial worries mean she might have to leave Kingscote. The cricket match at the end of the book is up there with my other favourite literary cricket match, the one in The Go-Between (LP Hartley).

Peter’s Room – Ginty’s school project on the Brontes teaches her about the make-believe ‘Gondal’ universe they created, and the Marlows and Patrick Merrick spend a snowy Christmas holiday doing some Gondalling themselves. Their fantasy world brings Ginty and Patrick closer together, and there’s an unfortunate incident with a gun… This is probably the darkest book in the Marlow series, but a pivotal one in terms of the Nicola/Patrick/Ginty relationship.

The Ready-Made Family – Karen drops out of university to marry her lecturer Edwin Dodds and become stepmum to his kids. This goes down like a cup of cold sick with her family, who (with the exception of Nicola) treat Edwin pretty shabbily. Not that Edwin does much to endear himself to either the family or the reader… In a surprising storyline for a book published in 1967, Edwin’s daughter Rose runs away from Trennels and into the arms of a paedophile, ‘Uncle Gerry’.

Who they’ll appeal to
I can’t think of a contemporary equivalent of the Marlows books, but readers who enjoy realistic school and family stories, memorable characters and social history should give these books a go.

Books by the same author
In The Cricket Term, Edwin and Nicola discover that the Marlows had a thespian ancestor, Nicholas Marlow, who travelled with Shakespeare and performed in his plays. Two historical novels – The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels – tell the story of Nicholas Marlow. These are well worth a read, especially if you have an interest in Shakespearean England. 

The Thursday Kidnapping is Forest’s only non-Marlow novel. It’s set in London and features the Ramsay family, who discover that a child they’re babysitting has gone missing.

Catch Liz over on her website, Story Spinner, or on Twitter. And read her wonderful book, First Term at Cotterford - a must for fans of girls' boarding school stories! (Plus, if you read it now, you'll be ready for the upcoming sequel...) Grab it for Kindle here.

1 comment:

  1. I've long been a Marlows fan, and I really enjoyed reading this. I'd actually agree - pretty much - with your "best books" assessment too, except that I'd put Cricket Term first. And I'd put The Players and the Rebels somewhere in the top five too. It's a really cracking - exciting, thoughtful, atmospheric - read.