Decades before the genre of Young Adult fiction was identified, Antonia Forest’s series of books about the Marlows, a family of six girls (one set of twins) and two boys, explores the world of young people with clarity and a sometimes shocking lack of sentimentality.
The characters’ intense inner lives are put under a microscope which reveals moral ambiguities, shifts and compromises, self-interest, conflicting loyalties, jealousies and tensions in a prose style which is lucid and entertaining.
Little wonder that critic Victor Watson said that Forest was Jane Austen for the young. She even uses Austen’s technique of free indirect speech, where the reader is brought straight into the characters’ heads and identifies with their interior monologues.
Two closed societies
One of the pleasures of Autumn Term is the compelling depiction of not one but two closed worlds. We have the Marlow family, whose characters and interpersonal dynamics are vividly and economically captured, and we have Kingscote, the boarding school which all the girls attend and which the two main protagonists, twins Nicky and Lawrie, join at the beginning of the book.
The story is structured on the contrast between their assumptions of a successful first term and the reality of a series of failures. Around this structure Forest shows how the traditions and ethos of each world informs and influences the other, resulting in a complex and multi-layered book which transcends the genre of school story.
Nicola and Lawrie are fully realised characters whose development we follow with interest. In this book their sisters have minor roles, but always engage the reader’s attention.
The oldest is Kay, bookish and clever and uneasy with her role as head girl. Ann is annoyingly mother-hen and her unfailing good nature irritates the others.
Ginty is a drama queen in waiting, looking for a role. At this stage, her favoured part, as Rowan acerbically points out, is the naughtiest girl in the form, but as the series progresses she finds more nuanced outlets.
I like Rowan, whose cool, unflappable and self-contained persona has the aura of a vintage film heroine. Her outdoor coat swings from her shoulders. She is presented through adverbs (sorry, Stephen King), speaking coolly, languidly, curtly, pitilessly, indolently, sardonically. She doesn’t seem like a schoolgirl at all, and, in fact, in a later book, leaves Kingscote prematurely.
Insights into the teachers make them come alive. Lawrie thinks how much nicer the domestic science teacher looks when she is in her other role of Guide Captain, in a navy uniform, cocked hat and light blue tie. The art teacher, off duty and painting scenery, stubs out a cigarette in a small, brilliantly coloured saucer.
The head girl and headmistress have fortnightly meetings at which they drink milky coffee. Miss Cartwright has a fetish for fresh air and eyes the windows with regret even when the ledges are rimmed with snow.
Miss Cromwell, with an erudite tone typical of the book, is nicknamed Ironsides after Oliver Cromwell. She likes pupils to keep their place and believes that bubbles of conceit require pricking hard and often.
What I learnt from Autumn Term
- Thalia is the name of the Comic Muse.
- The story of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper
- Good ways of learning how to tie knots
- Pomona is a small planet or asteroid discovered 26 October, 1857
- The inner workings of the Girl Guides, including a Court of Honour
- For painting trees on a stage backcloth, blues and purples and yellows are better colours than greens and browns
Insiders and outsiders
The jostling for status and popularity and the depiction of cliques and alliances is portrayed with a cool eye. The two outsiders are identified from the beginning. With cruel randomness, a rather precious type called Pomona is rejected because of her arty family background, and Marie, a bony girl with lank hair, is rejected because she is a bit of a drip.
In a later book in the series, Marie becomes ill and dies. Cue for regret for the way she was treated? Time for a reassessment of her personality and an acknowledgement of her good points, in a 1940s’ version of the shrines of flowers and Facebook tributes which would define such an event today?
Not a bit of it. The class is divided between those who think they should write a sympathy letter to Marie’s parents, saying she will be missed, and those (including the Marlows) who dismiss this as hypocrisy and refuse to compromise their position by offering false condolences to grieving parents.
Something sounds familiar. Self-absorbed characters. A closed world. No hugs. Could it be we we are looking at the Seinfeld of the school story?