A Family Failing?

by Fen Crosbie. First appeared in New Chalet Club Journal, no. 13, 1998.
Explanatory notes by Katherine Ferguson (web version only)

Let us look at a certain character in a series of school and family stories. She's 15, good-looking in a neat and wholesome way without being a raving beauty; she's clever, a talented musician and a good actress; she has a deep religious faith and a strong loyalty to her family; she is always kind, helpful and understanding. As she grows up she gracefully accepts maturity and its implications. Above all, she is thoroughly sensible and thoroughly nice. Len Maynard, perhaps? Mary-Lou? Peggy Bettany? None of these, though the description would fit any of them. It is, in fact, Antonia Forest's Ann Marlow.

If we ignore the comments made about Ann throughout the Marlow books and look only at her words and actions, it is striking to observe how far Ann conforms to the usual image, as purveyed by EBD and other school-story writers, of the ideal schoolgirl. She is certainly good-looking (as are all the Marlows) blonde and blue-eyed with beautiful, long, curly hair, which she usually wears in plaits. She is always winning the form prize (Autumn Term), and her intellectual abilities are clearly displayed when, in Peter's Room, she is well able to sustain a discussion on the Brontës with Karen, no less. She plays Mary in the Christmas play in End of Term and is agreed by Rowan, Patrick and his mother to have been very good in the part, conveying the most complete sincerity. She is a talented pianist, considered good enough to make a career of it, whether by teaching or performing (Falconer's Lure), although her own ambition is to become a nurse. Her deep Christian faith is a constant throughout the series: she goes to voluntary chapel and emerges swinging her hat by its brim and looking gay and recollected (End of Term); she rebukes Lawrie and Ginty for making fun of See Amid the Winter Snow (ibid); and there are many other instances where, although not preaching to anyone, she is not afraid of being seen to be a Christian.

Her loyalty to her family, shown constantly in her protective attitude towards them all, comes out explicitly in her disapproval of Nicola's abandoning the family picnic in The Cricket Term in favour of going to dinner in a hotel with Miranda's father. She is the kind of person who takes it for granted one loves one's relations. At her first appearance, at the beginning of Autumn Term, she is characterized by Tim, who hasn't even met her at this point, as the Guide one, and although we only see Ann in action at Guide meetings in this one book, it is obvious that she is an excellent Patrol Leader, popular with the other Guides and the Guider alike. Significantly, it is only as a Guide that Ann is ever described as confident, and it is explained by the authorial voice that this is because she is never nervous of being snubbed by the Captain as she is by other staff (and, it might well be added, by everyone else). Despite her deep allegiance to the Guides, however, she accepts with good grace the fact that when she reaches the age of 16 she must leave the Company, and her willingness to bid goodbye to the absolute yards ... of badges she has won over the years is astonishing in its maturity. She loves animals and cares deeply for the welfare of the family's pets, but none the less keeps them in proportion, because, possibly unlike the rest of her family, she knows that people matter more than animals. Need one continue? She is very clearly a thoroughly admirable person.

And yet none of the other characters likes her. Apart from the Guides and Guider, it is difficult to find a genuinely approving remark about Ann. Nicola can't stand her, although it must be said that by the time of The Attic Term even Nicola is beginning to feel pangs of conscience about the way she treats Ann and not a moment too soon either. Rowan and Karen do defend Ann on occasion, notably in Falconer's Lure, where Karen points out to Peter and Nicola that Ann has feelings too, and Rowan backs Karen up, although managing by her choice of words (sweetly pretty thoughts) to convey to the younger ones that she too finds Ann trying. And the Marlows père and mère are, in their normal charming way, unpleasantly dismissive of Ann's opinions (e.g. on The Prince and the Pauper in Autumn Term), achievements (where are their congratulations on Ann's performances in the Festival in Falconers Lure and in the Christmas play?) and occasional lapses (e.g. when she panics and unnecessarily calls the Fire Brigade in the same book). At school, we are told in Autumn Term, the staff on the whole are apt to find her helpfulness a trifle exasperating.

Now most readers who are familiar with mainstream school stories of the 1930s and 40s -- for instance, those of Christine Chaundler, Winifred Darch or indeed EBD -- would agree that Kingscote is a very different place from the standard school-story school. In the Chalet School, for instance, the atmosphere is on the whole happy; the staff and girls share common aims and a common moral code and in general work together to achieve their aims; the staff understand the girls and are liked and respected by them; and we all know that this is Utopia!

At Kingscote things are much more realistic. The girls do not all get on together in harmony, but are often very unpleasant to each other. They seem to have little respect for the staff, who are depicted as being distant from the girls' lives and possessing little understanding of them and even less affection for them. Indeed, the girls do not even bother to invent nicknames for the staff, with the exception of Miss Cromwell, referring to them by surname only on most occasions. It is clear that there exist in the school great tensions between the staff and the girls, and between different cliques among the girls. Whereas we all know that it would be quite impossible for any girl to remain unhappy at the Chalet School for more than one term -- because she will cheer up as soon as she sees the light and starts to act like a Christian -- we can well imagine many girls going through their entire time at Kingscote in a state of misery which the staff neither notice nor care much about.

So what's the why of this unhappy state of affairs? Is it not that Antonia Forest, by taking the known behaviour patterns of teenage girls and putting them in a boarding-school situation, with all the miserable consequences, found that the standard school story was thereby turned on its head? In real life the good are not always rewarded, nor are the bad always punished -- and in any case who is to define good or bad? So it is that our heroine, Nicola, does get into scrapes caused for her by the villain, Lois, but is not triumphantly vindicated by the end of the book. Lois, meanwhile, is motivated, not by pure badness of which she will either be cured by the end of the book or because of which she will be expelled, but by a confused mixture of jealousy of and resentment towards the star family who grab all the best bits of whatever is going. She is never exposed as the Machiavelli behind Nicola's troubles -- at least not to the staff, although the girls have a pretty good idea of what's going on -- and is not even unrelievedly bad: a real school-story villain would not have Lois extraordinary reading-aloud abilities, nor would she be willing to help the Third Remove with their play; she would never have the pangs of conscience that trouble Lois to the extent that on her last day at school she tries to make it up with Nicola (an approach which, reprehensibly had she been a Chalet girl, Nicola rejects); and she would not be the type of girl whom Patrick, no less, who sees her at the Christmas play, would like on sight. Antonia Forest's girls act like real girls, not like idealized Chalet ones, and the picture is not a pretty one.

Every girls school, including the fictional ones, has its cliques: think of Mary-Lou's Gang or the Daisy/Gwensi/Beth Triumvirate. The difference at the Chalet School is that these groups are on the whole benevolent to those outside them. How unlike the unpleasant attitudes shown by Nicola, Lawrie, Tim and Miranda towards those who don't fit at any particular moment! Marie Dobson and Pomona are, bluntly, bullied by them, and Miranda's habit of choosing, apparently arbitrarily, a different Best Friend each term is only too familiar to those of us who, unlike her and Nicola, did not have people queuing up to be honoured by our friendship at school.

It is all very well for the reader to feel that she knows the Marlows inside out and would therefore be one of their circle: but in fact the Marlows are not like the majority of their readers. They come from a family of upper-class landed gentry and have attitudes to match. They seem to exist in a bubble of privilege to which few others are admitted, so that working-class people are there only to serve them and to be exploited if by some fluke they turn out to have talents which can be useful (e.g. Doris's dressmaking abilities). Not, of course, that Anna was ever invited to dine with the Maynards! Servants are not credited with having feelings like those of the Marlows (as when the family jeer at Mrs Bertie's grief over her cat, which was killed by one of Patrick's falcons, while seeing nothing wrong with Nicola's over the death of Sprog). The working class, though, are safe because they are so unlike the Marlows that they exist only as caricatures; it is for the middle class that the greatest contempt is reserved. At school the likes of Marie Dobson and Pomona, along with the majority of the staff, and at home the hapless Edwin, are despised not because they are inherently unpleasant but because they are middle class, with middle class attitudes and moral codes. It is not a matter of how rich anyone is -- in fact the Marlows are constantly complaining about how poor they are, although any family which can afford that many horses and multiple sets of boarding-school fees can't exactly be on the breadline (and I've always wondered what happened to the money the Merricks presumably paid them for their house in Hampstead!) -- but rather a matter of the Marlows knowing that they are special and that ordinary codes and laws don't apply to them. Think of Rowan's calm assumption that, although she is underage and has not passed a driving test, she is quite competent to drive the 40-minute journey home from school with her sisters as passengers (End of Term), confident that the application of lipstick will fool any passing policeman; or of Lawrie's indignation in The Thuggery Affair when, despite being dressed like a tart, having been caught climbing out of a window and having given the police a false name, she is not treated by those policeman in the proper forelock-tugging manner! Or even Patrick's condescending way of referring to the priest who says Latin Mass in the Merricks' private chapel -- thereby, possibly, incurring the disapproval of his bishop -- as our old lad.

It seems to me that these lordly attitudes explain much of Ann's family's hostility towards her. Ann is the archetypal middle-class Good Girl, who by all the conventions of the school-story genre should be a brilliant success at school. With her conventional attitudes and Brent-Dyerish moral code, Ann would have been right up there with Len and Mary-Lou had she had the luck to go to the Chalet School, where her sterling qualities would have been properly appreciated, while her sisters, in their various ways, would have been trials of one kind or another to Miss Annersley and Co.

If the staff at Kingscote were proper school-story staff they would not find Ann annoying; but because they do not have the improbable devotion to duty of a Miss Wilson or Matey, they do. We are clearly meant to feel that the Guider is a rather sad individual because she does like Ann (well, she teaches domestic science, after all, and everyone knows that Ann is the only Marlow who can ever be bothered to do any housework or cooking at home). Miss Keith, incidentally, must like Ann too, otherwise she would never have honoured her with the part of Mary in the Christmas play and later on with a prefectship (The Attic Term). This does, of course, confirm that Tim's contemptuous attitude towards Me Auntie is the right one to take: all I can say is that on the sole occasion when we see Miss Keith in headmistress mode, tearing deserved strips off Ginty, she seems to be doing a job worthy of Miss Annersley herself, if not of Madge Russell! It is all too easy, in this quasi-real world of flawed characters, to be seduced by the constantly Nicolacentric presentation of events into thinking that Nicola's world view is always the right one: but it isn't, and from time to time, whether via the comments of other characters or via the promptings of Nicola's own conscience, we are shown that Nicola is not as infallible as she thinks she is.

In an interview with Sue Sims (Folly 15, July 1995), Antonia Forest said that

Autumn Term was meant to be a one-off; after that, I would write a proper grown-up novel. Then I thought it might be interesting to write about a traitor -- and for the child characters one could use the younger Marlows, thus saving the trouble of inventing new characters. After Traitor [Miss Forest decided to write a book about falconry]... and then thought "Oh, that family!" By now I could see that the Marlows were likely to be around for some time...

So the Marlows were not originally intended to be the stars of a long series. And if they were only intended to figure in an iconoclastic cinema-verit version of The School Story, it is hardly surprising that the Aunt Sally of the piece, Ann, is not outstandingly convincing beyond the confines of that story. (Nor, come to that, is Lawrie -- were I her mother I'd be hotfooting it to the nearest child psychologist.)

There is no doubt that the Marlows and their circle are far more realistic characters, depicted in all their less-than-saintly roundness, than any who ever sprang from EBD's pen. But the Ann of Autumn Term is too good to live, and it is precisely because she belongs in the Utopian world of Chaundler, Darch and EBD that she is not convincing in the much more three-dimensional world of Kingscote. Whereas at the Chalet School she would have been praised and rewarded for her goodness, at Kingscote she just engenders guilt and resentment among her less saintly but nastily lifelike fellows. In The Cricket Term and The Attic Term we do see some development in Ann's characterization when she actually snaps at Nicola and fails to thank her for a favour done. At the same time Nicola is experiencing stirrings of conscience which lead her, however grudgingly, to treat Ann more considerately. Ann-with-an-edge begins to have signs of life and is perhaps the only Marlow who might believably cope in the modern world, beyond the high walls of Kingscote and Trennels. Given that she is the only member of the family with ambitions that will bring her into contact with the wider world of ordinary people, this is probably just as well.

The fact that the genuinely good Ann of the earlier books engenders the reactions that she does in those around her would seem to tell the reader more about the shortcomings of Ann's family and schoolmates than it does about hers. It is Ann's greatest misfortune that she is a Marlow, not a Maynard.

Text copyright Fen Crosbie, 1998.