How many children’s books have characters that not only discuss literature but also give you a reading list? That is just one of the things that put Antonia Forest’s novels at the top of mine. Her wonderful sequence of thirteen books, written between 1948 and 1982, follows the fortunes of the Marlow family – eight children, naval commander father, upper-middle class stock going back to Tudor times –in vivid episodes, centred now on the girls’ boarding school, Kingscote, now on the family farm, Trennels, now on London, more specifically Hampstead. They were the first books to make me feel that my preoccupations and dreaminess, which marked me out as peculiar at school, were part of growing up – that I was not alone.
Reading my first Marlow book, Falconer’s Lure, a few years after its publication in 1957, I was amazed to find that the protagonist lived in Hampstead. I lived in Hampstead! And that Nicola, the brave, truthful, sensitive, intelligent heroine, liked Hampstead more than any other place in the world. So did I! And she loved reading. So did I! And her family talked about books. So did mine! And she fell in love with boys but couldn’t talk about it . . . You get the picture. I must have been 12 or 13 – Nicola’s age – when I was entranced to discover that somewhere in the world were other girls who not only loved books but could also escape into other worlds without magic, just by throwing themselves into experiences. I had only just, reluctantly, given up hope of one day stepping into a painting and sailing away, like Prince Caspian in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Kay in The Box of Delights; at the same time, I was sneaking reads of my mother’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when she went out. There hadn’t seemed to be any books for people like me; in fact, I didn’t really believe there were any people like me.
In Falconer’s Lure Nicola meets Patrick, the boy next
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