Thank you to Lilibulero for letting me have a go at the wheel of the Readthrough. The Ready-Made Family is my favourite Forest book. I love the dynamics of a large family with an 'intruder' in their midst. So such as they are, here are my musings.
I tried to put in the lj cuts so it didn't all show at once, but for some reason they haven't worked!
To Meet The Dodds.
The chapter opens with Peter and Nicola reunited and having a conversation which is both very funny but also ominous at times, such as Selby’s witty but unfunny quote from Hamlet – the funeral baked meats furnishing forth the wedding feast. (As a slight aside, I wonder if Nicola is inspired by this remark to go and read Hamlet, because by Cricket Term she does know something of Hamlet.) Then they imagine if all of the girls had been bridesmaids and Edwin had to buy them all presents – a delighful but daunting idea for any future spouse. Then the funniest pair of lines – ‘ d’ you think there was a ghastly pause after Kay said And there’s another seven at home?’ ‘There was a gruesome ghastly pause after Kay said he’s forty-one with three children,’ – a reminder that neither party in this marriage is facing an ideal situation or an easy time.
Finally Peter points out to Nicola the painful truth that Patrick and Ginty are likely to be wrapped up in each other, and Nicola realises ‘that however certain you may be in your own mind of the truth of some disagreeable fact, it only becomes real when someone else … confirms it for you.’
So the Dodds are finally arriving and Mrs Marlow can’t meet them herself because she needs to wash her hair. Really? I thought ‘washing one’s hair’ was the classic excuse for not going out on a date you didn’t want to go on. Mrs Marlow asks Ginty to go, only Ginty is at her most unlikeable in this book, a self-centred and vain teenage brat. When Mrs Marlow gives up on Ginty with the comment that she doesn’t want the Dodds to feel unwelcome, Ginty is both ‘relieved but resentful’. This is such a true depiction of the teenage mind – Ginty doesn’t actually want to put herself out doing a job for someone else, but neither does she want her mental self-image to be of a mean, unfriendly person.
Both Peter and Ann show their understanding of the awfulness of this whole situation in different ways. Peter thinks as the train comes in ‘This is a very grotty happening. Someone should have stopped it.’ Indeed, but who? And Ann says sorry to Rose, meaning she is sorry that Rose’s parents have divorced, her mother has died and that she has had to leave her home and come and live with strangers. Imagine if the whole book was written from Rose’s point of view – it would be hard for any modern critic to complain that the story was all about privileged children. Rose’s story could be the entire plot of a Jacqueline Wilson book.
I love Nicola and Peter meeting the Dodds. We see them both at their best, I think, especially Peter thinking of buying the sweets to make them feel welcome. Peter is natural and easy with Fob who instinctively latches onto him. And then when Mrs Clavering is pulled onto the platform by Rose, Peter is quite masterful and assertive in insisting she comes to tea, while still being polite and charming and funny – possibly glimmers of officer material showing through.
Nicola and Peter are both obviously naturally ‘good with’ younger children. I wonder if, having always been ‘lower orders’ themselves, they find it enjoyable being ‘upper deck’ in turn. They are now being ‘Giles’ and ‘Rowan’ to versions of their younger selves. (Although I’m sure Peter will be far more kind and consistent with Fob than Giles was with Nicola.)
Chas is an immensely likeable child. The conversation he and Nicola have while walking home from the station is so well written. Chas has had both unthinkable things happen to him – parents divorcing and his mother dying, and he doesn’t have a clue really about what happens next. AF makes him so calm and resigned about it all, even though his questions make Nicola’s heart lurch. AF’s characterisation is so good, we have only just met Chas, and yet we already care about what happens to him, and it’s all done without a trace of sentimentality or ‘ickiness’.
Tea And Stables.
What do we make of Mrs Clavering? The Marlows and their mother whole-heartedly approve of her. From what we see of her at tea, it seems unfair to think that she would really have been turning the children against Edwin. Has Kay been encouraging Edwin to worry about something that hasn’t actually been happening?
Tea is a successful meal, and afterwards the children are ordered outside by Mrs Marlow for a walk which ends up with everyone except Rose enjoying themselves in the stable yard. Into this scene rides Ginty who proceeds to career across the yard and nearly crush Rose in the doorway. Ginty could perfectly well get off Catkin and hold him at the entrance to the yard until the others are out of the way, but with her head full of thoughts of Patrick she has to show off in front of her earthbound siblings. And why is Catkin so excitable when he has supposedly been out riding all afternoon? I suspect he and Blackleg have been tied up somewhere while Ginty and Patrick gaze into each others eyes, pretending to be Rosina and Rupert. Nicola, quick thinking and resourceful, rescues Rose: a forerunner of what is to come later in the book.
Ginty’s news that the Idiot Boy is for sale confirms for Nicola that Ginty and Patrick have been riding together, and as she usually does when upset, goes off on her own to fetch more sugar, firmly telling herself not to care – saying ‘ “Well – so what?” to herself at intervals.’ It reminds me of the time she had to repeat Sprog’s name over and over.
One of the themes of this book is Nicola maturing. In the conversation with her mother after Mrs Clavering leaves, she seems very young, and at her most Lawrieish. Her mother points out that Mrs Clavering’s daughters have been killed, and Nicola says ‘People don’t mind, do they, not as much, when they get older?’
While waiting for Edwin to arrive the conversation turns to the Idiot Boy and surprisingly Mrs Marlow tells them they can cash their savings to buy him. Has the stress of the wedding made her so distracted that she doesn’t care if two of her children who can’t even ride very well spend a serious amount of money on a pony? And the unfairness of Ginty getting Catkin is brought up yet again.
Finally the dreaded moment arrives, and Edwin is introduced, AF gives us a far more detailed description of his physical appearance than she usually does for any character. Is she making it clear that Karen hasn’t been swept away by good looks? And then the chapter closes; with a splendid economy of words, AF gives us the forbidding sentence: ‘It was no good. They didn’t take to him at all.’
Wedding And Breakfast.
Although the book is referencing ‘Persuasion’ throughout, the wedding reminds me very much of the wedding scene in ‘Jane Eyre’. It is early morning, the church is empty and gloomy and the clothes are drab. Nicola’s reflection over the point in the ceremony where the vicar asks if there are any reasons why the couple should not be wed, and Nicola wonders if anyone ever had, seems to suggest that someone should be stopping this wedding. Has Nicola read Jane Eyre or has she been put off the Brontes for life by the Gondalling?
Patrick, you complete b******. Couldn’t you even acknowledge your former best friend with a smile instead of staring gormlessly at Ginty? That would just be ordinary politeness, as Mrs Marlow might say.
A comic touch is provided by Ginty’s fantasies about clothes – something floaty and black laceish – really? In a church? And then imagining marrying Patrick in the Merrick’s chapel. Oh dear.
The family gather outside the church to see the couple off. The sense of resentment at an intruder making off with one of the family is perfectly expressed by the collective ‘stiffening’ at Edwin calling Kay ‘Katie’. Karen now has a life and a persona which excludes all of them, and even if they liked Edwin, they would still feel that sense of displacement.
Back home for a hearty breakfast, and I do enjoy the descriptions of Chas eating. What is it about small boys with huge appetites that makes them so charming? And the family disperse for the day. Ginty again kicks up a fuss about being asked to do something.
Is Ginty just being a teenager? Because I can’t help wondering, given how opalescent her character is, if spending all her time with Patrick is causing her to reflect Patrick’s personality – self-absorbed, arrogant, single-minded?
It could also be said that Patrick and Ginty are mirroring Karen and Edwin – both couples are obsessed with getting what they want, oblivious to how anybody else is affected.
Rowan in these chapters is rather ghost-like, appearing in silence at meals, and not saying anything, bearing all the weight of Trennels on her shoulders. Come on Mrs Marlow, it’s time you noticed!
The chapter ends with Nicola and Rose in the old playroom. I love the moment when Rose shuts her eyes, hoping for something magical to appear, and then, in a way, it does, with her discovery of a shelf of books that she can escape into. Rose gets to escape from all the uncertainties of her new life into these imaginary worlds, until the chapter ends on another perfectly expressed ominous note: ‘With the end of the honeymoon, however, matters were better ordered; as Rose had feared they would be.’