Antonia Forest

Effortlessly believable children's writer

Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein (Antonia Forest), writer: born London 26 May 1915; died Bournemouth, Dorset c29 November 2003.

Antonia Forest wrote 13 books for children, published between 1948 and 1982. Her 10 best-known works concern the doings of the fictional Marlow family, and she also produced two historical novels about the Marlows' Elizabethan ancestors.

The modern-day Marlow books contain several of the standard ingredients of girls' fiction of the mid- 20th century. The series features a large family (six sisters, two brothers), with four volumes set against the backdrop of a girls' boarding school, and school holidays that involved the implausibly frequent foiling of wartime traitors, drug-smuggling gangs and other villains. But there the similarity between Forest and her peers ends. Her tight plotting, realistic dialogue and sharp characterisation meant that, when she moved from the minutiae of family life into more thrilling situations, she remained effortlessly believable.

Although Forest's books were published over three and a half decades, they cover a period of less than three years in the life of the Marlows. This leads to some interesting jumps in context, from the post-war years to the Sixties to the Eighties. Forest comfortably, if somewhat surreally, skates over the fact that her characters remember the Blitz in the earlier volumes, but mix with teddy boys and watch television later on. The effect is less jarring than might be imagined, because her characters remain so consistently themselves. The prettiest sister is one of the least admirable in other ways; the "good" sister is one of the least enticing characters, and all eight siblings are variously talented but flawed.

One of the great pleasures of reading Forest is the proliferation of literary references. The Marlows, a bright and well-read bunch, nod to sources ranging from Shakespeare, Hakluyt, the Brontës and Jane Austen to Lord Peter Wimsey. This does not make them goody-goody or even a bunch of show-offs. As with the extended timeline, Forest's skill and consistency in other areas make the doses of literature slip down delightfully.

The modern "novel for children" often aims to explore life's big questions as well as tell a gripping tale, and Forest's books could be considered its forerunners. She did not hesitate to explore themes such as loyalty, honour, friendship, trust. A practising Roman Catholic, she also tackled religion. However, she was not impressed by the children's fiction of today. "I think most of what is written for children now is frightful," she said earlier this year. "The world is changing, but I am not, and I don't think much of it."

All of Forest's books, initially published by Faber, languished out of print for several decades. This situation was condemned as "outrageous" by The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (2001), which mentions Forest first in its section on neglected works, cites her as "one of the best children's writers of the 20th century", and also notes that her work is marked by "extraordinary richness and complexity of characterisation, sensitive treatment of difficult situations, and a deep love of history and literature".

Tracking down the Forest titles on the second-hand market is both difficult and expensive, with copies of her rarer works easily fetching upwards of £100. However, Autumn Term, the first in the Marlow series, published in 1948, was reprinted in 2000, and Faber subsequently gave permission for a small independent publishing house, Girls Gone By, gradually to reissue her entire oeuvre, starting with the most sought-after titles. Falconer's Lure (first published in 1957), Run Away Home (1982) and The Marlows and The Traitor (1953) were all republished this year.

Forest, who wrote under a pseudonym, was fiercely protective of her privacy, concealing her real name and her age even from her publishing company in latter years. She was born Patricia Giulia Caulfield Kate Rubinstein, in Hampstead, London, in 1915, of mixed Irish and Russian descent. Many of her family lived in Bournemouth and she spent her summer holidays there, with an aunt. As an only child, which she regretted, her experience of large families was drawn from acquaintance with the next-door neighbours. One thing she noticed, she said, was that the characters in large families are not necessarily alike, as they are not in her books.

Feeling, almost certainly over-modestly, that she would not be able to manage a degree in English or Philosophy, she chose instead a less demanding discipline, and studied journalism at London University, which she found "great fun". She worked in the Civil Service, in a clerical position, and then in a library.

She first tried her hand at writing novels for adults, but three early semi-autobiographical attempts were rejected. "I thought that if I could get my foot in the door with a children's book, I might then write a proper novel." She was astonished and delighted when Faber accepted Autumn Term; and, though she never did write what she calls "a proper novel", her Marlow books stand comparison with much adult fiction.

Forest devotees are dismayed by the way the final book in the series, Run Away Home, leaves the Marlows hanging, with many questions unanswered; but Forest was unrepentant:

Some authors go on with these things too long. The later Chalet School books and Elsie J. Oxenham books were terribly repetitive. I stopped writing for a bit, then stopped altogether; I can't explain it, I just did.

Forest was self-deprecating about her work, claiming that "it just fell off the pen". Peter's Room (1961), based around the sagas the Brontë children wrote about their imaginary kingdoms of Gondal and Angria, was her favourite Marlow volume: but at the same time, she said she was "not especially proud of any of them". Perhaps this modesty is one reason why she slipped out of view; along with her extreme reluctance to give interviews. "Authors," she noted drily, "do seem to me to talk too much about their books."

Forest inherited her aunt's house in 1938 and moved to Bournemouth, where she lived quietly for the rest of her life. She never married or had children. A core of faithful admirers has kept her works alive, and there are several websites devoted to her. While Antonia Forest never achieved the mass popularity of her contemporaries Enid Blyton and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, her books are an infinitely more satisfying and worthwhile read.

Hester Lacey