'Not Something I’d Ever Dream of Dying For’: Religious Identity and Belonging in Antonia Forest’s Marlow Novels
Literature and Theology: an international journal of religion, theory and culture
Oxford University Press (OUP)
Reason for embargo
Antonia Forest’s books about the Marlow family were published between 1948 and 1982, but cover less than two-and-a-half years in the characters’ lives. Forest was the pseudonym of Patricia Rubinstein (1915-2003), daughter of Russian-Jewish and Irish Protestant immigrants to England, who was raised a Reform Jew and converted to Roman Catholicism in adulthood. Hilary Clare described Forest as a ‘neglected genius’, and Victor Watson comments that her general disregard by critics is as egregious as though reference to Jane Austen had been as completely erased. Part of the reason for Forest’s neglect may be the prominent place of religious themes in her novels, particularly the in-depth account of changes in the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. The theme of religious belief occurs with increasing frequency and depth across the books and is central to the development of several main characters, including Nicola, Ann and Patrick. In this paper, I focus particularly on three novels, The Thuggery Affair (1965), The Attic Term (1976) and Run Away Home (1982), and suggest that Forest’s treatment of religion therein testifies to her belief that teenagers are well able to deal with emotional complexities bound up with adherence to and rejection of religious belief, practice and identity. Throughout the Marlow novels, Forest drives home that character and virtue are universally-cultivable values, and emphasizes the extent to which religious belonging (and alienation) is frequently as much about familial and cultural ties, and disposition, as about individual assent to a particular set of doctrines. Nonetheless, her characters exhibit a specifically theological adeptness which is almost unparalleled in contemporaneous novels for children, chiming far more closely with works of an earlier age. In their theological complexity and emphasis on conscience and the negotiation of religious duty, Forest’s books have more in common with virtue novels such as those by Charlotte M. Yonge. Forest revives discourses of religious belief and character development more explicit in pre-twentieth-century novels, and, in demonstrating their resonances with distinctly twentieth-century concerns, showing that these are less absent from contexts often supposed to be increasingly secularized than we might suppose. Unlike Yonge, however, Forest makes clear that growing up is about coming to accept the flaws in others. The ‘community’ to which all her characters must come to ‘belong’, finally, is one in which, rather than professing a particular doctrinal position, they understand the complexity of adult morality, and the compromised and compromising morality of responsibility to (religious and other) institutions and themselves.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from Oxford University Press via the DOI in this record.
Published online 6 April 2016