Antonia Forest paper in Literature and Theology special issue

The latest issue of Literature and Theology, guest-edited by Kirstie Blair and Elizabeth Anderson, is a special issue on Children's Literature and Theology. I have a paper in there on one of my most long-established literary loves, Antonia Forest, who is one of the most criminally under-remembered writers of twentieth-century children's fiction.

I first came across her in a Puffin anthology called In a Class of Their Own in about 1989: the first chapter of her Autumn Term was in there as a stand-alone story called "A Knife with Sixteen Blades", and I immediately recognized Nicola, Rowan and the other characters as so well-drawn that I felt I'd known them forever. (I think this book was also where I first came across Isaac Asimov's "The Fun They Had", which I can recite almost word for word and which I think remains the most anthologized short story of all time. Well done, that Puffin editor.)

It was a couple more years before I realized the chapter was part of a longer book, and a couple more still before I learned that there were lots more books about the Marlows. In the late 1980s, as Victor Watson notes in Reading Series Fiction, Forest was very much out of vogue, and several of the older books had gone out of print. This was pre-Amazon, pre-Abe Books, pre-eBay and the rest, and my local branch library, whilst fantastic in many ways, wouldn't do inter-library loans for the sake of one little girl's esoteric reading tastes, so I was into my twenties by the time I'd eventually read the whole canon. One of the genuinely most exciting moments of my life remains the day when I found an extremely rare first edition of Forest's 1965 book The Thuggery Affair for £2 in a second-hand bookshop in Sherborne.

Forest was one of the few writers I read as a child who didn't talk down to children on the complex issue of religion and religiosity. (I've since discovered others, including the brilliant Aidan Chambers, but I didn't know him as a child.) So when I saw the call for this special issue, I realized it was a brilliant opportunity to do some proper reflection on Forest's peculiarly uncompromising treatment of theology and spirituality (in a totally non-didactic way) in what would now be called YA fiction. I was delighted to have my paper accepted, and it has now appeared as

‘Not Something I’d Ever Dream of Dying for’: Religious Identity and Belonging in Antonia Forest’s Marlow Novels, Literature and Theology (2016) 30 (2): 148-163 doi:10.1093/litthe/frw010 


The theme of religious belief occurs with increasing frequency and depth across Antonia Forest’s books and is central to the development of several main characters, including Nicola, Ann and Patrick. In this article, 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. 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. 

Other papers in the special issue focus on Nancy Drew, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Harry Potter and more; it's well worth a look! Thanks to Kirstie and Elizabeth for all their work in curating the special issue.