The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘Simply just wizard, what?’. Antonia Forest and Percy Westerman

Dorset was the home of two very different writers of books for children. Colin Trueman looks at the life and work of Antonia Forest and of Percy Westerman.

The converted Thames barge on the River Frome at Wareham was Westerman's home for many years. Percy Westerman was often pictured (bearded in 1950) in marine attire, but his poor eyesight deprived him of a naval career… but gave the world hundreds of books

Aficionados of Dorset like to think that their county has a literary heritage second to none. After all, we can boast luminaries such as Thomas Hardy, John Fowles and T E Lawrence, as well as those not quite so well known outside our borders, such as William Barnes and the Powys family. Even when it comes to children’s writers, we can claim Enid Blyton in our ranks, although she lived outside Dorset it is not always appreciated that most of the Famous Five books are set in and around the Isle of Purbeck.

Furthermore, Dorset has inspired other authors of children’s books. J Meade Falkner set Moonfleet, his tale of 18th-century smuggling, on the Chesil Beach – Moonfleet village itself is real-life East Fleet. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (the most substantial of the Peter Rabbit series, running to 112 pages) was conceived while she was on holiday in Lyme Regis, and many of her illustrations for the book are based on the scenery she saw there. Joyce Reason’s The Mad Miller of Wareham features not only the eponymous town but also abbeys and priories in the rest of the county. Ironically, though, the one children’s book by Dorset’s most famous author is set in Somerset – and, moreover, Hardy’s Our Exploits at West Poley is decidedly one of his lesser creations.

But there are two more children’s authors with strong Dorset connections who are not nearly so well known, despite each having a strong fan base. Antonia Forest and Percy Westerman both lived in the county and wrote books for children – but other than that there is no similarity or connection between them. Even though their lives overlapped by more than forty years, they never met each other and had probably never heard of each other. Westerman wrote more than 170 books, targeted firmly at boy readers, while Forest wrote a mere thirteen, for a less age-specific female audience. Westerman relied on plot rather than on subtleties of characterisation, whereas a large part of the enduring charm of Forest’s books is the depth and credibility of the characters within them.

Percy Westerman was born in Portsmouth in May 1876, the son of a Master-at-Arms in the Royal Navy who later became a senior Writer (i.e. Admiralty clerk) at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. Percy wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but a naval career was denied to him because of his extremely poor eyesight, and he had to settle for being a clerk. But he made up for this landlubberly post by sailing, a hobby he pursued passionately at every opportunity, thereby gaining an exhaustive knowledge of the south coast – and his first published writings were articles for yachting magazines, which contained detailed accounts of some of these voyages. In 1900 he married Florence Wager, the girl from next-door-but-one in Campbell Road, and the following year their only son John was born.

John, later to become a writer of boys’ fiction himself, was to play a decisive part in Westerman senior’s career, albeit unconsciously. When six-year-old John was confined to bed with chickenpox, his father read to him. The fare was so unpromising that Florence bet her husband sixpence that he could not write something better. Percy was sure that he could, and, with typical industriousness, he set to. The result was his first novel, A Lad of Grit, published by Blackie in 1908.

That, at any rate, is the legend, and it has been confirmed by John – although, as Westerman expert Nigel Gossop points out, this is a story told by a storyteller to another storyteller who is telling it to us. The only hard evidence is the book, and certainly Percy’s judgment was borne out by its success. Subsequent books were just as popular, and within three years he was able to leave his job at the dockyard and become a full-time writer – a move which also meant he could indulge in his passion
for sailing.

Many of Westerman's books were illustrated by distinguished artists. The dust-wrapper on Leslie Dexter was by Rowland Hilder; Squadron Leader’s dust-wrapper was by Terence Cuneo.

He had arrived at just the right moment for Blackie, who had been the publisher of the historical novels of G A Henty. Henty had died in 1902 and Blackie needed an author to fill the gap. Westerman proceeded to do this for the next fifty years, writing an average of three and a half books a year: by the end of his life he had written 178 books, not to mention numerous articles and short stories published in countless magazines. Many of them were uncredited, as it was the policy of such firms as
D C Thomson not to name writers in their story papers. In 1927 Blackie gave him an exclusive contract, although not a financially generous one: Westerman had a sign above his working area that read ‘Blackie’s Bondman’.

His popularity was undoubted. According to a publisher’s blurb in 1933, ‘By the common consent of Boy Readers this author is second to none as the yarn spinner. He may always be relied upon to rouse the utmost interest and keep it at an intense point from cover to cover.’ This was Percy’s secret – in addition to the fact that he stripped away the pious overlay and Victorian moralising of his predecessors: in brief, he kept it simple, telling the story with the minimum of fuss and distraction. As Derek Brown memorably put it: ‘romantic interest is to Westerman’s art what Rugby League is to Barbara Cartland’s.’

Nor was there much opportunity for subtlety of style. Here is the opening of First Over, published in 1948: ‘”Seen this, old kite?” asked Arnold Brough, handing his chum a copy of a well-known aeronautical journal. “Simply just wizard, what?”.’
This, be it noted, after forty years of honing his literary skills.

In the 1920s Westerman found a Thames barge at Cowes and had it towed to Redcliffe on the River Frome at Wareham. He converted it into a houseboat and lived aboard it until a broken leg forced him to move onto land, but not before he had founded the Redclyffe Yacht Club. In Wareham today he is probably remembered more for this than for his prodigious literary output.

Antonia Forest was ten times less productive than Percy Westerman. In a writing career of 34 years she produced a mere thirteen novels. All but one of them feature, directly or indirectly, the Marlow family, and ten of them are set in the twentieth century either at school or in the holidays. It is tempting to think that they were written as a reaction to the somewhat bland school stories of Enid Blyton and others (the St Clare’s series began in 1941 and Malory Towers in 1946) – as, perhaps, Westerman had reacted against the wholesome worthiness of G A Henty.

Antonia Forest: As Pat Rubinstein as she was at the age of fifteen, as a writer when an adult and at Winchester Cathedral in later life

The first was Autumn Term, published in 1948, which introduces the Marlow children – eight of them, including six girls who all go to Kingscote School, a boarding establishment on the lines of Roedean. That it is not just another school story is made clear early on when Nicola, on her way to her first term at Kingscote, drops her new penknife from the train and pulls the communication cord so that she can get out and retrieve it – hardly the behaviour of an Enid Blyton heroine or one of the girls from Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School. Moreover, Nicola and her twin sister are placed in a Remove form, rather than a more academic A form like their sisters. Like most of Forest’s characters, they are often unsuccessful, not always likeable – but always credible.

Antonia Forest always wanted to be a writer. Her plan was to write a children’s book and then graduate to adult fiction, but this never happened. She was born Patricia Rubinstein, on 26 May 1915 in Hampstead, as the only child of Russian-Jewish and Irish parents. She moved to Bournemouth in 1938 and lived there for the rest of her life. She worked for a short time in a library and later had a post in the Army Pay Office in Gervis Place in central Bournemouth, although from 1947 writing took over, after the critical success of Autumn Term.

Antonia Forest's books were by no means typical schoolgirl stories. In Peter's Room the children create their own version of the Brontës' Gondal and Angria fantasies.

She never intended to write a series based on the Marlow children; her next book was to be about a traitor and she decided to use the younger Marlows as the child characters in it ‘to save the trouble of inventing new ones’, as she put it. Falconry was to be the subject of her third book, but once again the family re-appeared.

By this time she realised that they were fixtures, and they featured in seven more books over the following 25 years. Her characters only age a few years, though, and one of her more remarkable achievements is how consistent they remain, despite being able to remember the Blitz in the earlier volumes and watch television and dress as punks
later on.

She did not publish a book after 1982, even though she lived another twenty years. ‘Some writers go on with these things too long,’ she said. Percy Westerman would probably not have agreed.

 

For further information about Percy Westerman, visit www.westermanyarns.blogspot.com/

For further information about Antonia Forest, visit www.maulu.demon.co.uk/AF/

 

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