The first thing to be asked is, is there a love story at all? Of course there is, but you would be forgiven for not realising it because in the Bannermere series by Geoffrey Trease, we only have Bill Melbury’s word for anything that happens, and dear old Bill is both oblivious until the very last moment that it’s possible to be oblivious, and too full of basic English decency to actually make any overt reference to such things.
David Morton and Petronella Sterling have twenty books over which to thrash out their future, and an objective narrator willing to tell as much as show. Bill Melbury and Penny Morchard must fit their love story into only five books, in which one of them can only speak what the other will record. It’s that which makes it easy for the boys and girls reading the Bannermere books to overlook, or even ignore, where the old friendship between these two is to end.
There are actually two overt romances in the series, both of which Trease confines to the deep background, one of which is pulled like a rabbit from a hat without a word of warning. The other, though its details are kept equally private, does belong to this story, and will be touched upon in passing.
But our main interest is in a story being told by a narrator who, almost until the end of it, is far less aware of what is going on than his readers, to the point that you start to wonder if he’s fit to be let out on his own, a storyteller who almost derails his own tale with a naivete of an entirely different order to that we see from the start. That he gets there in the end is almost a miracle of perception, but he gets there, even if he will never speak a word about it.
No Boats on Bannermere
Everything begins somewhere. David met Peter on a mountain, Bill meets Penny in a Botley’s cafe, Winthwaite, over ice creams. But each of them had to be there to meet. David was only on the Long Mynd because his father bought Witchend as an evacuation home for his family, and this was required because Adolf Hitler started the Second World War: a massive genesis. Bill’s in Winthwaite because his mother inherited a cottage in Bannerdale on condition she lived there, but the ultimate cause is no less massive, if entirely personal, than the historico-political causes of the War. This is a Divorce.
Things like that were virtually unheard of in children’s fiction of that era, and beyond the fact of it, we hear nothing about the divorce in all the series. But we can work out some things from the context.
It is mentioned, onceor twice, that this was long enough ago that Bill, and his younger sister Susan, were very small. They have certainly adjusted to it fully. Their parents have split up, their father has run away to Canada, they hear and see nothing of or about him, and the divorce has presumably worked a massive change on their lifestyle, but not once does either express distress or disturbance at the loss of a parent, especially not Bill, who is a boy in an age when boys worshipped their fathers.
That tells us something. It tells us that Mr Melbury was a rubbish father, his absence leaving no void that didn’t already exist. Nobody cares about him. They’ve lost what we assume to have been a stable, decent home and because he’s run off to Canada to avoid paying maintenance, the Melburys are stuck in a cycle of cheap and nasty lettings with cheap and nasty landladies. They have to make the best of things.
There’s one more point to express before we move on, and it’s one that I suspect has been kept from the children. Mrs Melbury has clearly had to divorce her spouse, and it was for Adultery. There were no other grounds back then, and we know it was him not her who cheated. How? She got maintenance and custody (I imagine the latter would not have been contested) and a Scarlet Woman would have had neither.
If that’s to be doubted, look at the subsequent behaviour of the pair. He shoots off to Canada (with his mistress? Who cares?) whilst she, despite her determination to keep up standards of appearance, and being referred to as a bit of a cut over other mothers, there isn’t the slightest sign of interest in her finding a ‘boyfriend’.
Incidentally, there’s never any mention of how Mrs Melbury comes by her limited income, which will only support cheap lodgings. Perhaps in London she works, but in Bannerdale she is a lady of leisure. In all these circumstances, Bill and Sue are almost too well-adjusted children.
The actual decision to move to West Cumberland nearly fails because Mrs Melbury is fearful of disrupting her children yet again, but thanks to one last nasty crack by Miss Raby, the die is cast. Bill will go to the centuries old Winthwaite Grammar School, where he will meet his best mate, Tim Darren, and his Headmaster, Mr Kingsford, Susan will go to the County Secondary, where she will meet her best friend, Penny Morchard and her Headmistress, Miss Florey. Bill and Sue meet for lunch on their first day, but whereas Tim has gone home to eat, Sue has brought Penny. She and Bill meet. Something begins.
But not at first. True, Bill is very impressed by the looks of his sister’s friend. Penny’s pale, clear skin and shining black hair are one thing, but her vitality and her wit are just as impressive. Bill, we might say, is smitten. Bill would not agree. Bill is next to completely oblivious as to just how appealing he finds Penny, though he can’t help coming back to her looks, most directly in his offhand (and private) comment about how Tim can call himself observant when he seems completely unaffected.
Is there any reciprocation from Penny? Not by her conversation, it seems. Penny accepts Bill as her friend’s brother, and then as her friend, a vital component in their little set. If she does respond on any other level, either on that initial meeting, or subsequently, we don’t know. We are reliant on Bill to tell us and even if Penny does give off any signs of something more than mere friendship, Bill would a) not notice it and b) not write about it if she did.
On the other hand, Bill, without recognising it in himself, does show a degree of empathy to Penny. This stems from Penny’s tragedy. Bill wants to be a writer, Tim a Police Detective, Sue’s arrival in West Cumberland has already suggested that her metier will be farming, but Penny wants to be an actress. She has the looks, the determination and above all the innate, natural talent. But she’s the one who cannot have her dream. A fall from a ladder when young, a badly-set leg have left her with a permanent limp. It’s not massively debilitating, and she still leads a full life, but that life is empty in things that matter to her, such as dance, and most of all, move naturally on stage.
This moves Bill, and even after Sue’s warning that Penny’s pride, and her hatred of pity, means that she cannot be condescended to, he is always aware of the extra limitations Miss Morchard faces, and he does everything he properly can to ensure she is protected.
Bill and Penny (and Sue and Tim) are all children, and this is a children’s book from 1948. There’s an enemy and a Treasure Hunt, a backwards thinking (though spirited and highly intelligent) Headmaster and a forwards-thinking (and also spirited and highly intelligent) Headmistress. No Boats on Bannermere was first and foremost an adventure story, but also an experimental one in that Trease, a very successful author of historical fiction, had been challenged to write a present day book without the cliches of dorm life, midnight feasts and secret passage.
He responded brilliantly, using Bill as his narrator, with the mildly metafictional element of Bill being conscious of writing the story whilst in it, but he wrote the Bannermere children as children. Bill’s initial response to Penny has very clear sexual undertones, but that’s all they are and remain, in this book and most of the others, and dear old Bill is completely unaware that’s what they are. His mother and sister have a much better idea, and Trease does a brilliant job at having Bill tell his audience things we can see but he misses.
But right at the end, on the last page, in fact, Trease drops his only overt clue, if indeed it is a clue. The Coroner’s Court has pronounced the treasure to be Treasure Trove, thwarting the unscrupulous Sir Alfred Askew. A reporter buttonholes Bill and Penny. Trying to get things straight, he suggests Penny is Bill’s sister. Very robustly, she replies, “No, thank God!”
By itself it may mean nothing. The times here are two decades older than when I was their age, but I still recognise the element of simple denial in that retort. However, the reporter sees another possibility. He doesn’t state it, but his nudge to Bill and his suggestion that might mean something else points directly at it. Penny, at least, understands what he means and turns bright red. Does this mean what Trease is hinting at? Will we get any more clues in the second book?
Under Black Banner
On the surface, nothing has changed in the second book, neither at its beginning nor at its end, which is about restoring a rightful position in more senses than one. If anything, the only romantic move that can be said to happen herein not only takes place completely in the dark as far as Bill Melbury is concerned, but has nothing to do with him and Penny Morchard, at least directly.
When it comes to romance, there are two stories buried in the second book, one of which progresses considerably further than the other. Indeed, whilst reading the book for evidence of the development of Bill and Penny’s relationship, it’s interesting to see just how much more overtly Trease treats the relationship of Sue Melbury and Johnny Nelson, whilst arranging things so that it all passes under Bill’s radar.
A year has passed since No Boats on Bannermere. Bill and Sue have shipped their mother off to Manchester for a hairstyling and shopping weekend, invited Tim and Penny up to stay and set off impulsively to climb Black Banner. Lost in cloud, they descend the wrong side of the mountain, taking refuge overnight in derelict buildings around Black Banner Tarn. They discover that another Grammar School boy is doing so more regularly than them. When Tim decides to use his detective skills to identify the boys, Penny challenges him, with Bill as her champion. Bill always gets a warm feeling at having Penny’s approval.
The boy is Johnny Nelson, a year ahead of Bill and Tim, captain of Sports in the weakest House at the Grammar. Nelson’s an amiable, straightforward character, and when it comes to Sports Day, he not only beats out the favourite, Ian Seymour, for Victor Ludorum, but almost single-handedly lifts Brownriggs into second place.
That Sports Day proves critical to everything. It enables Bill to identify Nelson as the boy at Black Banner Tarn. It enables Sue to see Johnny Nelson, of whom she forms quite a favourable opinion. It enables Johnny Nelson to see Sue, and given that she’s three years younger than him, it’s significant that he notices her at all. And it enables Penny to see Seymour, which is not a good thing at all.
Once he understands that Bill and Tim aren’t going to blab, Nelson unbends to lay out the story that becomes the plot. His parents used to farm Black Banner Tarn before the War but had to move out to let the Army use the land for war-training. Now the War’s over, the Army are refusing to hand it back. Our friends take up the cause of pressurising the Army to do the decent thing.
There’s an amusing moment when Sue and Penny pretend to have a puncture to get to talk to the Nelson parent about whether they want to go back (they very much do). They end up with Johnny’s help, but he recognises Sue as Melbury’s brother. It’s Trease’s second light touch: Johnny has noticed Sue.
The campaign is to start with letter writing to the local paper, one a week, Bill, Penny, Tim and Sue in that order. But Penny seems to be dawdling over writing her letter, and when the paper appears, she’s not represented. Bill’s furious, but that’s just the beginning. Nelson’s invited him to go fishing at the Tarn Saturday afternoon, and then almost as an afterthought, suggests he could bring his sister… Bill obliviously parlays that into an invite to all four, but Penny doesn’t turn up. And when the trio cycle back to Winthwaite, they have to pull up sharpish to avoid a fast moving car, driven by Seymour. There’s a girl with him. Bill doesn’t see her, but from Sue’s reaction he knows exactly who it is…
Bill is horribly jealous. His response is visceral but he can’t see that it is not the betrayal of the cause and the group that has upset him, but the more personal one he doesn’t recognise. Penny’s approval of him is very important, and this rejection, and in favour of the unsuitable Seymour, who is not only some three years older than her but whose moral character doesn’t come up to scratch, is utterly devastating.
Of course, Penny’s acting foolishly. She’d gotten dreamy over Seymour at the Sports Day but he’d seen (and fancied) her, and come looking for her, flattering her with an older boy’s attention. And she tries to make herself older, with lipstick and cheap scent, which only infuriates Bill more when he casts her off as a traitress, which hurts her in her turn.
We have to ask ourselves, just how foolish has she been? Not that foolish: there won’t be any of that happening, and besides Penny can’t be more than fourteen. But we know Seymour’s type, and we know that a girl won’t last long alongside them without certain liberties being mandatory: besides, Penny’s a bit googly eyes over him, so there will have been a number of snogging sessions. Poor girl.
Everything comes to a head in a multi-school expedition to London to see the International Exhibition. Bill and Penny separately plan to sneak off illicitly on the last afternoon, he to Parliament where a meeting with his MP proves to be the tipping point that wins the cause, she to the Theatre to see Shakespeare.
Bill’s unaware of this until, hurrying back to the Station, he bumps into Penny, lost and panicking and unable to get help. Being Bill, he immediately takes her in charge, gets them back in time. His reward is to find that Penny wants nothing to do with Seymour ever again: firstly, he wanted to go to some cheap variety show, not real theatre, then he dumps Penny for some cheap shopgirl with whom he can go dancing, making a cruel point about Penny’s gammy leg that prevents her from every doing that.
There might be a little Schadenfreude about Bill’s pleasure at learning this, but the true moment of reconciliation comes when Penny corrects him over her unwritten letter. It was written, and posted, but in the light of responses from Kingsford and Sir Alfred, it wasn’t chosen for print. That’s all Bill needs, to be able to take the betrayal onto his own shoulders, to be in the wrong. That cements things for him. And Penny, we suspect, has learnt a lesson about the value of certain men along the way.
On the surface, we’re no further forward. Underneath, there is the beginning of movement, from friends as part of a group, to friends for no other reason than enjoyment of each other’s company. It will only get stronger.
But the last word is the grand opening of the Nelson’s farm. Sue’s thrown herself into the refurbishing and renewing, along with many others, though she’s the one who, from the first, has seen the wild beauty of living at the Tarn with the same eyes as Nelson… or Johnny, as she now suddenly calls him.
Bill sees this as a matter for teasing, but Penny, once again completely loyal to her best friend, and a hundred times more sensitive than Bill, warns him off. This is no foolish crush, like Penny’s, and Bill is sensitive enough to Penny to read her glance, if not necessarily to realise that his younger sister is now older than him on one level.
Black Banner Players
There’s a moment, just over halfway through this book, that looks like a repeat in smaller compass of the main element of Under Black Banner, but which I believe is the most significant moment to date for Bill and Penny.
The pair have travelled together to Castle Eden, for individual reasons that they are concealing from each other. Bill claims to be researching something in the bigger Library available there, which happens to be true but which is just a two-birds-with-one-stone opportunity. Penny claims to be meeting her Manchester Aunt to go clothes shopping, which is a flat out lie.
Bill’s looking for an early shorthand system that will enable him to translate the old diary he’s received from the Drakes, retired stage actors living in poverty, but that’s a bonus: he’s really here to meet Celia Bridgewater, of Children’s Hour, at the regional BBC offices, to discuss a short story he’d sent in. The story’s too long, but it would justify its half hour running time if converted to a play, and Bill emerges with that option.
All’s good, until he arrives at the station to see Penny laughing and talking with a handsome local schoolboy. Once again, he is horribly jealous, but this time, instead of being able to dissipate it (marginally) to his family, he gets snotty at Penny directly. She, naturally, gets furious and prepares to leave him on his own.
Instead, she stops, looks at him strangely, and stays. It’s a stiff, stilted journey, with very little conversation, but she keeps looking through the window thoughtfully.
What we are watching, with tremendous understatement, is the moment that Penny first starts thinking seriously of Bill as a future boyfriend or partner.
It’s a moment that changes everything. We’ve seen Bill’s jealousy before, and known it for what Bill can’t see it as being. It’s clear to his mother, and to sister Sue, Penny’s best friend. Whether out of loyalty to her brother, or out of embarrassment at discussing a thing that’s not a mere crush but which goes deeper than that, Sue hasn’t confided Bill’s feelings to Penny. She’s seeing his jealousy herself for the first time. In Under Black Banner, she, like he, put his curtness down to her ‘betrayal of the cause’ but now she’s re-evaluating everything she knows. Bill is no longer just a friend, a part of the gang. Bill has feelings about her. And Penny is looking inside herself, at what she feels about him.
Of course Bill unburdens himself to his mother and sister again, not that he gets much sympathy. Mrs Melbury thinks things are serious enough for her to try to point out how unreasonable he is being, to try to direct him away from a possessiveness he has no right to feel, that he doesn’t even recognise he feels. Of course, it’s her that is being unreasonable, by not agreeing with him, and especially for pointing out that he wasn’t honest to Penny about his trip to Castle Eden. The contretemps dies down with no resolution.
Even before this, things have moved forward a little. Mr Morchard has asked Bill to assist in the bookshop in the run-up to Xmas, which has meant the two seeing more of each other, without the other two. Bill sees more of Penny’s home life than he has before, learning how she is both different and yet unchanged when she is with her placid, thoughtful father. And Mrs Melbury generously invites the Morchards to Xmas at Beckfoot, an invitation Mr Morchard clearly enjoys, though his primary reason is for his daughter’s benefit. In this, I suspect this wise but quiet man is already aware of Bill’s empathy with his daughter.
It’s on Xmas Day – how odd to think that post used to be delivered then – that Bill is offered a chance to publish his poetry. Trease based this on his own naïve experience, and gives the over-eager Bill the escape he didn’t receive, but it’s very noticeable that Penny spreads Bill’s fame far and wide as a writer, proud for her friend even as she displays one of her few moments of bitterness over her failed dreams.
And more importantly, it is Penny who, with complete understanding of how Bill is feeling, and of what he most needs, who shuts down gossip and conversation over his reversal, sparing him the humiliation he fears becoming public. All this before the moment she starts to take stock of him as something more than a friend.
Though it’s not directly pertinent to the Bill – Penny relationship (nor the Sue – Johnny one, which is proceeding placidly whilst the latter is away at Agricultural College), I find the book’s story very warming. Though the Black Banner Revue, and its successor, the Black Banner Players, is conceived with an ulterior motive and continues for enjoyment’s sake, it, like the book overall, is about giving to others. The Players bring entertainment to folk in remote valleys, who can’t get away from their lives, and the Players are the means by which the lives of two elderly actors, declining in poverty, are changed.
Penny adopts the Drakes as mentors and friends, horrified and furious at the straits their lives have led to, and Bill discovers that an old notebook in their possession, to be thrown away, is instead a vivid diary of historic times that he, with Tim’s aid, can translate and, with the aid of Tim and Penny, he can help recover when it is stolen.
The misunderstanding over the Castle Eden boy still has to be resolved, and once again Bill has mucked up. He was in Castle Eden to see Celia Bridgewater, leading to his play being commissioned. Penny was to see her as well, to audition for radio, for what ends up being the lead part in Bill’s play! It’s an allowable coincidence, and once Penny is reassured that Bill hasn’t wangled her the role, she can dismiss his silly suspicions with bonhomie, calling him a silly chump. Which he is.
Mind you, if she hadn’t started to look at him differently already, it might not have been so smooth…
Black Banner Abroad
The main talking point of Black Banner Abroad, so far as our underlying story is concerned, is the ironic one of Bill Melbury doing to Penny Morchard what he has suspected her of doing in each of the last two books, once correctly, the other only in his imagination.
We are well aware by now that Bill is quick to be jealous about Penny, without ever being prepared to admit this. Now, the boot is on the other foot, and we can see that young Master Melbury, who has now reached the age of seventeen, is just as oblivious to what his actions are, let alone the effects they have.
Black Banner Abroad may start in Bannermere, but it spends most of its time travelling to or in Provence, in the South of France. The Black Banner Players have been asked to bring Shakespeare to not merely the students, but also as many of the adults who are interested, whilst our little group of friends have a separate, seemingly impossible mission, to find one old peasant lady and return to her life-savings stolen under a misapprehension during the War.
Our quartet sticks together for the journey, the play and the mission, but they are far from together in Rencavalles, where the Winthwaite children are dispersed amongst families willing to house them. Sue and Penny end up next door to each other, with two girls who are friends, but Bill and Tim share the household of Monsieur et Madame Garnier, their son Emil, and Mme Garnier’s niece from Paris, Gigi. Gigi is seventeen, blonde and attractive. This is where the trouble starts.
Bill becomes besotted with Gigi. It’s hardly surprising: she is attractive, she’s flirtatious, she’s exotic and she takes an interest in him. And Bill is almost frighteningly inexperienced. Tim, who has no interest in women whatsoever, has formed a firm alliance with Emil, who speaks far better English than Tim ever will French, who shares the same interests as him, and who is a junior woman-hater. Bill falls naturally under Gigi’s spell without once noticing. He wants to bring her in on everything.
Penny’s more amused than anything at first, insisting on calling the French girl Gee-Gee despite all Bill’s corrections. He really is blind to why she’s doing that, despite having twice kicked off at Penny looking at another boy.
Exactly what Penny thinks, we don’t know. We only see those reactions that take place in front of Bill, and Penny’s being much more circumspect and, mostly, tolerant of his distraction.
There’s only one point at which Penny’s reaction is explicit, when Bill gets Gigi onto an excursion limited to the schoolchildren, visitors and home. She and Sue had clearly been expecting to join up with their gang, but Gigi is enough to have Penny declaring they’d intended to sit with their hostesses, Simone and Marcelle. Even Bill sees that this is a last minute change in plans but his only reaction to it is to compare French and English expressions for what Penny’s done with the blonde French girl. He really is dim.
Taking what we see of Penny’s reactions at face value, she’s positively accepting of Bill’s defection. Apart from that one show of controlled temper, and the gentle niggling she indulges in, Penny acts like someone who can wait. They’re only in France for two weeks, and then it will be back to Winthwaite, and Bannerdale, and no more Gee-Gee.
It’s no coincidence that, practically as soon as the train pulls out of Rencevalles, Penny is there proffering a peach to Bill, re-establishing her proper place in his life. And Bill comes to that moment from hearing that Gigi was exiled to Rencevalles in the first place because she had fallen for some undesirable type in Paris, casting long shadows over the exact nature of her enthusiasm for Bill. Typically, he takes himself out of earshot before he hears more than this, running away from any realistic appraisal of what their little romance has been.
But there are two genuine romances in this book. One is the one we know, which is Sue Melbury and Johnny Nelson, which is all but acknowledged by now, especially as Johnny is back from Agricultural College. But the other one is the true rabbit-out-of-a-hat of the Winthwaite Grammar Master ‘Cracker’ Crawford and Mademoiselle, the French Exchange teacher at the County High who has the idea of the trip to France in the first place, who become engaged at the end after absolutely no foreshadowing whatsoever.
Or at least none that Bill has observed…
With only one book left in the series, Trease has a lot to do.
The Gates of Bannerdale
And so we come to the final book, with everything waiting.
The Gates of Bannerdale is a very different book to all its predecessors, not so much in that the overwhelming majority of the story takes place in Oxford, not West Cumberland, nor that it is largely a solo or, at best, two-hander of a story, with Sue peripheral and Tim restricted to less than a handful of cameos. No, what marks this book out from the rest of the series is the thing Trease brilliantly conceals, which is that the children of this children’s series are no longer children: Bill and Penny are adults, young adults, students at University.
One of the ways in which this development is kept overshadowed is simply that Bill is still Bill. Penny, we can see, has changed. She has grown. She’s the only one of the pair who can truly be called adult in this book, because Bill in many ways hasn’t yet grown enough to be an oversized child.
There is some debate as to just how much of a love story there is, but if you look in the right places, and read what Bill’s telling you instead of what he thinks, the pieces are there.
To begin with, Bill’s off to Oxford to apply for the Scholarship place that’s his only hope. Penny pops up at the station to see him off, with some story about it being a coincidence, she’s there to check the Parcels Office for her Dad. She just happens to have some lucky white heather for him. She’s practically blatant and Bill, when he notices her cycle off without going to the Parcels Office, just thinks she’s forgetful. It crosses his mind that maybe she’s not, but doesn’t let it go any further. You have to wonder what she sees in him.
This first part of the book (indeed, every moment he has) is a love letter to Oxford, from Trease, through Bill. Just as on his first day at Winthwaite, he makes a best friend out of Gardiner (though it will take Penny to learn that Gardiner is also called Paul!), who comes from a very different background to Bill, but who is also seeking a Scholarship.
It’s everything Bill wants, and it’s what he deserves, and gets, to his surprise. Then comes an unusual scene. Everything we see in the Bannermere series is seen through the eyes of Bill. Here and there are scenes at which he was not present, reconstructed from eyewitness reports shortly after, with Bill making plain the source of events.
There’s a comic transition from Penny trying on flamboyant orange slacks in a free period to going to Miss Florey’s room to discuss her future. Bill’s going to Oxford. Sue’s going to be a farmer’s wife. Tim’s going into the Police. And Penny has a black hole in front of her, with even her radio career exploded by the advent of television.
So she’s turned academic. More than that, she wants to go to University. Despite her minor doubts, based on Penny’s past, Miss Florey is supportive. It might be an ordinary conversation between Headmistress and pupil, but there’s a curiously cryptic quality to it, something not being said aloud. Because Penny has one University in mind, and one alone: Oxford.
The oddity is that Bill, in his usual manner, explains that he heard about this scene from Penny, a few days later. And then he comments that he heard about certain things Penny did not tell him, from Miss Florey, a long time later.
What this might be is easily identified. Bill goes on to greet Penny’s news with great enthusiasm, and when it comes to her choice of University, seemingly undecided, does his best to persuade her to opt for Oxford…
I’ll come back to this chapter, but let me present it as absolutely crucial to the entire book, and in particular all the things that Bill does not say from here to the end, which puts in doubt the question of whether there is anything to speak of. Penny wants to go to Oxford, like Bill. The seventeen months between them in age will be obliterated by Bill’s National Service: they will go up to Oxford together. There, however much they are friends in Winthwaite, they will be friends unequivocally: even in chapter one, Bill is still portraying Penny as his sister’s best friend. There’ll be no such intermediary in Oxford.
The intervening period has to be glossed over, slightly. Bill helps Penny out with Latin coaching, that being her weakest area (it says much for their feelings that the friendship survives). Then he is sent to Germany on National Service. They write to each other regularly, leading to Bill’s platoon calling her his girlfriend. Bill denies this, over and over, because he simply cannot see Penny as being a girlfriend (obviously, he’s forgotten Ian Seymour).
That’s ridiculous. From the moment he first met her, Bill has been struck by how attractive Penny is. Now he’s a young man, in the Army, amongst men of his own age whose preoccupations off-duty are going to be heavily influenced by women – or sex – and Bill not only has no instincts towards sex at all, not even negative ones due to distaste at his comrades, but can’t conceive of Penny ever having any such feelings. In an era when girls were expected to grow up and marry.
This is taking Bill’s obtuseness into the area of asexuality. Which doesn’t augur well for Penny in Oxford.
In fact, things go disastrously. After travelling together, Bill and Penny are separated by their differing physical locations and their busy schedules. Bill teams up with Gardiner again. He’s repelled on his first attempt to visit Penny by the rules of her college, but meets her by chance after a confusion in a bookshop with her new best friend Carolyn (a not unattractive blonde).
This results in a tea party with Gardiner, who hits it off with Penny as his mother is an actress. But Bill is wilfully self-destructive. He eagerly responds to a twist in the conversation about University being a place to make new friends by also positing that it’s a place to shake off old ones. Someone not a million miles away takes that devastatingly to heart. That she still puts up with him argues very strongly that Penny must love Bill very deeply.
Will the idiot ever see what’s under his nose? He’s a bit jealous when Gardiner starts taking Penny to the theatre, and almost as a provocation invites Carolyn to help him counter the plan of Snaith to write a debunking biography of the ex-Hereford Warden Talbot, who seems to be deeply involved in the disappearance of the College plate. Bill sees more of Carolyn than Penny, though he never once seems to see even her as a girl, and one who clearly doesn’t mind his company. Rather than a foursome, the set are two couples.
Ultimately though, and with no description of that period in Penny’s life, she and Paul have no more future (or present) than Bill or Carolyn. Paul suggests organising a punting party for May 1st, but is shy of asking Penny: it will come better from Bill. Paul is clearly aware of something Bill doesn’t know, and there’s an undertone of annoyance, perhaps of jealousy behind his reminder to Bill that Penny is one of the most striking girls at Oxford.
This comes in the context of the outdoor performance of The Tempest out of doors, on and about the Hereford College Lake. The closing scene is a spectacular conception that leaves me wishing I could see it rather than just read about it. Prospero sails back to his life as Duke of Venice. Ariel, played by Bill, runs out across the water (a causeway built just under the surface), yearning for his master to return.
Paul has organised for Penny to play the ship’s figurehead, a mermaid, though it requires her to do no more than stand still. Even Bill admits, when first he sees her, that he is glad not to have the next lines, as everything else goes out of his head.
It is this that finally breaks the ice, when it may be presumed to be Antarctic thick. There is the harking back to the Black Banner Players, and there is this final appraisal of Penny’s beauty. Bill escorts her back to her bus. And finally wants to know why she’s been avoiding him all year. Oh, Bill!
If she ran away, sobbing, it would not be unjustified. But Penny, fighting off tears, tells him she has only been doing what he wanted. Bill protests, but she reminds him of that thoughtless remark about sloughing off old friends. He protests he never meant it that way. But his realisation is immense, and just as they have always done when things have threatened to intervene in their friendship, their investment in each other takes over. Typically, Bill writes the moment as a restoration of their old friendship, no different from similar scenes in Under Black Banner and Black Banner Abroad, but the final step, that’s waited since Nutley’s, is finally taken.
Everything else stays off the printed page, but Bill can’t resist the odd reference. His Mum, Sue and the Drakes come down to Oxford, and Bill mentions that he is happy about things even before that, and in the book’s closing chapter, there is a more direct moment. Sue is marrying Johnny Nelson, with Penny as bridesmaid, Bill to give the bride away and Tim, improbably, as Best Man. Proving he’s still as resistant to female charms as ever, Tim wonders about having to kiss the bridesmaid, to which Bill replies sotto voce, with the closest he comes to a leer, that if Tim doesn’t want to…
And if that doesn’t suffice, there’s Mr Tyler, gently chiding him for letting his younger sister get wed afore him.
So let us return, as a final note, to that mysterious chapter with Penny and Miss Florey. Penny’s told him most of what was discussed, and Miss Florey supplies the last detail a long time, indeed years, later, that Penny only ever had her heart set on Oxford. Miss Florey would hardly have given away something like that about one of her pupils unless she was absolutely confident that the confidence was warranted. I think we can safely take it that three of our little circle of friends will be safely and happily married, and we shall just have to hope that Tim Darren wakes up to the advantages of someone to love before he is promoted to Detective Inspector.