My seasonal recommendation this year is a time-slip story which ends with Christmas celebrations in two different eras. “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley is a very English Children’s Classic which was first published in 1939. I don’t think it has ever been out of print so there are numerous editions out there. This novel has been illustrated by many different artists but I like the detailed drawings of Faith Jaques (1977). You can also get “A Traveller in Time” as an ebook or an audio book and a BBC television dramatization from the 1970s is now available on DVD.
“I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl.” Penelope begins by looking back to her childhood in the early 20th century when she lived in London with her parents and her older brother and sister. This sickly and imaginative child alarms her mother with stories about people no-one else can see. All three siblings are sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Cicely (Tissie) and Great-Uncle Barnabas Taberner in rural Derbyshire. The Taberners live at Thackers Farm, an ancient building which was once part of a grand manor house belonging to the Babington family. The children enjoy learning about old-fashioned country ways and helping their great-uncle with his farm-work.
Penelope is the only one to discover “the secret of Thackers”. She glimpses a strange girl in her bedroom mirror and when she opens an upstairs door she encounters four women in elaborate period dress playing a game with ivory counters. Penelope is convinced that the women were real and that they could see her too. Great-Aunt Tissie tells her that some females in the Taberner family are able to see and interact with people who lived at Thackers in past centuries. From time to time, Penelope finds herself slipping back into the 16th century. She meets various members of the Babington family and their housekeeper, Dame Cicely, who is the image of Great-Aunt Tissie. Penelope is accepted as a niece of Dame Cicely, who occasionally visits from London.
Though she cannot control her travels in time and fears being trapped in the past, Penelope becomes deeply involved in the lives of the Babingtons and their devoted servants. The Babington family are Papists (Roman Catholics) living under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They are forced to practice their religion in secret. The head of the family, Anthony Babington, is a courtier of Queen Elizabeth but his true loyalty is to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Anthony risks the safety of everyone at Thackers by plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Penelope becomes a witness to a daring plan to free Mary Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Castle. As the year 1584 draws to a close, the Babingtons are in danger of being arrested for treason and Penelope herself is at risk from an accusation of sorcery….
When you were a small child, did your parents read you any of Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” books? Mine did and I adored these gentle stories – the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Later, I identified strongly with the heroine of Uttley’s “A Country Child”, a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up on a farm. Most of all though I loved “A Traveller in Time”, a book I borrowed over and over again from my school library. Until recently I’d never known much about Uttley herself. When I looked up accounts of her life, including one on the website of the Alison Uttley Society (www.alisonuttley.co.uk) I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her character.
She was brought up in a Derbyshire village and remembered every detail of her rural childhood with astonishing clarity. Uttley seems to have clung to country ways, such as belief in the existence of fairies, yet her passion was science. In 1906 she was one of the first women to get a Physics degree from Manchester University and she became a science teacher. Uttley married and had a son but her husband’s mental health never recovered from his experiences fighting in the First World War. After he committed suicide, Uttley started writing children’s books to support herself and her son. Much of her fiction is sweet and tranquil but she had the reputation of being a difficult woman to get on with. I like difficult women.
Knowing something about Uttley’s life has helped me to understand why I have always found “A Traveller in Time” so convincing. Uttley spent her early years on a farm close to the manor house which she calls Thackers and she grew up hearing stories about “the Babington Plot”. She gives Penelope a childhood similar to her own and the domestic details of country life are lovingly described. Penelope may be frail and bookish but she enjoys feeding chickens and pigs and helping with the haymaking. Uttley’s account of everyday life in the 16th century manor house rings just as true. She is particularly good at gardens – “Pale lilies-of-the-valley and blood-red primulas were out with bees hovering round them from the straw skeps perched on stone stools” and food – “ham baked in honey syrup and spiked with cloves, and brawn and pigs’ pettitoes soused, and tansy puddings.” Uttley makes her readers into time-travellers by transporting us back to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the 16th century.
In her preface to “A Traveller in Time”, Uttley made the startling claim that, “Many of the incidents in the story are based on my dreams” in which she “talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence.” Many of the time-slip episodes do have a dream-like quality, especially when Penelope sees people from different eras occupying the same space – “Each set of figures kept distinct, neither was aware of the other, and the farmer walked through them as if they were films of smoke”. However, it’s also clear that this story has been influenced by scientific theories about time and space which Uttley must have studied as part of her Physics course. Time travel isn’t just a plot device in this novel and the heroine isn’t just a plucky girl who has adventures in a more exciting era than her own. Penelope thinks very hard about what is happening to her and what it might tell her about the nature of reality.
I nearly recommended this book during “Ghost Month” (October) on Fantasy Reads because, essentially. “A Traveller in Time” is a reverse ghost story. Modern girl Penelope is haunting the 16th century characters, sometimes frightening them with glimpses of their future. In the most poignant scene in the book, Penelope tries to warn doomed Mary Queen of Scots against agreeing to Anthony Babbington’s plan but Mary only sees her as a sorrowful phantom and complains that, “The world is full of ghosts for me. There is no peace or happiness left.” The more time Penelope spends in the past, the harder she finds it to remember her knowledge of the future. This seems logical and adds tension to the story. When she is in the 16th century, Penelope is charmed by the captive queen and it almost seems as if history can be altered but when she returns to her present, Penelope is reminded of the terrible consequences of Mary’s reckless behaviour.
Penelope’s account of her childhood experiences is tinged with sadness – she cannot stay in the past with people she has come to love and she cannot change their ultimate fate – but this isn’t a depressing book. The story leaves the Babbingtons enjoying their last “glorious Christmas”, complete with Yule Log, garlands of fir, holly and bay, a Wassail Cup, a Boar’s Head and a model of Thackers made out of marchpane (marzipan). History remembers the Babbingtons as wicked or tragic but Penelope has shared their hopes and joys. The novel suggests that somewhere in the layers of time these golden moments continue to exist. Penelope comes back from the past able to live more intensely because she has learned that life itself has “a power behind it that carries folk on to struggle and not give in.” If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking Christmas read, “A Traveller in Time” may be the book for you.
My treat this Christmas will be reading a new time-travel story in Jodi Taylor’s delightful “Chronicles of St Mary’s” series. Whatever you are doing over the holiday season, I wish you many golden moments.