A spinner of tales

Alice Jane Taylor at 16, around Penelope's age at story's end http://www.alisonuttley.co.uk/album/slides/alison16.html
Alice Jane Taylor at 16, around Penelope’s age at story’s end

Alison Uttley
A Traveller in Time
Puffin Books 1977 (1939)

Alison Uttley is best known for her Little Grey Rabbit books — beginning with The Squirrel, The Hare and The Little Grey Rabbit (1929) — publication of which continued for nearly fifty years, with charming illustrations by Margaret Tempest (latterly Katherine Wigglesworth). They were part of a story-telling tradition that stretched from Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to Jane Pilgrim’s Blackberry Farm series, a tradition featuring anthropomorphic creatures and describing a rural life that has now largely disappeared.

A Traveller in Time is rather different. Not only was it aimed for older readers but its content stems from vivid dreams the young Alice Jane Taylor had when living in Derbyshire. Born in Castle Top Farm near Matlock, Alice (Alison was her pen name) recounts how in her sleep “I went through secret hidden doorways in the house wall and found myself in another century. Four times I stepped through the door…” Despite a degree in Physics from Manchester University she continued, according to her biographer Denis Judd, to believe “in fairies and in time travel”.  All this suggests that this young adult novel is going to be difficult to categorise — part fantasy, part historical fiction, part autobiographical, even part romance.

Wingfield Manor (Wikipedia)
Wingfield Manor (Wikipedia)

Both Castle Top Farm and its neighbour Dethick Manor were in existence in the 16th century. Just as Uttley’s The Country Child (1931) featured Castle Top Farm under the name of Windystone Hall, so Dethick Manor appears in the guise of Thackers. It is to Thackers that the sickly Penelope Taberner Cameron comes to recuperate one winter, and where she starts to slip away sideways into the reign of Elizabeth I, in the early 1580s. Here she meets a distant ancestor, Dame Cicely, and the owner of the house, Anthony Babington, his wife and his younger brother Francis. Despite significant gaps in Penelope’s visits these past denizens soon take her mysterious coming and going for granted, with only the dogs and one individual instinctively sensing that she’s physically out of place.

The feeling of reverie, told almost as a series of vignettes where nothing much happens, makes this a very somnolent story. This allows plenty of time for Uttley to lovingly evoke a past way of life — in the kitchen, on the farm, in private rooms — and compare it with what it must have been like for her as a child on a farm at the tail end of the Victorian period (she was born in 1884). But the friendships she makes with Tudor gentry and servants alike are leading to dark events, overshadowing the joys she has from this dual life.

Mary Stuart in 1559
Mary Stuart in 1559 (Wikipedia)

Between 1569 and 1570 Mary Queen of Scots had been under house arrest in Wingfield Manor, a few miles from Dethick and Castle Top. Though Uttley is a little vague about dating events, the young heir Anthony Babington (born in 1561, he was at this time a page in the service of the Queen’s gaoler the Earl of Shrewsbury) is described as having been smitten with her. The Queen was brought back here in 1584 and in 1585, which is the period in which the latter part of A Traveller in Time is set (and exactly three hundred years before Alice’s birth). Penelope — living at the turn of the century — knows that Anthony Babington was executed in 1586 and the Queen of Scots in 1587, or about three hundred and twenty years before; having that foreknowledge which comes from being from the future makes all the joy from her sojourns in Tudor times very bittersweet.

Uttley almost convinces us that this or that could have happened in her story, despite any reader’s reservations that Elizabethans would have so easily accepted such a strange visitor in their midst. The author has such an intimate and affectionate feel for the minutiae of everyday living — feeding animals, using household objects, singing songs, experiencing the changing seasons — that it forms a cantus firmus to the more wayward counterpoint of secret plots and the fierce antagonism of one individual, both of which threaten to leave her stranded in the past.

Above all we come to love the characters we meet. From the present, Great-Aunt Tissie and her brother Barnabas, to some extent Penelope’s pragmatic sister Alison, the author’s namesake; from the past, Dame Cicely, Tabitha the servant maid, Jude the humpback and of course the Babington family, especially Francis with whom the young Penelope forms an almost but not quite platonic friendship. As the time nears for Penelope to leave — as leave she must — it feels a little like the moment when the children in Hilda Lewis’ The Ship That Flew or C S Lewis’ Narnia series start to grow into adults and the magic begins to fade. Except that the intensity of Penelope’s time travelling remains strong, as she tells us in the opening sentences: “To this day every detail of my strange experience is clear as light…”

The illustrations were by Faith Jaques; her cover design features Penelope in her green dress
The illustrations were by Faith Jaques; her cover design features Thackers / Dethick and Penelope Taberner Cameron in her Greensleeves dress

This was such a strange but magical story  I’m grateful to Julia Lee for reviewing and thereby recommending it — that it now leaves me curious about The Country Child. It confirms the simple epitaph that appears on Alison Uttley’s gravestone:

writer, spinner of tales 

and recalls, of course, that the original Penelope of the Odyssey was also a weaver…

17 thoughts on “A spinner of tales

    1. All of the practical farm matters would have been taken from firsthand experience, and of course the fey manner of Penelope’s time travelling was really Alison’s, or rather Alice’s. I get the impression that The Country Child is even more autobiographical even though the names are changed. I’ve got my wife’s tattered copy waiting by the bedside for when I’m ready for it.


  1. I enjoyed this post. The only Alison Uttley book I had as a child was a Puffin book called Magic in My Pocket. I read some of the stories but don’t think I got through them all. On some level I don’t think I got them. Now you’ve inspired me to take another look. Come to think of it, I may have read one of the Little Grey Rabbit books as well.
    I was also delighted that you mentioned the Blackberry Farm books. I loved them as a child and knew them almost by heart.


    1. Childhood reading matter lingers in the mind, even if only at the periphery of our memories. Growing up in cities all those stories set in the countryside would have had little little impact on me, but our children and now our grandchildren can make the connections especially now we live in a rural spot. The Blackberry Farm series is a special favourite — George the Kitten, Mr and Mrs Nibble… Glad to have reawoken memories!


      1. Ah, grandchildren to read to! (If I am very fortunate I will have that joy. I loved reading to my son, especially sharing my own childhood favorites.) And yes, it’s so important for city children to have the chance to slow down and experience country life. By the way, some time ago I wrote a story featuring one of the Blackberry Farm Books; thought you might like to see it: http://josna.wordpress.com/2011/01/27/93-snowed-in/


        1. Thanks so much for that link — I’ve replied in a little more detail there — especially as Snow at Blackberry Farm is my absolute favourite of that series, especially the picture of the ‘smiling face of Mr Nibble’!


  2. That’s a lovely picture of the young Alison Uttley. And your book cover image is so much nicer than mine! It matches the Faith Jaques illustrations inside my copy. I rather wonder why Elizabethans didn’t perceive the young Penelope as a boy, with her sturdy shape, shortish hair, and suitable outfit ? But that is only the impression given by the pictures, not from the author’s imagination. I’m rather glad she doesn’t look willowy 🙂
    Thank you for the reminder about the Blackberry Farm books – I’m not familiar with them, but other people have mentioned them in connection with Little Grey Rabbit. Must investigate. As a London child with a mother who grew up in the countryside and told me lots of tales of her childhood, I always loved anything that evoked this quieter, rural life.


    1. The photo was on theAlison Uttley site — I tinted it to suggest the green frock Penelope wears. And that Puffin cover is so much more atmospheric than the one with the photo!

      The Blackberry Farm books are shorter and simpler, and have a nostalgic charm for me that suggests the mid-20C rather than say the late Victorian or Edwardian eras, which is the period the Uttley books suggest to me.


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