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.
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.
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…”
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…