Archives for posts with tag: Time Travel

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 ( 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.








The beginning of a new year is the traditional time to reflect on the past and make plans for the future, so I’m recommending a thought-provoking novel which plays with our concepts of past and future. “Arcadia” by English author Iain Pears is a book about writing Fantasy and creating Utopian worlds. Whether the novel itself should be classed as Fantasy or Science Fiction turns out to be crucial to the plot. Pears is famous for creating intricate literary puzzles which challenge his readers to work out how the pieces fit together. “Arcadia” (2015) is available in paperback or as an ebook but you can also download an “Arcadia app”  which will give you “the freedom to put the tale together in your own way.”

The construction of this novel makes it difficult to write a conventional synopsis so I’ll just give a taster of what goes on in the main plot strands. The story opens in Oxford, England, in 1960 as an academic reads an extract from his unfinished novel to a group which has succeeded the famous Inklings. Professor Henry Lytten is in the process of creating a very detailed Fantasy realm called Anterwold which is loosely based on the idyllic pastoral world of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia”. The scene he reads out involves a curious boy called Jay who strays across a forbidden boundary and encounters a beautiful young woman whom he thinks must be a fairy. Lytten is a scholar with an interesting past and he is still actively involved in Cold War espionage. He lives alone but has befriended a bright fifteen year-old girl called Rosie who comes in regularly to feed the professor’s malevolent cat, Jenkins.

An old friend of Lytten’s has left some junk in his cellar. When Rosie goes down there searching for Jenkins she steps through a metal arch and finds herself in a different world. On her second visit, Rosie discovers that this is Professor Lytten’s Anterwold, whose inhabitants believe that they are there “because of the great Return from Exile” led by a hero called Esilio. Their lives are dominated and defined by the Story, which is said to contain everything they need to know. Rosie is taken to a place called Willdon and treated as an honoured guest by its ruler, Lady Catherine. Among the people she meets are Jay, who is now an apprentice Storyteller, and his wise teacher Henary who knows that her visit has been foretold in an ancient document. In her new persona as Lady Rosalind, she is attracted to a mysterious stranger. He turns out to be the outlaw-leader Pamarchon, who is suspected of murdering his uncle, the previous Lord of Willdon. Rosie is torn between returning to the safety of Oxford and following Pamarchon into the forest.

In a polluted and overcrowded future ruled by Technocrats, a group of scientists has been working on a machine to transport people to alternate universes. Zoffany Oldmanter, the most powerful man in the world, is keen to exploit this new technology but there is a problem. The most brilliant member of the research group, psycho-mathematician Angela Meerson, doesn’t believe that alternate universes are possible. She thinks that what they have invented is a time machine and she ruthlessly experiments on people to prove it. Rather than let her work be taken over, Angela destroys her records and uses the machine to escape into the past. Security officer Jack More is tasked with investigating Angela’s disappearance and is sent to find her Renegade daughter and an ancient letter in “The Devil’s Handwriting”. Back in 20th century Europe, Angela has encountered Henry Lytten – a meeting which could have momentous consequences for the entire world.

Confused? You won’t be alone. Readers have to work hard to keep up with the interlocking plot lines in “Arcadia”. The book follows the stories of a great many characters, some of whom appear in more than one version of themselves. Spotting the time-travelling characters and their descendants is another challenge. Only semi-crazed genius Angela is given a first person narrative – a move which emphasizes her egotism and her pivotal role in the plot. She is balanced by two more sympathetic female characters. Lady Catherine is a brave and dignified woman hiding a very significant secret. Clever and sensible Rosie blossoms in two different contexts. One version of her seizes the possibilities of her future in Oxford; the other responds to being treated as an adult in Anterwold and develops into a forceful heroine modelled on Shakespeare’s Rosalind in “As You Like It”.

It is a running joke throughout “Arcadia” that Lytten’s invented world is very derivative, drawing on Classical and Elizabethan visions of a rural paradise but with bits and pieces from many other sources thrown in. Lytten is meant to be part of the British tradition of Fantasy-writing academics but he wants to distinguish himself from famous predecessors like Lewis and Tolkien by producing a world with no goblins, elves, monsters or talking animals. His aim is “to construct a society that works”. Rosie rightly points out that this makes Anterwold rather dull, especially as Lytten hasn’t even put in any love stories. He is the type of author that we editors dread – one who focuses on a mass of background detail but fails to create a compelling plot for his characters. This causes problems when Anterwold takes on a life of its own. In the funniest scene in the book, Lytten (in his bath-robe) is suddenly expected to sort out the lives of his characters but can’t remember what he’d decided about a crucial plot point. He wisely allows the characters to take charge of their own destinies.

I was amused by the idea of a writer renowned for his plot-making skills creating an author character who is hopeless at plots. Pears is an Art Historian who has written novels in a number of different genres. I’ve enjoyed his multi-stranded historical novels, such as “An Instance of the Fingerpost” and “The Dream of Scipio” (one of my favourite books) and his seven Art Mysteries set in modern Italy. There is a murder mystery in “Arcadia” and solving it gradually becomes more and more important. Near the end of most of Pears’ novels he  reveals a piece of information which changes your perception of everything that has gone before. This kind of twist can be difficult to bring off but the one in “Arcadia” is a zinger. There is an additional sting in the tail connected to Lytten’s desire to create “a beautiful, open, empty landscape” which he believes is the English “ideal of Paradise”. This is indeed the kind of paradise often described in English literature but it automatically excludes most of humanity. There are many stories about the consequences of time-travellers tampering with the past. This one stands out because it asks how responsible each of us is for reworking the past and creating the world of the future.

I don’t think that every aspect of “Arcadia” works. The mole-hunting espionage subplot doesn’t seem to add much and Pears hasn’t quite solved the problem of how to represent the speech of the inhabitants of Anterwold. This doesn’t really matter because Pears’ work demands a critical response rather than bland enjoyment. Some novels are private pleasures. This one I immediately wanted to discuss with other people but only those who have read it to the very last line. If you belong to a reading group, “Arcadia” would be an excellent choice. It will either provoke the best discussion ever or cause a flaming row. Happy New Year!