May 4 2011 1:21pm

Time travel and the bewilderment of childhood: Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope FarmerWhen I was a child, my family used to go for a two week summer holiday to a hotel in Pembrokeshire, the same hotel every year. We went for the same two weeks, too, the last week of July and the first week of August—“miners’ fortnight,” when everything shut down at home. In the hotel there was a sitting room with a television and a sitting room without. It was little and dark and had an enormous bookshelf, containing books that had been left behind by people on holidays. The bottom two shelves were childrens books, and the higher shelves were adult books. Every year between the ages of three and eleven, I read all of the children’s books. Every year there were a few new ones, but there were also all the same old ones, and I read them and re-read them, in that little back sitting room where almost nobody went, because there was no television and smoking wasn’t allowed. There were a whole lot of things I loved about those holidays—the wonderful food, the seaside, castles, one of my semi-annual trips to a real bookshop. We started saving for the holiday as soon as Christmas was over. The books, familiar from year to year but so different from what we had at home, were always one of the things I looked forward to. Some of them I loved. Some of them were too old for me, and I grew out of some of them as I grew older. But I read all of them anyway, every year.

Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes was one of them. And I didn’t like it.

No more spoilers than the back of the book.

Charlotte Sometimes was first published in 1969. It’s about a girl who goes to boarding school in about that year, aged thirteen. Her name is Charlotte Makepiece, and when she goes to sleep in the boarding school, she wakes up the next day in the same bed in the same school but in 1918 and everyone is calling her Clare. She alternates days, with Clare in her place on the days she is in the past. They write each other notes, and communicate through Clare’s sister Emily, the only person to guess. What makes this so brilliant is that Charlotte accepts it in the uncomplaining way children accept things they don’t understand. It puzzles her, but it seems to be the way things work, so she muddles along with it, getting into trouble in the present because the poem she memorised for homework is in the old anthology but not the new one, and in the past by not answering to Clare’s name during an air raid drill. Then she gets stuck in the past, and it’s easier than alternating every day.

She reacts like a real child, not the way people react in fiction. She doesn’t have adventures, she doesn’t have a plan, she doesn’t save history or anything, she just goes along with it. She tries to figure out the world as best she can, but she is essentially accepting, because it’s the world, and she’s just a kid. And this is what I hated about it when I was a child. I don’t know how old I actually was when I first read this—at least five, because it didn’t come out until 1969, so the first time I could have read it is the summer of 1970. But I kept on reading it every year until I was eleven, and I know I read it multiple times because every year I wanted to love it because it was such a wonderful idea—I love double identity stories. Every year I got caught up in it (it’s beautifully written) but hated it because nothing happened. Things do happen. But they are not children’s book things. Every year, I told myself I wasn’t old enough for it, and as usual I was absolutely right.

I found a copy in a library book sale, and I bought it on the theory that it was fifty cents and it had been more than thirty years, and I just maybe I’d like it now. And I do, finally. It’s wonderful. But it’s not a children’s book. It’s a book that happens to be about a child and therefore people (adults who work in publishing and can see how good it is) have kept on putting it out in edition after edition all aimed at kids. I don’t know if all those kids reacted to it the way I did. But this is a book that has more in common with Kindred (post) than with The Time Garden. All the things that are good about it except for the voice were invisible to me the last time I read it.

It’s a fantasy novel, of course it is, it has essentially magical time travel. But it’s not much in dialogue with other fantasy or science fiction, even other fantasy that came after it. Although everything is rigorously worked out and makes sense, Farmer is much more interested in time travel as a metaphor for confusion of identity—Charlotte doesn’t know who she is, in this new school, among these new people, so when she wakes up the next morning she literally doesn’t know who she is, because she’s Clare. The sense of losing hold of who you are is all through this. There’s also the issue of how little history we know even when we know it, and the fear of being stranded to live your life in a different time. I was reminded of Blackout/All Clear (post) for reasons that would be spoilers for both books. But the Willis book suffers by the comparison—not to mention that Farmer does all this in 167 pages.

I do not recommend giving this book to kids. I do recommend reading it yourself. I also feel fortunate to have an editor who recognises that not everything with a young protagonist is aimed at people who are presently that age. We are all ex-children, and many of us are interested in reading about the country of childhood where we grew up. And it’s great to be finally old enough to appreciate this book as much as I always wanted to.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Nina Lourie
1. supertailz
I actually remember reading and *loving* this as a child, but I always had a weird propensity for stories in which not much happens. But I'm delighted to remember this book and now want to find it again, so thank you!
Helen G
2. Helen G
This book sounds strangely familiar, like something I would have LOVED as a child, yet I am pretty sure I have't read it. Definitely reading it now!
Clinton Ausmus
3. Cragar
Can't believe there is a post about this book. I read it so very long ago and it really grabbed a hold of me when I did, I was in my mid-teens I guess. Then later in life, approximately 10 years or so, I went looking for it again. I was always met with the same question, isn't that a song? No one knew what I was talking about. I'd try and explain it and people looked at me like I had horns growing out of my head. I finally got someone to order it for me and have enjoyed it a few times since I purchased it over 10 years ago.

The subject matter is thought provoking, the writing is elequent and flows quickly. It's a cold, rainy, saturday by the fire. And everytime, it's the ending that get's me.

Thank you for reviewing this great book. I will have to go back and read it again. Perhaps it'll rain soon...
Helen Peters
4. Helen
I'm with Helen G @2. It does sound really familiar, and I'm probably of the right age where I'd have picked it up from the library sometime in the 70s. Must find a copy and see if the familiarity continues.
Helen G
6. PeeterSR
And then there's the song, of course...
Skip Ives
7. Skip
PeeterSR @6 - I always wondered where the song title came from.
Cori Hull
8. yarnandtea
I too read this book as a child (maybe when I was ten or twelve) and loved it. It always stuck with me because it was such a fascinating idea to me, and I had never really read anything in the same class, nor would I until I got into college. When I found out I was having a daughter I started thinking about it again, but whenever I would mention it as a book I wanted to get for her, no one knew what I was talking about. It is nice to know I am not the only person who stumbled across this lovely story! I definitely need to get a copy and read it again for myself, then have it on hand for my daughter whenever she feels so inclined to pick it up.
Elisabeth Kushner
9. ElsKushner
The song title does indeed come from the book; Penelope Farmer has blogged about meeting Robert Smith from The Cure and how touchingly thrilled he was to have her autograph his copy!

I also loved the book as a kid even though not much happens; go figure.
Beth Friedman
10. carbonel
I discovered this book in a used bookstore in England during my first trip to the UK, in 1979, so I was an adult when I first read it. I liked it, and kept looking for more books by Penelope Farmer. The only one I recall finding was The Summer of the Birds, which is a mood piece in much the same way.

I kept bumping into books by Penelope Lively, who wrote children's fantasy that I didn't like anywhere near as well.
brightening glance
11. brightglance
This is one of those children's books that I've never read, but have read the blurb as reproduced in the back matter of other books eleventy million times (other examples being The Phantom Tollbooth and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit). Must keep an eye out for it in second hand shops.
R. N. Dominick
12. rdominick
Apparently there were some changes in the edition published in 1985, and
those carry forward into the one currently available at Amazon and for
the Kindle. Guess I'll check out used bookstores...
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
RDominick: I just checked, and what I've just read was the revised edition. I did not notice any changes, but then I probably wouldn't.
Helen G
14. Susan Loyal
Thank you, Jo. I had missed Penelope Farmer entirely. Thanks to the magic of the 21st century, I was able to read your post, download the book to my Kindle, and read it all on the same day. The Willis does indeed suffer from the inevitable comparison. (By the way, the ending that the Wikipedia entry suggests was omitted from the 1985 paperback is present in the Kindle edition, although all online descriptions suggested that would not be the case.) It looks like a couple other titles will be available as ebooks by the end of this month.

My favorite bits of Charlotte Sometimes all had to do with why, since apparently Charlotte and Clare didn't really look much alike, hardly anyone noticed a difference between them, even when their abilities in math or music drew attention to discrepancies. What a subtle reflection on identity and perception that provides for a book aimed at a younger readership. Or an older one, for that matter. Reminds me in some ways of Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy.
Helen G
15. Tatterbots
I first read this book aged eight, probably on my birthday; I've still got the same copy, and it's one of my favourite books from my childhood. I had the lovely experience of understanding more and more of it as I got older. In particular, before I read it I knew almost nothing about the First World War, so when I learned about the period it was with this beautifully detailed child's eye view, in which, as Jo said, the child (character or reader) doesn't analyse but just accepts. I didn't know why the gardens had been ploughed up, or why everyone had their own portion of margarine in a little jar, or what was going on in the séance, and I don't think I'd even heard of a cedar tree before, but it all made sense later.

I think it was my introduction to the idea that life was different in the past, something that's fascinated me ever since. Most of the differences that are pointed out are petty things like school rules, food, and the amount of bathwater one is allowed, yet they say so much about larger changes in society. The poem Charlotte learns in 1918 and recites in her own time doesn't just happen not to be in the new anthology; surely it was left out because it had fallen out of fashion. (Also, it's massive -- is Charlotte supposed to have memorised all this?)

I find it extraordinary that the author was too young to have been alive in 1918. I wish she had put in more detail about Charlotte's time (1963 judging by internal evidence) because that too is "the past" now, and the flavour of it is not as apparent.
Helen G
16. Sovay
. . . I read this. Years ago, elementary school. I had forgotten everything about it except the conceit of time-switching. Thank you for re-identifying it for me. I always thought I'd never read anything by Penelope Farmer.
Barbara Gordon
17. bmlg
I've never read this one, but Summer of the Birds (with some of the same characters) was a deeply beloved story from my childhood. Like the Moomintroll books, it seemed to me to be about what real children did instead of thwarting smugglers: pottering about collecting white pebbles and staring at clouds, being unhappy because of quarrels with friends. So even though fantastical things happen in Moominvalley and Charlotte learns to fly for a summer, those books felt more as if they were written by an equal, by someone real.
Helen G
18. SP Hamilton
Thank you for this. I read Charlotte Sometimes as a child, prompted either by the BBC storytelling programme Jackanory, or (ISTR) a TV dramatisation of it. I liked, but didn't love the story - this has made me want to go back and reread it.

The other novel of hers which has haunted me since childhood is the very odd and eerie A Castle of Bone, in which a group of children find an old sideboard which returns objects to an earlier state: eg put in a pigskin wallet, and suddenly an enraged pig comes charging out of the cupboard. So far so good, until one of them decides to try putting their baby brother in the cupboard...
Helen G
19. penelope farmer
O my oh my. Is an author - with a gasp - allowed to coment on all this ? - found by pure chance while sitting on a bed in San Sebastian in Northern Spain looking up someone else on Facebook. (No. Don't ask. But even old birds like this one do have some contact with social technology.) Anyway: what does she - the old bird/author in question - say? It's wonderful to find something written so long ago still connecting with all of you. Thanks. Old bird is all the more glad of it, by the way, given that a book, definitely written for adults, and touching on similar themes, has been sitting with 12 publishers for nearly 3 months. Old authors, you see, are a puzzle. They can't be presented on chat shows in low necklines etc etc. Maybe they don't even, perish the thought, write good books any longer. (But actually this isn't a bad one at all. Wish it luck.) Meantime the author is grateful to all of you for helping her remember that she was a real - and published - author once.

PS. That's a very good point, the children just doing what children do. That's what interested me, as a matter of fact. Still does. But I never thought of it as being different from stuff in other children's books. Hmm.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Penelope Farmer: I really hope the new book finds a home. I'd really like to read it. Sometimes I think publishing is completely mad.
Michael Burstein
21. mabfan
Jo, I had never heard of this book until you posted this, and I got it out of the library earlier this month and read it. Thank you for the recommendation; I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Helen G
22. Arhcadia
If i may belatedly post (i just stumbled across this thread) - charlotte sometimes is definitely one of my favourite childhood reads, which i have reread many time since (and am now inspired to do so again). Alongside such books as "The other elisabeth", "your time, my time",
"The stone in the meadow" and "the root cellar", it filled an important niche in my childhood reading.
Best of luck to penelope in getting her latest work published!

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