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

When 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.


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