The first book I chose to read for this blog is A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (London: Faber and Faber, 1939). I chose this because I was fairly confident I would still enjoy it, and I certainly did. I also realised how this book may have contributed to many of the things in which I am now interested. I think I was about ten when I first read it, having enjoyed the ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ books when I was younger; but if your experience of Uttley is only of the Rabbit books, trust me, A Traveller in Time could not be more different. It is a book that stays with you, and encourages you to live its life, smell its smells and love its people.
It tells the story of Penelope, a young girl who lives in London (presumably roughly contemporary to when it was written), but goes to stay with her aunt in Derbyshire, at an old manor house called Thackers. While she is there, she finds that she sometimes, accidentally, goes back in time to the Elizabethan period, and finds herself getting to know the Babington family, who are plotting to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. Penelope falls in love with the place, the people and, particularly, young Francis Babington. Her dilemma is that she knows what their fate will eventually be, and that of Mary, but she is powerless to alter the course of history. Incidentally, since this book was published at the start of the war, I imagine it may have provided solace to many evacuees, also exiled from the familiar surroundings of London and other cities to the countryside. Penelope’s positive experience may have proved a timely role model for many children, not to mention escapism for those whose experience was not so happy.
Many of the places, and indeed the Babington family, are real, incorporated carefully into the story; and the detailed and evocative descriptions of the countryside and the ways of the country people are drawn from Uttley’s own Derbyshire childhood. One of the things I like so much about this book is the way that it shows a kind of continuity between past and present: the people, for example, change little over three hundred years: the countryside is the same and many of the methods of working the soil and caring for the animals do not change. Even the same, local words are used; and I particularly like that Uttley does not pander to children in explaining such things, but uses the words which are appropriate anyway. In fact, I think she uses quite mature themes, such as the necessity of accepting that one cannot change certain things, no matter how much one might want to.
The book is partly fantasy and partly pastoral idyll – it is, in my opinion, much more than ‘just’ a children’s book. The slipping between time periods seems effortless (and indeed my understanding of the ‘rules’ of time travel come entirely from this book: you can’t alter the events of the past; you can’t take things with you; one day you’ll leave and never return, etc). I remember visiting Chenies Manor, a house of roughly the same age as Thackers, when I was ten, expecting every moment to open a door and find myself in a different century. Such is the conviction bred by good writing.
A Traveller in Time paints a wonderful picture of the Elizabethan world of the small manor house, the secrecy around the religious beliefs of the time, the obsessive devotion to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the upstairs-downstairs lives. It’s impossible not to get drawn into the story, because Uttley is an enthralling writer who really did her research. When I first read the book, I was obsessed with every detail, and in fact, re-reading it now, twenty-five years later, many of the things in the story are things with which I am still preoccupied: old houses and their link with the past; traces of the past in the present; Elizabethan life; Mary, Queen of Scots; the countryside; local language; herbalism, etc. It also sparked in me a life-long fascination with priest holes and secret passageways! Not only is this a most enjoyable read, it also reminded me of how I developed some of my current interests.
One of my favourite places to visit now is Baddesley Clinton, a National Trust property in the West Midlands. It is a moated manor house which was occupied by a Catholic family during the reign of Elizabeth, and contains several priest holes. I think perhaps I like it so much because in it I sense echoes of Thackers.