‘That Brave Company of Shadows’ surrounding A Traveller in Time
More than one journey
must be made by most readers who will traverse the histories of this tale.
is that which falls to the storyteller, Penelope Taberner Cameron, who goes from her home in Chelsea with her brother and sister to stay at their aunt’s farmhouse in the Derbyshire uplands. Thackers is an ancient manor, not far from the ruined mansion of Wingfield where, briefly, Mary Queen of Scots was held under surveillance. It is also deemed to be the onetime country seat of the Babingtons whose scion, Anthony, was devoted to that Queen and whose endeavours on her behalf would lead to his barbaric execution on a scaffold in Holborn.
Allowing that this confluence
of past events can somehow be sustained in the atmospherics of the present place, young Penelope finds herself involuntarily drawn in to the sixteenth-century life of Thackers (whose housekeeper is an ancestor of her own aunt). ‘Sharing the ether with those unseen ones’ carries her intermittently from present to past in sojourns that take place outside the clock-time of her own life.
Thus it is
that she follows, with a grim foreknowledge of its outcome, Anthony Babington’s hopeless venture in tunnelling through from Thackers to Wingfield in order to rescue the Queen. Thus it is that Alison Uttley is able to interlink the two centuries with memories, tales and tokens that have survived through the generations – ballads echoing on, a lost jewel that cannot be carried back in time, a bobbin-boy made by a dumb child who nonetheless seems to have a sense of Penelope’s otherness. (It’s worth speculating on whether a relationship exists between A Traveller in Time and Tom’s Midnight Garden.)
The second journey
that today’s reader must make is into Penelope’s own time. For although few clues are given as to the dates of her visits to Thackers it is reasonable to set them in the years before the First World War when Uttley herself was Penelope’s age. For Thackers is, of course, the farm near Dethick where she was brought up and her 1931 novel of reminiscence, The Country Child, contains passages directly equivalent to some in the later book. But now those years are near enough a century away (and A Traveller in Time itself, published in 1939, is almost seventy years old) and the Chelsea children and their Uncle Barnaby and Aunt Tissie and all the life of the farm may seem as far away to some readers as the Babingtons. (Think tractors.)
This double dislocation of time
coupled with Uttley’s absorption in her own version of pastorale may pose difficulties. For one thing, the twentieth-century story is hardly a story at all but rather a setting – a retreat – against which the historic drama may be played. And for another thing that drama defies expectations of what ‘time-slip fantasies’ ought to do. The irruption of Penelope in her modern garments and with her modern patterns of speech into the life of a sixteenth-century manor house seems to be explained all too casually (‘Oh, that’s Mistress Taberner’s niece just arrived from Chelsey’). Her rather flakey awareness of what happened in history – which could have got her burned as a witch – and her wholly irregular comings-and-goings, are passed over without recourse to any intricate – and surely unavailing – explanations.
To ask for such
is to mistake the nature of the book, judging it according to over-conventional criteria. It is a ‘slow’ work. It does not set out to exploit startling juxtapositions. It is rather a ‘dream-story’ (something in which Uttley was very interested) where the sleeper experiences events with such clarity and emotions with such intensity that they override the need for a rational accounting. Uttley is offering us in Thackers’s double manifestations a take-it-or-leave-it world where what matters is not so much Events as the impact of a felt past. Her lyrical prose – rejoicing throughout the book in such things as ‘white roses foaming over walls’ or the sight of ‘pigs’ pettitoes soused and tansy puddings’ – encompasses with scarcely suppressed nostalgia a now-vanished rural life and the inevitability of its vanishment.
The new edition
of A Traveller in Time is an uncorrected reprint of the Puffin edition of 1977 with Faith Jaques’s careful, but static, chapter headpieces (the 1939 edition had more eccentric, but more dashing, scraperboard pictures by the little-known Phyllis Bray). By happy coincidence the new printing has coincided exactly with a most handsome account of the wayward life of Mary Queen of Scots by Susan Doran *. Published by the British Library the book is richly illustrated with contemporary portraits and manuscripts and its judicious text helps to bring home the fascination exerted by the Queen not just on Anthony Babington (or Penelope Taberner-Uttley) but on almost every generation since her doleful execution.
The illustrations by Faith Jaques are taken from the 2007 edition published by Jane Nissen Books (978 1 903252 27 7, £6.99 pbk).
* Mary Queen of Scots; an illustrated life by Susan Doran. The British Library, 2007, 978 0 7123 4916 1
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.