Alison Uttley (1884-1976) was an English novelist, probably best known for the Little Grey Rabbit series of books, which was a favourite of mine when I was a child. A Traveller in Time is a novel published in 1939, suitable for older children and adults.
A Traveller in Time tells the story of Penelope Taberner, a sickly young girl living in the early years of the 20th century, who is sent along with her siblings to stay with relatives at Thackers, an ancient farmhouse in rural Derbyshire. During her stay there, Penelope begins to slip back and forth between her own time and the Elizabethan era when the house is owned by the Babington family, who are involved in a plot to rescue Mary Queen of Scots.
Penelope is quickly accepted into the 16th century world and makes many friends, but from her present day knowledge she is aware that the Babington plot will end in tragedy. Can she warn the family before it is too late? Is it possible to change the course of history? As the story progresses, Penelope's visits to the 1580s become more random and she seems to have less and less control over when and if she will return to her own time. She also finds that with each journey to the past, her present-day knowledge becomes a little more hazy and although she has a sense of unease, she becomes drawn into the events, sharing the passion and faith of the Babington family in their quest to save the Scottish queen. This is a poignant story about loyalty, devotion, courage and romance in the most turbulent of times.
In my opinion, history explored through fiction is a wonderful, engaging way to learn about key events. Alison Uttley succeeds in making you care for the characters in this novel and I shared Penelope's sense of despair, knowing what Anthony Babington's fate would be. It drew me in emotionally and made me wish that things could be different. The novel taught me a lot about Mary Queen of Scots' place in history, helping readers to understand why families like the Babingtons supported her so fervently.
Although I suspect that the portrayal of Anthony Babington as a golden haired hero and the Queen of Scots as a beauty with "eyes that kindle a fire in all men's hearts" may be somewhat romanticised, I think the plot provides a basic grasp of the events surrounding the Babington plot. It certainly made me want to find out more about this period of history, which I only really touched on at school.
I found the book a little slow-moving. It took a while to get going and I got a little bogged down by so many long-winded references to everyday life on the farm. I did find myself getting bored sometimes when Penelope was in the present and I was impatient for her to go back to the Elizabethan era, which I found much more interesting. However, I appreciate the author's need to compare and contrast the two time zones. The dramatic events unfolding in the 1580s seem all the weightier when contrasted with the mundane events of daily life in Penelope's own time.
Although I lost concentration when faced with lengthy descriptions of feeding the cows or making hay, I do like the way that the author's love of the countryside shines through this book. Alison Uttley was brought up on a Derbyshire farm and the day-to-day tasks of farm-life were obviously very close to her heart. There are some gorgeous, vivid descriptions of the countryside throughout this book with delightful references to green hills stretching as far as the eye can see, sunlight shimmering on the brook, the call of cuckoos, the murmur of wood pigeons and the scent of honeysuckle and wood smoke.
The descriptions engaged all my senses and made me feel that I was there with Penelope, sharing her experiences as she explored her environment. The episodes dealing with Christmas preparations make particularly pleasant reading. I think I might re-read those passages during the festive season as they had such a wistful tone that made me feel warm inside.
What I really did love about this book was its dreamy quality. When Penelope first opens a door to an upstairs room at Thackers and sees four Elizabethan ladies sitting round a table playing a game with ivory counters, her aunt tells her, "It's the secret of Thackers. They lived here once and some say they live here now." Penelope is described throughout as a 'fey' child with an other-worldly quality that I found rather endearing. You can never be quite sure whether she is just a girl with a very vivid imagination (made more so by her frequent illnesses) or whether she really is travelling back and forth in time. There is a compelling ambiguity that is left for the reader to decide.
As a physicist, Alison Uttley was very interested in time and space and some of the issues surrounding time travel are quite complex. When Penelope returns from one trip to the past, she feels as if she has been away for a long time but the hands of the grandfather clock have hardly moved. "It was neither dream nor sleep, this journey I had taken, but a voyage backward through the ether. Perhaps I had died in that atom of time and my ghost had fled down the years....and then returned in a heartbeat." I just adore the language and the sense of mystery it evokes as Penelope tries to make sense of things.
The Elizabethan world is brought to life beautifully with descriptions of ladies in stiff brocade dresses, the herb garden with its quilt-like design of straight lines and squares and charming references to songs of the era, like Greensleeves, which carries a special significance as the story unfolds. I even managed to pick up a few Tudor household tips, such as crushed up egg shells being used to whiten linens and about the uses of different herbs. There is a rather amusing episode in which the Mistress of the house expresses surprise at Penelope's poor grasp of Latin, but tells her that "spelling is a matter of individuality" and that only a 'dullard' writes words the same way every time. Oh for the days before the constraints of the dictionary!
Although it is quite a sad book in terms of its subject matter, there is also a comforting sense of life continuing through the generations. We see so many similarities between the modern day Thackers and the Thackers of Anthony Babington's time and one of the book's themes is the richness of family history, and the importance of knowing where you come from, what your descendants did and keeping alive their memory and their spirit. I found myself thinking about this book for a long time after I had finished reading it and it is quite rare for the characters of a book to get under my skin.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Elizabethan era, particularly if you like time slip novels. Don't be put off by the slightly archaic language and the use of dialect. You quickly get used to this. I also suggest that you persevere, even if it seems slow-moving at first because once you are drawn in, you will feel compelled to read on.
There are some charming illustrations too, which enhanced the reading experience for me. (The front cover is absolutely beautiful.) I felt like I really ought to be listening to some Elizabethan lute music as I read this, but even without that I felt almost as if I too had been back in time, so rich was the detail of life in that era.
New copies of A Traveller in Time can be obtained from sellers at Amazon from £2.84.