Marchpane, Queen Mary, and Adventures in Time

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

I have really fond memories of this book, which I read when I was about 11 or 12, but hunting for it decades later I got distracted by several similar titles and themes. No, it wasn’t Daughter of Time – a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey with a historical puzzle: that’s about Richard III and the book I was after concerned Mary Queen of Scots. Nor was it A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976). She might be a well-known British author and it involves time travel, but back to the Victorian era. And it certainly wasn’t A Wrinkle In Time (1962) by American writer Madeleine l’Engle, although this one is incredibly widely-known – though not by me before I began this search!

Then I lighted on A Traveller in Time and it turned out to be by Alison Uttley, famous for writing the Little Grey Rabbit books for younger children. My copy has a cover in a horrible shade of beige and a girl who looks as if she’s dressed in early-era droopy Princess Di, but inside are much more classic and appropriate illustrations by Faith Jaques.

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

The magic I loved as a child turning into a teen was still there. Fey young Penelope, along with her older brother and sister, goes to stay with Great Aunt Tissie and Great Uncle Barnabus on their farm in a remote Derbyshire valley. They are London children and the winter has been bad; in true Edwardian style they are sent to the country to get the roses back in their cheeks. The idyllic countryside and the sensible rural ways of Tissie and Barnabus are a strong reminder of the charms of Little Grey Rabbit, but this is a book for an older audience. It didn’t stop me wallowing during the early chapters – as Penelope does – in the slow and gentle farm and kitchen life that has hardly changed in generations. Uttley has based it on the farm she grew up on and seems to remember everything. She delves into sensory detail, bringing back every touch and taste and smell.

But then an odd thing happens: Penelope steps through a door and into another time, the era her aunt and uncle hark back to often, without being aware just how long ago it was – the dangerous times when Elizabeth held the throne and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. The farm is the remains of Thackers, an old manor house owned by the Babington family, Catholics and passionate supporters of Mary. Penelope knows from history that their plans are doomed but gets caught up in their lives and dare not say too much. Her watch stops whenever she slips back to the 1580s and, try as she might, she can’t control when her time-trips happen. In the past, everyone accepts her as Penelope Taberner, niece of Mistress Cicely, the housekeeper (an Elizabethan dead-ringer for Aunt Tissie) and her strange ways and garb are put down to being a Londoner. Everyone, that is, except the dogs who slink and shiver as if at a ghost, and a deaf-and-dumb servant-boy who watches her in terror.

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin Classics paperback

Faith Jaques’ depiction of Thackers farmhouse

So far, so typical of time-slip fiction, but since this was first published in 1939, I imagine it’s an early template and Uttley handles it deftly. A locket lost in the past and found in the present cannot be returned to its own time and serves as a poignant reminder to Penelope that she can do nothing with her knowledge to help those she comes to love. The author links both eras through implements that still exist in the farm kitchen: the ancient warming pan was a new-fangled gadget in the Babington household, the bread oven has been turned into a cupboard, yet the kitchen fireplace and the great best bed are the same. Springs, barns, and views are familiar, and the fields still bear their old names which feature in Anthony Babington’s will: Westwood, Squirrels, Meadow Doles. I loved the details of both early 20th century and Elizabethan rural life – it was rather like an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm!

I did question how Penelope’s Elizabethan friends so happily accept her odd coming and going – not easy for a young girl to pop back to London in those days – and get to know and trust her so thoroughly, but Uttley addresses this. Penelope has some idea that she visits more often and for longer than she is conscious of, perhaps in her sleep. And there is a dreamlike quality to the visits: she can hardly remember her present-day life when she goes back in time. Sometimes in her ‘real’ life she sees or hears figures from the past alongside the present, like an overlay, as they and she inhabit the same spaces but in different yet parallel times. And she’s shattered to find a ruin when she is taken to visit nearby Wingfield, another old manor house she first encounters in its heyday when Queen Mary was kept there.

As someone who always tries to pick up the atmosphere when visiting historical sites, longing to know what it was ‘really’ like way-back-when (Get out of the way, tourists!), I liked this meditation on old houses which have seen a great deal of history pass by. And I do enjoy novels which use objects to link different eras and characters.

When I read this book as young teen I found the budding friendship between Penelope and young Francis Babington much more romantic than this time round. In fact, for the first half of the book Penelope is quite a young child. It’s only on her return visit to Thackers several years later that a different kind of friendship blossoms, and it is very low-key. The droopy frock featured in the cover illustration is meant to be Penelope’s best dress of green taffeta: Francis sings ‘Greensleeves’ to her because of it.

A Traveller In Time visits all the seasons, but ends at Christmas in the snow, making it a great book to read at this time of year. Amidst the tense drama of the ending Uttley describes the yuletide preparations, feasts, and carol-singing of both Tudor and Edwardian eras. Penelope even gets to make a version of Thackers in marzipan, and it was here I first learned its lovely old-fashioned name – marchpane.

The Marchpane Thackers, A TRaveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

Penelope fashions the farmhouse out of marzipan for the Christmas feast


heid by Johanna Spyri Puffin edition

Heidi front cover

This pretty Puffin edition of Heidi with the price of 3/6d on the cover was irresistible. It goes on my (growing) pile of books from childhood to be revisited.

I’m not sure I would have been drawn to reread Heidi (I have a vague feeling there is something a bit goody-goody about the story – though I may be wrong) had it not been for this delightful cover by Cecil Leslie. It’s colourful and delicate and full of sprightly movement. Heidi’s grandfather has a luxuriant Father Christmas beard, the goats are truly goat-like, and Heidi’s are toes are spread out on the Alpine meadow in a way that reminds me how wonderful it is to go barefoot in soft grass. There are further line illustrations inside. As far as I can work out this edition is from 1956, my copy being one reprinted in 1964. The pages are quite yellow but the spine is unbroken.

I must have read Heidi several times as a child. It was one of those books that was around a lot, that everyone read, almost without choosing to – because everyone else had read it. I’ve just looked up its background: it was first published in 1880 and is one of the best-selling books ever written. It has been filmed and televised a number of times, including a 1937 movie with child-star Shirley Temple in the lead role. So it was well-known to our mothers and grandmothers, too.

Cecil Leslie, it turns out, was a woman, and illustrated a number of E Nesbit books for Puffin. She also illustrated Alison Uttley stories, and Pauline Clarke’s fascinating tale of what happened to the toy soldiers once owned by the Bronte children, The Twelve and The Genii. 

But the only things from Heidi that stay with me all these years later are mountains, goats, and wheelchairs. I shouldn’t think mountains and wheelchairs mixed well, not in the days before disabled access. I shall find out…

Heidi by Johanna Spyri back cover Puffin edition Cecil Leslie

back cover

Dumb Animals – Black Beauty revisited (2)

Black Beauty The Autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell book

‘We call them dumb animals and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.’

Spoilers throughout!

Well, it didn’t end quite as I remembered. It ended well, for Beauty at least, but not as neatly as in my imagination -reunited with Merrylegs in the vicarage paddock. Black Beauty was not such an emotional story, either, only to be read through a veil of tears, though it certainly has its moments. Although Beauty suffers, the amount of time he spends with good – or good-ish – owners rather than bad ones is much higher than I thought!

As a child, after the first reading, once I knew about Ginger’s tragic fate, this was always the lowest, saddest part in the story which I approached with dread and a big lump in my throat. Yet this episode, which loomed so large, lasted barely two sides of a page. After one brief conversation with Ginger on the cab rank, Beauty isn’t even sure it is Ginger he later sees lying in the cart. ‘I believe it was Ginger. I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over.’ Gulp!

My first tears came when Beauty is parted from his second home and the kind coachman, John Manly: ‘I held my face close to him, for that was all I could do to say goodbye: and then he was gone, and I have never seen him since.’ This briefly-described image felt so powerful. It embodies so much of the wonderful bond that can exist between domesticated animals and humans and the wordless communication we understand so well.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

It’s the compassion and wisdom of humans that keeps the horses from trouble, because they are dumb animals. Beauty can’t tell his driver when he has a crippling stone in his hoof and the driver fails to notice. He can’t say he’s cold and shivering after a long hard day, or thirsty, if whoever is meant to take care of him is lazy or ignorant or just absent. Anna Sewell has to say all this for him, to the readers, educating them along the way. All animals – including humans, I would add – communicate through behaviour, but that behaviour has to be understood and not dismissed, and that’s part of her lesson. At first Ginger protests through bad behaviour but that doesn’t serve her well. ‘Men are stronger, and if they are cruel and have no feeling, there is nothing we can do, but just bear it, bear it on and on to the end.’

Beauty’s progress is one of regular partings and losses, with the horse in no control over any of it. His mother Duchess tells him, ‘A horse never knows who may buy him or who may drive him. It is all chance for us.’ On finding out that a horse he saw killed in a hunt was his half-brother, Beauty reflects, ‘It seems that horses have no relations. At least they never know each other, after they are sold.’

black beauty Anna Sewell

It was on this re-reading that the troubling parallel with slavery kept coming to mind, which never occurred to me as a child. I was too wrapped up in the story of beautiful, noble, helpless horses to imagine that humans were treated in a similar way. Perhaps back then I knew little about the details of slavery. But the themes of power and ownership versus powerlessness and voicelessness, being bred for work and sold away once old enough to be useful, of being treated like machines with no thought of what was going on inside the creature, of monetary value based on strength and health, kept reinforcing this.

Black Beauty the autobiography of a horse by Anna Sewell

Of course Sewell doesn’t think in terms of animal rights; or even the possible rights of workers like the downtrodden rental cab-men, stuck in a vicious circle of debt and overwork, harsh masters and cheating customers – she knows it’s a bad situation but having shown great understanding says, through the Governor at the cab-rank, ‘but who’s to mend it I don’t know.’ People – and horses – right at the bottom of the heap disappear from the story into destitution and death. Like many a Victorian campaigner, she’s against the evils of drink, and she even has a chapter on elections, which are ‘a serious business’, not to be approached in an atmosphere of foolish drunkenness, bribery, and bullying. But Sewell is firmly lodged in the paternalistic world where all good deeds are in the gift of good masters, or those with a conscience, and she can only try to educate those who aren’t so enlightened.

black beauty by Anna Sewell vintage book cover

There is one scene which I fondly imagine is Anna Sewell herself, reasoning with the carter who overloads Beauty and keeps him on a bearing rein so that he can’t throw his weight into pulling the load. The anonymous lady proves her theory by demonstration, treats the man with respect and thanks him for trying out her plan. This is a modest lesson in how to win people over, at least temporarily. As a child I learned a lot about horse care from Black Beauty, although I was never lucky enough to own a horse to try it out on! I don’t remember all the other moral lessons at all, but I suppose I must have taken them in.

In old age Beauty comes to a place of safety where he will never be sold again ‘and so I have nothing to fear…My troubles are over and I am at home.’ Which is probably all that any of us might ask.

black beauty Anna Sewell

‘Black Beauty’ revisited (1)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

In preparation for drawing up the list of my Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books, I am reading Black Beauty. It was one of my best-loved books as a child yet I hadn’t picked it up since. I must have owned a copy as I read it a number of times but I have absolutely no memory of what the book looked like, whether it was hardback or paperback, of jumble-sale origin or brand-new.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

This time round I’ve bought a secondhand copy as the covers of new ones I found in bookshops came nowhere near what my idea of Beauty ought to look like. (The ones I’ve included here are ones I do approve of!) As a classic book, long out of copyright, there are lots of editions available with variable cover images. Some make Beauty look handsome and noble (correct). Others are frankly naff, the artwork apparently based on a plastic toy animal rather than a living, breathing horse. One audio version cover makes Beauty more like a plump cartoon pig than well-bred horseflesh!

It is hard now to imagine a world as full of horses as ours is full of cars. They were ridden or driven as transport, pulled everything from smart carriages to ploughs, omnibuses to hearses, were used for pleasure riding, and as pets-cum-playthings and teaching aids for children. We understand that cars are owned and run by experts and enthusiasts, by those who just use them to get from A to B but take reasonable care of them, and by people who don’t know what goes on under the bonnet or how to drive sensibly or safely. And, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, it was just the same with horses. But horses are sentient beings and herd animals, not machines.

horse-drawn vehicles traffic jam

I now know that Black Beauty was written as a kind of 19th century best-practice guide to horse care rather than a pony story for children, which was how it was presented to me. Anna Sewell was concerned about the ill-treatment of horses, through ignorance, arrogance, and thoughtlessness as much as through deliberate cruelty or neglect. This is the only book she ever wrote and she frequently strikes a practical rather than a romantic note, trying to appeal to common sense, and even economy, if entreating compassion won’t wash. One of her lessons is that if you treat a horse well and don’t overwork it, you will get better service and more years out of it. She obviously understands the different conditions that must prevail in settings like livery stables – the hire-car outlet of its day – and cab ranks, grand country houses with designer stable blocks, and pleasant vicarage meadows. Some of the difference is down to sheer economic necessity, but not all. Some is due to the temperament of the owners and workers. Sewell seems to me a keen observer of human nature, even if her humans tend to embody types she wants to show us rather than 3-dimensional characters.

horse-drawn Victorian Hansom cab

Black Beauty is a short book and I am only a quarter of the way through – nothing too dreadful has happened to Beauty yet. But on this reading I can see that each chapter presents a small moral and/or practical lesson: how – and why – to break a horse in gently and slowly; how to get it used to traffic and trains; why bad habits like biting and kicking are a result of bad treatment; even how to find out the true character of an employee in a subtle way.

But as a child I just consumed Beauty’s narrative, even if on re-readings I knew that it was all going to go horribly wrong before it came right again. I think it’s where I first appreciated that there was a narrative arc to a story – for example, from riches to rags to riches again – or in Beauty’s case from bran mash to beatings and back. The book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of a Horse and it’s told in the first person (or first horse) by Beauty himself. I had forgotten this. I wonder if it was the first novel to be narrated by an animal? I’d also forgotten that Beauty (!) is male, and that poor put-upon, biter and kicker Ginger is female.

I know that Beauty, like a long-lost childhood sweetheart, has got to be top of my list. I just had to check him out first. More about Black Beauty later…

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell book cover design

Wolves still rule

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken Vintage Classics children's book

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

I read this as a child. I read it to my kids. I read it again recently and the magic is still there.

It’s full of my favourite ingredients for a period adventure: a happy quota of orphans and absent parents, an evil governess, resourceful children and wily adults, and tons of snow. Joan Aiken’s 19th century parallel universe revels in Victorian invention – according to her the Channel Tunnel, far from a 1980s vanity project, was really built in the early 1800s. It’s through this tunnel that the hungry European wolves come tearing in search of food!

There are also wonderful contrasts: freezing cold and warmth, hunger and hearty food, terror and comfort. Sylvia lives in great poverty with her old aunt in a Park Lane attic, while in isolated Willoughby Chase her cousin Bonnie has everything a child could wish for, including her own toyroom with a dolls-house large enough to get inside and with real canaries nesting in the roof. But Bonnie is a good-hearted child, and anyway it’s not long before all this is snatched away from her, in a reversal of fortune and test of character that follows one of the best traditions of children’s literature.

My favourite character is Simon, who lives a gloriously self-sufficient life in the woods and raises geese. He walks his geese from Willoughby Wold to market in London, a journey that takes two months. They leave in the snow and arrive in the April sunshine. The trip is also a daring escape for Sylvia and Bonnie and they are helped on their way by Mr Wilderness, who provides a memorable meal of porridge, eaten with ‘brown sugar from a blue bag and dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two red cows, who stood sociably outside the kitchen door as breakfast went on’. As well as the thrills and spills, it’s this kind of fond detail that I love in Joan Aiken’s stories.

The only element missing is Dido Twite, Aiken’s brilliant sarky, snarky, sneaky anti-heroine, who does not make an appearance until the next book in the sequence, Black Hearts In Battersea. I can’t wait to meet her again.

The Library of My Childhood

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

For some reason, I possess only two or three of the books from my own childhood: a couple of well-worn and well-loved Winnie The Pooh hardbacks and – somewhere – a Beatrix Potter. In the loft there’s a box of picture books my children had, but we couldn’t keep everything, and I have a horrible feeling that the paperback chapter books all went to school bookstalls and jumble sales. I keep hoping that there is another box in the far stretches of the loft, but so far it evades us.

So I have decided to try and restock the library of my childhood – mostly the fiction I read on my own – and I’m gradually acquiring random E Nesbits and Just William books, Narnia and Noel Streatfeild, Rosemary Sutcliff and Green Knowe. I’ve also picked up a few titles I always meant to read and somehow never did. The only problem will be deciding what to read first.

Here is my latest find, A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley. My best friend read it then lent it to me when we were about 11 or 12, and we both fell in love with its mix of time-slip mystery, genuine history, and the dash of romance along the way.