The thing about naming a book ‘A Traveller in Time’, like Alison Uttley did, is that you know that a character is going to slip back in time. No matter what else happens in the book, what other exciting events take place, how wonderful the story is, there is still this expectation, the anticipation, of someone going back in time. Penelope, the lovely dream-filled protagonist of ‘A Traveller in Time’, does not have any time-slip related experiences until page 75 of the book, and this is only a glimpse of some ladies playing cards in a room that no longer exists. The first time she slips back to Elizabethan times is almost a third into the book.
This is completely not a criticism – Alison Uttley builds a perfectly wonderful ‘real’ world, set on a now very old-fashioned farm, which is made up of objects that have lived in the farm house for one-hundred, two-hundred, some even three-hundred years. Penelope and her brother and sister live in London, and the chance to escape to the countryside is so joyful for them, and they relish almost everything about the farm (although Penelope’s sister isn’t that keen on the pigs) just made me want to jump between the pages and visit Aunt Tissie with them. But as much as I enjoyed the description of the farm life, there was always a niggle at the back of my mind – ‘When is the story really going to start?’
I find this a really interesting question. I know that technically stories start on page 1 of a book, and finish just before the back cover, but some stories start straight away, with an action sequence, or an overhanging mystery, or some big event that drives the rest of the story. Others build softly, slowly, carefully. But there is usually something, some event or appearance of some character, or something that tells the reader ‘This is where the real story begins! The stuff before was just setting the scene. This is what the story is really about!’.
Think of Alice in Wonderland. One could say that the story really begins only when she spots the White Rabbit. Or maybe it’s when she falls down the rabbit hole? What about Peter Pan? Does the story really begin when Wendy meets Peter? Or is it once they fly to Neverland? What of Harry Potter? Does the first book really start when he releases the boa constrictor? Or when he meets Hagrid? Or does the story only really begin when he first arrives at Hogwarts?
Stories are slippery things. How do you know what is real story? Is a story really only the summary of its plot points, fluffed out with character and description and dialogue? Or is the essence of a story actually this ‘fluff’, the details, the small nuances of character or writing style, or small glimpses of humour? ‘A Traveller in Time’ wouldn’t be the story it tells the reader it is supposed to be without some sort of time-travel. But it probably wouldn’t be included in the list of 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up if it didn’t have all the delightful descriptions of Penelope’s time on the farm.