The Summer Birds, Emma in Winter and Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

When I read two Penelope Farmer books a few years back (the odd-but-ultimately-impressive A Castle of Bone and the more-adult-than-YA folk fantasy Year King), another that caught my eye was her second, The Summer Birds (1962), about a group of children being given the gift of flight, a theme that’s always grabbed me as it was there in my earliest non-nightmare dreams (and which has remained, thankfully, to see me through a few zombie dreams in later years). It’s taken since then for an affordable copy to pop up on AbeBooks, but once I’d got it, I realised it was only the first in a semi-linked trilogy of books about the Makepeace sisters Charlotte and Emma. So I got copies of Emma in Winter (1966) and Charlotte Sometimes (1969), and started reading.

1987 Dell PB. Art by Chuck Pyle. (This edition has a slightly Americanised text.)

The Summer Birds began life as a short story, though one that proved too long for Farmer’s first book, the collection The China People (1960). It starts with Charlotte (12 years old) and Emma (10 years old), who live in the large but dour Aviary Hall on the South Downs with their distracted and somewhat grumpy grandfather Elijah. One day on the way to school they meet a never-named boy who says he can teach them — their whole class, in fact — to fly. It initially seems a bit day-dreamish, as Charlotte is led out of a school lesson, unnoticed, and spends the day learning to swoop through the air. (There’s a technique to it, somewhat like swimming, and later one of the children finds that wearing flippers helps.) The next day it’s Emma’s turn, and after that the other kids in the class, one by one. Although dreams of flying seem to me to belong to the earliest days of childhood — and of course to the likes of Peter Pan — here it seems to conjure a stage of withdrawal from the muddy, knee-scrapingly grounded play of kids to a slightly more airy-headed state just prior to adolescence:

“There was a feeling of suppressed excitement in the school, mounting each day as another learned. The children became silent and stood in groups or alone, looking at each other sideways with wondering eyes. Could this really happen to others—was it really true? Less and less they played at football and skipping rope in the yard; more and more they put their heads in the sky and watched for birds. Those who did not know, who had not learned, grew worried and lonelier as each day their numbers evaporated like water in the sun. The rest did not fly together yet. It was as if they were waiting for something: waiting in half-shyness for someone else to move. They were self-conscious, like people with songs to sing yet frightened of showing their voice.”

The children go on to spend the entire summer holiday (when it’s not raining) getting together away from parents and other adults so they can fly, and although Farmer brings in a little bit of tension — one of the boys decides to challenge the boy’s leadership and asks never-answered questions about who he is and where he’s come from — the book has more the air of an idyll, an ideal childhood summer that will never be repeated.

1966 Harcourt, Brace & World HB. Cover art by James J Spanfeller

Emma in Winter begins just over two years later, with the younger Makepeace girl finding herself alone for the first time when her sister goes to boarding school. A particularly severe winter descends, like the metaphor for isolation and emotional coldness that it is, and Emma starts to dream of the days when she could fly. In these dreams, she sees one of her classmates, Bobby Fumpkins, struggling to get off the ground in his own attempts to fly. She mocks him, and feels herself somehow being egged on by an unseen presence behind her, a presence that seems to be just a pair of eyes.

(Bobby Fumpkins’ ridiculous surname — sorry, all you Fumpkinses out there — is just one of many from the first book. Charlotte and Emma Makepeace have sensible names, but all the rest of the kids at school are called things like Jammy Hat, Maggot Hobbin, Ginger Apple, Totty Feather, Bandy Scragg, and Scooter Dimple.)

Dell PB

Emma, alone as she’s never been before, at first retreats into a temperamental spikiness befitting the severe winter that’s taken grip of the land, but the dreams of flying she shares with Bobby come to provide a much-needed escape from her isolation (making this book a bit like the connection-through-shared-dreams plot of Marianne Dreams). Unlike The Summer Birds, but just as in A Castle of Bone, the fantasy starts to develop in ways that veer away from the steadily meaningful path it seemed at first to be following. The (perhaps supernaturally) prolonged freeze that works as a perfect metaphor for the emotional chill of loneliness swerves into dreams of moving back through time, as Emma and Bobby’s night-flights take them to the age of the dinosaurs (briefly), then further back to the days before there was any form of life at all. Suddenly, they find themselves poised on the edge of an almost cosmic-horror abyss. As Bobby says, if they carry on:

“There might not be any world, just space, nothing but space… and whatever would happen to us then…”

Perhaps this is meant as a vision of the ultimate loneliness, a world of no people at all — of no world at all — but what of that dark presence, the eyes that Emma felt behind her as she was driven to mock Bobby? That doesn’t quite resolve as clearly, and I finished Emma in Winter feeling it had perhaps missed the simplicity of The Summer Birds by letting its fantastical element stray a little too far for so short a book.

1976 Puffin PB. Art by Janina Ede.

Charlotte Sometimes starts on the elder Makepeace sister’s first day at boarding school (so, a season before Emma in Winter). Going to sleep in a particularly old-fashioned bed, Charlotte wakes to find she’s not Charlotte, but Clare, a girl at the same school but in 1918. For a while, she finds herself in the past and the present on alternating days, but then, when Clare and her younger sister Emily (the same age and personality as Charlotte’s younger sister Emma) are moved to nearby Flintlock Hall and she’s no longer sleeping in the same bed, Charlotte finds herself trapped as Clare in the past. And, while the boarding schools of 1918 and 1963 (as a note on the Wikipedia page for the book successfully argues as the date of its present) aren’t really that different, the world of Flintlock Hall is very much that of the First World War, as it’s a house in mourning for its son, Arthur, who died in the fighting.

(Though Charlotte finds Flintlock Hall very much like her own home of Aviary Hall, which implies you don’t need actual time travel to find yourself oppressed by the weight of the past — a theme that pops up throughout 1960s/1970s British YA.)

Here, the theme is one I felt to be the main driver of the two Farmer books I reviewed previously: personal identity, particularly in situations where its edges become fuzzy or encroached upon. Finding herself living as Clare in the past, Charlotte isn’t sure how much it’s incumbent on her to act as this other girl, to the detriment of her ability to be herself:

“Clare had always been a kind of skin about her, Charlotte thought, containing what she did and said and was; but the skin had thickened imperceptibly the longer she stayed in the past… [and now] it began to thicken more rapidly than ever, pressing that part of her which still thought of itself as Charlotte tighter and smaller, until it lay deep down in her, like a small stone inside a large plum.”

Vintage 2013 PB. Cover by Peter Bailey.

Of the three, Charlotte Sometimes is the better book, going deeper than the simple idyll of The Summer Birds, but staying clear of the confusion of ideas and images in Emma in Winter. Unlike Emma in Winter, Charlotte Sometimes makes no mention of the events in The Summer Birds, which has enabled it to stand on its own as a book, rather than as the third in a sequence. It has, in fact, become Farmer’s most popular work.

As with the previous two Makepeace books, the main character in Charlotte Sometimes is mostly quite passive, but perhaps that’s part of the territory, with so much of childhood/adolescence being about phases you have to live through, rather than things you can do anything about. All three Makepeace books are about the dreamy stages of pre- or early-adolescence, but Charlotte Sometimes is much more about its main character’s sensitivity to the world and people around her, finding her place in a world with a troubled history, among other people with their many forms of unhappiness, and with a growing sense of responsibility. The world it’s set in (an early 1960s boarding school) is now even more remote from us than the period Charlotte travels back to (1918) is from her present, but the book’s still in print, and has taken its place, deservedly I’d say, as a classic of children’s/YA literature.


Devils by Dostoevsky

When I first read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I came away with a list of books he’d mentioned that I was determined to read, and thirty or so years later I’ve finally got round to one of the last of them, Devils by Dostoevsky (also translated as Demons and The Possessed), having previously read — though a long time ago, now — Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The thing that sold me on the book was that Wilson made it sound like a combination of thriller and existentialist exploration of the human condition. In the run-up to tackling it, I read a few short articles and watched an introductory video or two — it’s a long book, and I needed to supercharge my enthusiasm to get stuck into it — and everyone presented it in pretty much the same way: it’s about a nihilist/anarchist cell in a small, mid-19th century Russian town who commit a series of terrible crimes in the knowledge that a certain Kirillov has agreed to sign a letter taking the blame, before ending his own life.

But the nihilist/anarchist portion of the novel, though undoubtedly the best part of it, only takes up about a quarter of the book, if that.

Throughout reading Devils (in Michael R Katz’s translation from Oxford World Classics), I was constantly reminded of David Lindsay’s take on its author:

“Of all the writers, Dostoevsky is perhaps the greatest. Not one of his characters is real and life-like; they are simply carriers of emotions. This makes his books dull and boring. But after yawning through a hundred pages, suddenly a passage arrives which is not only pure gold itself, but which makes one realise that the previous hundred pages have been pure gold.”

I don’t know if I can agree with this entirely. Are his characters not lifelike? I remember thinking the same of Dickens, whose characters are basically caricatures, until I realised that most of the people I knew casually would absolutely work as Dickensian-style characters — and I’m sure the same is true of me from their perspective. (And who are we to say what is “lifelike” of a novel written a century and a half ago? Reading a classic novelist like Dostoevsky or Dickens, I always wonder if, in some subtle way, we’re getting a glimpse of how people genuinely were back in the nineteenth century. I particularly like, in Devils, how a character like Shatov can be so fiercely shy, that when asked a direct question he’ll stare determinedly at the ground for minutes then leave without saying a word, yet people still like him and he gets invited to all the social gatherings. Maybe people were generally more tolerant of a greater range of personality types in those days?)

I’d also disagree with Lindsay that, when the great passages come, they turn the previous ones into gold. With Devils, I seriously wonder if the bulk of the book really adds much to the bits I most enjoyed (the nihilist/anarchist bits). But that’s not to say it’s without any effect. The main cast of nihilist/anarchists don’t turn up until the end of part one of this three-part novel, but when they do, Dostoevsky’s narrator has had the chance to build them up with rumours and anecdotes, meaning they come loaded with a sort of star quality that instantly sets them apart. When they finally appear, it feels like things are getting underway at last. (And they do — for a bit.)

So, if it’s not merely about the nihilist/anarchist story, what is Devils about? It seems Dostoevsky wanted to write about two generations, and the effect that radical thinking has on both. The nihilist/anarchists are the second generation, the grown-up children of the earlier generation who start the novel, and whose story forms the bulk of the book. This first generation — including the parents of that second generation, though parents who haven’t done much, if any, actual parenting — are a set of wealthy, cultured, small-town nobility, officials, intellectuals and the like, who think of themselves as being fashionably radical. They’re typified by Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, a man who sees himself primarily as a radical writer, to the extent that when there’s an outbreak of radicalism in the country, he panics and writes to the authorities to assure them he had nothing to do with it. He has, in fact, written very little — he made his living as a private tutor, and has since been supported by his patroness and former employer, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, who provides him with living quarters, an income, and regularly pays off his gambling debts. The likelihood is that, when he writes to the authorities, they wonder who this nobody is. We get very little of Stepan’s actual ideas in the book — though I suspect there’s a lot of cultural context I’m not so much aware of, such as how radical his professed atheism is — but I’m assuming he (in his role as tutor rather than writer) is one of the main ways in which these ideas got passed to the next generation.

The second generation is typified by two young men. One is Stepan’s son, Peter Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who was raised elsewhere and has barely ever seen his father. Peter is something of a Steerpike, a schemer and manipulator who works his way into the favour of the gullible-but-influential, and who’s at the core of the “group of five”, the nihilist cell who, he tells them, are but one of many such groups seeded throughout Russia and Europe. Peter claims the orders he gives come from higher up, but (I can’t remember if it’s explicitly stated, or just hinted), the likelihood is he’s made the whole thing up — there’s only one cell, and he’s coming up with all the orders.

The other young man is Varvara’s son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, who was tutored by Stepan. Nikolai is the one man Peter cannot manipulate; he’s also the man all the nihilists and other members of that generation seem to instantly admire and look up to, even fall in love with in the case of the women. At some point in the past, it seems, he was the source of their ideals and became a hero to many of them. He lived life with a Byronic disregard for propriety — pulling an old general’s nose, kissing another man’s wife in public — and his confession (in a chapter that was suppressed in Dostoevsky’s time, as it was considered too shocking to print) points to a life of utter anomie: he seduced a girl whose age he can’t even be bothered to get right (first it’s fourteen, then it’s ten), and watched on as she sunk into despair and took her own life.

What is Dostoevsky saying about these two generations of would-be radicals? As far as Stepan goes, having lived through the events of the novel (including coming to the realisation that his patroness looks after him not because she respects him but because she sees it as an often burdensome duty), he decides to set out on his own in the world. Immediately, it’s clear this supposed radical intellectual is a hothouse flower, incapable of living outside the bounds of his coddled wealth. He’s soon confused, lost, catches fever and dies. That, then, is the first generation of these radicals: all mouth and no trousers, only lasting as long as it does because it has never tried to bring its ideas into contact with reality.

The second generation, however, did try to live by those ideals. What happens to them? If the soul of that generation is Nikolai Stavrogin, then the second, younger generation is already played out. By the time Nikolai comes into the novel, he’s exhausted emotionally, morally, and spiritually. What influence and impact he had was all in the past. Nothing remains for him but a rather offhand suicide after ruining one more woman’s life.

A selection from the “just put the title into image search” school of book cover design…

It might all sound a bit depressing, but the thing that made Devils so readable for me — and it really was a book I read in long chunks, and was eager to come back to — was just how wild, weird and funny Dostoevsky’s world is. To him, it seems, there’s no need for a generation of nihilists to disrupt the social order, because life, and people, are constantly doing that anyway. Everything, for Dostoevsky, is rooted in a fundamental irrationality, and is riddled through with paradox. I was thinking it would be easy to parody his way of introducing a character by presenting them as a bundle of contradictory statements, but then I found this — of Nikolai Stavrogin — and it did it all for me:

“…at first glance he seemed somewhat round-shouldered and awkward, but, in fact, he wasn’t round-shouldered at all, and was actually rather relaxed. He appeared to be an eccentric, but later everyone found his manners perfectly acceptable, his conversation always to the point.

“No one could say he was unattractive, yet no one liked his face… His expression was almost that of a sick man, but this was only superficial. He had a deep wrinkle near each cheekbone which gave him the look of someone convalescing after a serious illness. However, he was in perfect health, and had never been ill.

“He walked and moved about very hurriedly, yet was in no particular rush to get anywhere…”

Dostoevsky’s world is a Wildean paradox, but delivered with a desperate, wild-eyed stare and deep, passionate belief rather than an aesthete’s insouciance:

“My friend, the real truth always strikes one as improbable, don’t you know that? In order to make truth seem more probable, one must always mix it with some falsehood.”

Or this, from Peter:

“There’s nothing more cunning than to be oneself, because no one ever believes you.”

Or, from Kirillov the arch-Existentialist:

“Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy; that’s the only reason.”

The best chapter in the novel has to be the meeting that occurs at about the halfway point, where a group of radical thinkers and students get together to discuss how society must be reformed. Things fall apart from the start, with no one understanding the voting process by which to decide who gets to speak. Then one man, Shigalyov, stands up and says he will deliver a series of lectures (twelve in all) outlining his solution to all social problems. It is, he insists, the only solution. However:

“I must declare in advance that my system is not yet complete… I became lost in my own data and my conclusion contradicts the original premiss from which I started. Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I must add, however, there can be no other solution to the social problem except mine.”

One sentence in Devils stood out to me as, potentially, a summary of the entire book, and perhaps of Dostoevsky’s worldview as a whole:

“General commotion ensued; then suddenly an extraordinary event occurred that no one could have anticipated.”

It’s easy to see why, at the start of the 20th century, British culture developed “Russianitis” — a craze for Russian novels. Dostoevsky in particular has a wildness, darkness, and deadly seriousness completely lacking from anything in 19th century British fiction. The closest the Victorians came, perhaps, was Lewis Carroll — but, for Dostoevsky, there is no distinction between Wonderland and the real world: the madness, nonsense, and anarchy is all here, now, and it’s by no means written for children.