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.


Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.


A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer

Puffin edition, 1974, cover by Peter Andrew Jones

I managed to end up with two editions of A Castle of Bone before I got round to reading it. Two editions with different covers, each suggesting a quite different kind of book. The Puffin cover from 1974 was the first commercial work from fantasy & science fiction artist Peter Andrew Jones. It suggests an exciting, danger-filled adventure in which young teens are menaced by a somewhat science fictional-looking castle, spiky, dark, and (seemingly) revolving. The other cover, by Angela Maddigan, is from a 1973 hardback edition issued by the Children’s Book Club. It suggests a much more laid-back, poetic kind of fantasy, a journey of wonders and discovery rather than dangers. Halfway through reading Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone, I began to wonder if either of these covers actually suited the book. There had been brief, dreamy trips to another land that centred on a castle, but after a while these seemed to have been dropped for a completely different plot in which three of the four teen protagonists are having to look after a baby, while keeping the fact secret from their parents. There was, in the end, one more trip to the land of the castle, but it was far stranger than either cover suggested. (And there was no rending of blouses as in the Puffin cover, though nor was it as placid as the Children’s Book Club cover.) But I’d be hard pressed to say what might make a good cover to this very strange book, which took me some time after I’d read it to figure out what it might even be about.

Children’s Book Club edition, cover by Angela Maddigan

The book starts with arty, somewhat spacey-headed teen Hugh (or borderline-teen — he’s about twelve, I think) being told by his mother that he needs to acquire a cupboard so he can tidy his room. His room is somewhat of a problem, as it has an awkwardly sloping wall, meaning it’s hard to find something that will fit, and Hugh is precisely the sort of youngster not to mind living in a room strewn with clothes worn and unworn. He’d far rather be either painting or staring into space.

But a cupboard has to be bought, so he and his father set out, and find an antiques shop (“junk shop,” his father says), where Hugh sees, and instantly realises he needs, the perfect cupboard. (His father calls it “monstrous, abominable.”) They take it home — it seems, oddly, almost “supernaturally” heavy — and install it, whereafter Hugh forgets about putting any of his clothes into it, and that night finds himself in a strange land, working his way towards a castle that always seems to be changing — sometimes it’s shiny, sometimes dark, sometimes it’s see-through. When he wakes up the next day, his feet are dirty.

Hugh’s best friend Penn lives next door, and he and his sister Anna come round to visit Hugh and Hugh’s sister Jean. At some point Anna (who is even more given to dreamy absences than Hugh) puts Hugh’s wallet in the still-empty cupboard and closes the door. A moment later, odd sounds are heard from inside. They open the door, only for a live pig — “quite unmistakably a real pig, with hanging dugs and crude, prehistoric-looking skin” — to flop out and make a dash for the exit. The pig escapes, but the cupboard remains. Soon, the four teens realise it has a magical quality: if you put something inside and close the doors, when you open them again, that thing will have been transformed to some earlier stage of its existence. Hugh’s wallet, for instance, was made of pigskin. Brass buttons put into the cupboard sometimes emerge as a puddle of molten metal, sometimes as the individual rocks from which their copper and zinc was extracted. There’s no controlling, or predicting, what previous stage in their existence the objects will revert to. And then, of course, the cat gets in. It emerges as a kitten.

There’s an obvious next step, one that everyone is curious about but nobody wants to try. What if a person went into the cupboard? It’s a possible way of achieving a sort of immortality. When you get old you simply get into the cupboard, turn yourself young again, and live a whole new stretch of life. But Hugh, Penn, Anna and Jean are all young already, so why should that concern them? Why does Hugh find himself irresistibly drawn to the idea of getting into the cupboard?

Farmer has two excellent qualities as a writer of fantasy. On the one hand, she inserts fantasy elements into her story that are highly charged with a host of possible meanings, and though this sometimes left me wondering exactly what it all meant, I was never in doubt that it did all mean something. (There are plenty of references to myth and folklore thrown in, too, from King Arthur to Odysseus to Thomas the Rhymer, only adding to the meaningfulness and confusion.) As she says in an essay, “Discovering the Pattern”, published in a 1975 anthology of essays by children’s writers, The Thorny Paradise:

“I am asked why, as a writer for children, I do not produce nice, solid, useful novels on the problems of the adopted child or aimed at the reluctant reader, and so forth, instead of highly symbolic (according to some reviewers) obscure (according to others) — anyway, difficult fantasies.”

When A Castle of Bone ends with — at last — a proper visit by all four teens to the land of the titular castle, it proves to be a very strange realm indeed. This is no trip to Narnia. The land of the castle is a land of possibilities and potentialities, where everything is, moment by moment, the possibilities of what it could be, rather than (as in our world) the one thing it has ended up being. It feels like a unique land among the many lands of fantasy literature, though not one you’d care to linger in.

The other quality Farmer has is a great ability to evoke the peculiarities of real life in a way that really makes her characters seem like genuine individuals. Hugh’s spacey moments, for instance, when he drifts off and gives in to dreamy abstractions, are a perfect representation of a certain type of adolescent mood, as when he gazes out of a window and:

“…it left him with an extraordinary, strange, creative ache; a beautiful yet unbearable sense of growing out of himself, exploding skin and bone. He tried to catch this feeling sometimes, record it, pin it down…”

The relationships between the characters are wonderfully realistic, too, with the four teens being bound together by, at times, nothing more than a mutual feeling of vague annoyance with one another. And they all find their parents as incomprehensible and mildly annoying as their parents seem to find them. It’s not the sort of crisis level of dysfunctionality you find in an Alan Garner novel, rather it seems like the healthily human sort of dysfunctionality you get in families that are happy to let each member be themselves, even if it means for a little friction.

So what is the book about? I always like the way a good novel can be open to multiple meanings, but, at the same time, I feel unsatisfied till I’ve found at least one for myself, so here’s my take on what A Castle of Bone may be about.

I think it’s about learning to accept one’s identity, one’s being-in-the-world, and the choices that are available to you in this life. It’s about seeing that identity is, in a way, tied up with mortality — with the fact that the life you live is one of constant (though slow) change, from baby to child to teen to adult to old age, but is still rooted in something changeless: the fact that, throughout these changes, you are always you. The “castle of bone” is the person you are, the body you were born into, with all its peculiarities, a castle that is protective of your identity (as a castle is) while also imposing limits on that identity (a castle can be a prison, too).

When Hugh first sees the cupboard, he instantly knows he has to have it:

“Immediately he had never in his life wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints.”

1992 Puffin edition

I think this is because, at some unconscious level, Hugh knows that the cupboard represents the next stage in his growing up, his becoming who he is. A cupboard can be seen as a sort of metaphor for identity — it’s the thing Hugh is going to put his clothes into, so it’s going to contain his public persona, but it’s also one of those magical interior spaces, both limited and limitless, that represent the human imagination. At first, he didn’t want to go out and buy a cupboard, he just wanted his parents to pick one for him — “A cupboard was a cupboard, was a cupboard” — but being forced to make a decision is the first step to making the more important decisions in his life, such as who he is.

And the old man who sells him the cupboard later says that this is what Hugh must do to end the complications that the cupboard’s magic have thrown into the four teens’ lives: he must enter the cupboard deliberately, “And go into your castle.” — choose who he is, then start to become that person.

This old man is a somewhat puzzling character. (In the “Discovering the Pattern” essay, Farmer identifies him to some degree with Tiresias, the blind seer of Ancient Greek myth.) He seems to change in character from moment to moment. His junk shop is filled with things that prove to be images of himself — a bust, a figure in a painting, a portrait. It’s obvious he has been using the cupboard to achieve immortality, but that it is in no way a satisfactory immortality. He has become fragmented as a person, a series of remnants of his many former lives — not valuable antiques but, as Hugh’s father said, “junk”. This, then, is not the way to be in this world; one must accept one’s mortality, commit to one’s identity, and see it through.

A Castle of Bone is an intriguing book. It’s perhaps as puzzling as, say, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, and while it’s certainly not as traumatic, it could well be in the same league in terms of richness of meaning, only in a very different direction. It doesn’t have Garner’s intensity of focus (though I think Garner’s intensity, which makes his books what they are, is also the reason for the feeling of trauma in them — it’s the intense focus of the over-powerful intellect, dissecting emotions in a way intellect was never supposed to). Farmer’s is a book that manages to feel as though it’s about ordinary life at the same time as it’s about the unordinariness of life, the state of being a particular human individual, with all the unique peculiarities a human individual has, including the richness of the inner life, particularly at those self-defining moments in which you must decide, at some level, how to be you. (Which links it nicely to another Garner work, The Stone Book Quartet, which is based around similar moments.) Reading it did, occasionally, feel a bit frustrating — particularly when the main characters were spending so much time looking after a baby, and I wanted them to be investigating another world — but the ending, I think, made up for that, and perhaps on a second read, when I know the sort of book it is, I might enjoy it even more.