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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.