Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer is on the shortlist for one of the best loved books of my childhood. The other main contender is Stars of Fortune by Cynthia Harnett. Whilst I reviewed Swallows and Amazons as a newcomer, a first time adult reader, here I find it hard to lose my twelve year old self who just wants to rave about it.
Published in 1969 and set a little before (if the internal ages of characters in the book are to work), the story is a wonderful fantasy, a great boarding school story, and a time slip novel with a lovely long historical section. Charlotte is on her first night at boarding school and this is strange enough but when she wakes the following day she appears to have gone back in time to WWI and everyone assumes she is someone called Clare, even Clare's little sister Emily. The day after that she is back in her own time but no-one has noticed she was missing. She realises Clare had been taking her place. For many days Charlotte and Clare swap, and swap about again, causing chaos in both their lives as they try to keep up the pretence, for fear that no-one would believe their story. Then, one day whilst Charlotte is in Clare's time (and vice versa) Charlotte or 'Clare' and Emily are moved out of the school to live with a local family, and Charlottte and Clare are both trapped in the wrong eras.
The long central section when the girls are trapped has subtle and sensitive characterisation of Charlotte (trying to be Clare) and a wonderful creation in Clare's little sister Emily. The evocation of WWI England is sharp, clear, and not a little scary. And despite all its sophisticated trappings, this book succeeds on the simplest and most basic level: you soooo want to know what happens to the girls.
The premise of this plot fascinated me as a child. I was musing on identity and what I now know to be the philosophy of the self. If I managed that all by myself, just think where you could take a bookgroup considering the philosophy behind this novel! Similarly the use of time and narrative structure make for interesting analysis. The are many ways in which the substance of this novel could be used to stretch bright children, whilst its surface story will entertain.
For this review I have re-read the book and it has been my third re-read as an adult. It has lost none of its considerable charm. I am also delighted to say that my bookgroup (Y5 and Y6, or 9-11 year olds, both boys and girls) all loved the book too. They all said that they might have passed it by in a shop or library, but that they were so glad they'd read it, making it one those I am so glad I dangled in front of them. The boys all said that it was 'no way' just a girls' book, that it was a 'book for anyone'.
As an interesting aside Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure, also loves this book and The Cure released it as a single with a video. See below for links.
Peril: of the fantasy kind, such as will Charlotte and Clare get stuck in the wrong eras. The children in WWI also fear for relatives who are fighting, but this is peril at one remove.
Death: the war brings death. Charlotte and Emily back in 1918 live in a house mourning a soldier. One of the girls loses a father. A teacher loses a fiancé. Shortly after she gets back to her own time Charlotte hears with sadness of the early death of someone from Spanish flu back in 1918.
There is no romance, nor any violence beyond the shadow of the war.
Anything else: there's a seance.
Overall: not only my personal favourite, but also the most successful book I used with my bookclub.
Other reviews and useful sites:
Penelope Farmer's blog is here and you can read her story of meeting Robert Smith, and hearing Charlotte Sometimes performed live, in two parts here and here, and see her photographs of her old school on which she based the school in the book here.
Edited to add: Vintage Children's Classics are bringing out a new edition of Charlotte Sometimes in the autumn which will include a range of additional material currently planned to include: a Who’s Who of the characters, a child-friendly author biography, a quiz, further information about WWI and Britain during the war, some ideas to think about, an interview with Penelope Farmer, recommendations for further reading etc. I will add a link to the page on Vintage's website when they have one, in the meantime, the main page for Vintage Children's Classics is here.