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This article is about the children's book. For other uses, see Charlotte Sometimes (disambiguation).

Charlotte Sometimes is a children's novel by British writer Penelope Farmer, published in 1969. It is the second, and most well known, of three books featuring the Makepeace sisters, Charlotte and Emma, and inspired the song "Charlotte Sometimes"[1] by English rock band The Cure. These three books are sometimes known as the Aviary Hall books.[1]

Plot introduction

The story is centred around a girl called Charlotte, who, not long after starting at a boarding school, finds that she has mysteriously travelled back more than forty years. The teachers and other students call her "Clare", the girl in whose shoes Charlotte finds herself. Charlotte and Clare mysteriously exchange places each night, each one alternating between the years 1918 and 1963. Although Charlotte and Clare never meet each other, they communicate with one another by writing notes. The girls are faced with the disconcerting scenario of finding out how to live each other's lives without being discovered.

The story is entirely written from Charlotte's point of view: we never get to meet Clare. As the story progresses, Charlotte becomes trapped in Clare's time. Charlotte struggles to maintain her own identity as Charlotte, whilst living Clare's life in Clare's time.

Background

At the age of twenty-one, Penelope Farmer was contracted for her first collection of short stories, The China People. One story originally intended for this collection proved too long to include. This was rewritten as the first chapter of The Summer Birds (1962), her first book featuring Charlotte and Emma Makepeace.[2] A second book, Emma in Winter, with Emma as the main character followed in 1966.

Charlotte Sometimes was first published in 1969 by Harcourt, and by Chatto and Wyndus in the same year. It is by far the longest of these three books. Charlotte's sister Emma, and grandfather, Elijah, do not appear in Charlotte Sometimes, although there are references to them.

According to Farmer, Charlotte and Emma were originally based on her mother and her mother's sister as children, having no parents and "…having to be everything to each other," one being the responsible one, the other being rather difficult. [3]

The boarding school where the story takes place is set near where Penelope Farmer lived in London. [3]

A revised edition of the novel was published in 1985, with a number of changes. The most significant of these is that a number of events at the end of the story were removed, including a poignant episode where Charlotte, back in her own time, receives a package from Clare's sister, Emily, as an adult.

The book has been re-issued by The New York Review Children's Collection.

Plot summary

Part one

Charlotte arrives at a new boarding school, and is shown around by a prefect named Sarah. Sarah's mother also attended the school. The next morning she finds herself in the same place, but in the year 1918. A younger girl called Emily calls Charlotte her sister, and addresses her as "Clare". Each night, Charlotte finds herself swapping between her own time and Clare's time. Charlotte and Clare must learn to live two different lives. They write letters to one another in an exercise book, which they hide in the leg of the bed they share in two different times.

Part two

Charlotte, expecting to have returned to her own time for the last time, is shocked to find that she has returned to 1918. She will go into lodgings with the Chisel Brown family: it appears she will be trapped in the past. In the house, Miss Agnes Chisel Brown shows Charlotte and Emily the toys she had once played with. She tells the two girls about her brother Arthur, who died in the war. Charlotte reflects, forward and back: to Arthur in the past; her own sister Emma in the future; and Clare, trapped in Charlotte's time. She struggles with her identity as being Charlotte sometimes but Clare other times.

Charlotte and Emily form a plan to enter the school by night in an attempt to get Charlotte into the bed which will take Charlotte back to her own time. Inside the school sick room, Charlotte finds the bed is occupied, and thus she cannot return home. She escapes being seen by Nurse Gregory, but is seen by another student, Ruth.

Charlotte is not the only one who struggles with identity. Emily tells of the wretchedness of being motherless and unwanted, moving around between homes while her father fights in the war. Meanwhile, Charlotte dreams she is fighting to stay as Charlotte. She dreams about Arthur.

A letter arrives for Clare and Emily from their father. Emily does not let Charlotte read it, to the bewilderment of the other girls. Charlotte, thoughtful as always, wonders who Sarah's mother is: perhaps it will be Charlotte herself if she is trapped in 1918?

At night, Charlotte dreams about Arthur again, as a drummer boy, and that she has turned into Agnes. Her crisis of identity comes to a head as she struggles to preserve her identity as Charlotte.

One evening, the Chisel Browns hold a seance in an attempt to speak to Arthur. The girls hide behind the curtains to observe. During the seance, they hear Clare's voice crying out for Emily. Emily cries out, and the two girls are discovered and disciplined. Later, Miss Agnes asks about the voice they heard at the seance - Clare's. She then tells Charlotte and Emily of Arthur’s war experience.

Finally, Armistice comes. The war is over: people dance and celebrate in the street, and Charlotte and Emily join in, even though it would anger Mr Chisel Brown. In disgrace, Charlotte and Emily are sent back to the school. Miss Agnes gives them the toys as a gift.

Part three

Ruth recalls her “dream” of seeing Clare whilst in the sick room. Because of the flu epidemic, the students are able to play wild games in the dormitories, and eventually, Charlotte is finally able to sleep in the bed that will return her to her own time.

On arriving back in her own time, Charlotte is surprised to learn that her room-mate Elizabeth knew about her swap with Clare. Charlotte wonders about Sarah's mother and what has become of Emily and Clare. At the school, Charlotte sees an elderly Miss Wilkin, whom she realises that she had known as a young woman in 1918.

One day, Charlotte has a conversation with Sarah, and learns what has become of Emily and Clare. Sarah's mother is Emily and Clare died in the flu epidemic after the war. Later, Charlotte and Elizabeth discuss the events Charlotte has experienced. They find the exercise book in the bed leg, finding the last letter Charlotte wrote to Clare.

Charlotte receives a package from Emily as an adult. It contains a letter from Emily and the toys which Miss Agnes had given them, over forty years ago. (This last segment is not in the 1985 revised edition).[4][5]

Reviews

Margery Fisher, in a 1969 review for Growing Point, wrote, "[…] this is really a study in disintegration, the study of a girl finding an identity by losing it […]". She concludes that the book is "[…] a haunting, convincing story which comes close to being a masterpiece of its kind."[6]

In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers (1989), Peggy Heeks writes that Charlotte Sometimes "[…] show a brilliant handling of the time-switch technique and a sincerity which rejects slick solutions to the dilemmas of the two heroines."[7]

Notes

  1. Charlotte travels back in time to the year 1918.[3] A calendar will reveal that the year in Charlotte's time is 1963, as the book states that the days of the week between the two years were the same.
  2. In 1981, a single entitled Charlotte Sometimes was released by the English band The Cure. Its lyrics are about Charlotte, the central character of the novel.
  3. In 2002 film maker Eric Byler released a film entitled Charlotte Sometimes. It is not related to Penelope Farmer's novel.
  4. American singer-songwriter Charlotte Sometimes got her stage name from the book.

References

  1. Charlotte Sometimes author Penelope Farmer in 2007 about "Charlotte Sometimes", part one and two (via Archive.org)
  2. 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 67
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 40 (1985) p. 77
  4. Penelope Farmer Charlotte Sometimes. Harcourt, 1969
  5. Penelope FarmerCharlotte Sometimes. Revised edition, Dell, 1985
  6. Margery Fisher, review of Charlotte Sometimes, Growing Point, November 1969, p. 1408, cited in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 68
  7. Peggy Heeks, entry in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier. 3rd Edn. St James Press, 1989, pp.126-27, cited in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 68

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