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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.2 (2002) 243-253

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"History from Below":
Time-Slip Narratives and National Identity

Tess Cosslett

In this article, I want to look at a group of English children's novels that features the "time-slip" device: that is, the protagonist slips back in time, characters from the past reappear in the present, or both. Books using this device seem to cluster in the 1960s and '70s—as can be seen from this (by no means exhaustive) chronological list:

1906       Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill
1906       Edith Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet
1908       Edith Nesbit, The House of Arden
1939       Alison Uttley, A Traveller In Time
1954       Lucy Boston, The Children of Green Knowe
1957       Gillian Avery, The Warden's Niece
1958       Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden
1963       Clive King, Stig of the Dump
1966       William Mayne, Earthfasts
1972       K. M. Peyton, A Pattern of Roses
1973       Nina Bawden, Carrie's War
1973       Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe
1974       Penelope Lively, The House in Norham Gardens
1976       Penelope Lively, A Stitch in Time
1977       William Mayne, It
1978       Jill Paton Walsh, A Chance Child
1999       David Almond, Kit's Wilderness
1999       Susan Cooper, King of Shadows

The list also reveals that there are much earlier antecedents for this genre at the beginning of the century, and that the device is still very much with us. Two of the runners-up for the 1999 Guardian Children's Book Prize, Kit's Wilderness and King of Shadows, are recent examples. The special importance of the genre in the postwar decades of the last century has been recognized by Humphrey Carpenter, who writes that a typical plot is "likely to concern one or two children who stumble across some [End Page 243] feature of history or mythology which concerns their own family or the place where they are living or staying" (218; qtd. in Krips 52).

Valerie Krips explains this preoccupation with "achieving an appropriate orientation to the present in terms of the past" (52) with reference to the British loss of Empire, and the nascent heritage industry, in an argument that ranges widely over many different types of children's literature. I am concerned here to pinpoint the special features of the time-slip genre, and to relate them very explicitly to ideas of heritage. At the same time, I want to argue that this genre provides ways out of some of the dilemmas and negative features of "heritage" as a concept and a practice. In many of its variants, the time-slip narrative offers an openness to "other" histories, rather than the potentially nationalistic search for roots; it problematizes the simple access to the past promised by the heritage site; it critiques empty reconstructions of the past; and because of the way it constructs childhood, it evades the dangers of nostalgia.

The novels I am interested in deploy a series of overlapping motifs, which are repeated with variations—rather like folktale or fairy-tale motifs. Not all the novels feature all of them. They are: a deracinated child comes to stay in a new locality; a special place, often in conjunction with a special object, provides access to the past; 1 an empathetic bond is formed with a child in the past; a connection is made between the past experience and the memory of someone still living; names, inscriptions and their decoding are important; the history that is accessed is the everyday life of an ordinary child; the subjectivity of the present-day child is an important element in the story; this child does some form of archival research to establish the truth of his or her experience of the past; the experience of the past becomes part of a theme of moving on, growing, accepting change, death and loss.

The "genre" I am talking about overlaps with high fantasy and secondary world fiction, where the "past" the child accesses is wholly or partly fantastic. But here I am only interested in novels that introduce children to a...