Jessamy

Jessamy (1967) by Barbara Sleigh is a children's book that sheds light on English life during World War I through a time slip narrative.

Contents

The setting

The story is about an orphaned girl called Jessamy, age unstated but about nine to eleven, who lived with one aunt during school term and another during school holidays. Both aunts were superficially affectionate, but neither paid heed to her as a person. The book begins with her arrival unaccompanied by train, to find that her holiday aunt's uncongenial children had caught whooping cough. Jessamy had to be farmed out for the summer to Miss Brindle, the childless caretaker of an empty Victorian mansion: Posset Place.

Jessamy was taken aback by the old Miss Brindle, who was wary of children — "I daresay you won't mind being treated like a grown-up person. I don't know any other way," she was told (p. 14).[1] Once Jessamy had reassured her — "I'll try not to be a menace" (p. 13) — she was allowed to explore the house and came across a schoolroom. She opened a large empty cupboard and saw three sets of old pencil marks on the door showing the heights of four children, one of them, appearing only in the first set, named Jessamy, like her. She was exhausted that night and went to bed, only to be woken by moonlight shining through her window. She put on a dressing gown and stole back to the schoolroom with an electric torch. "Her bare feet seemed to take charge of her, almost as if they knew the way themselves" (p. 25).

This time she found clothes hanging in the cupboard and only the first set of pencil marks on the door. Beside them was a date: "July 23rd, 1914" (p. 25), precisely 43 years before, and two weeks before Britain would declare war on Germany. A drip of hot wax on her hand signalled that her torch had turned into a candle.

The time slip

Sleigh takes great care with the join between the two narratives.

Jessamy herself was puzzled: "'This is a dream, it must be!' she said. 'I'm sound asleep in the camp bed really'" (p. 26). Jessamy had been reading Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911) on the train (p.7) and there was something secret about the way the holiday aunt and Jessamy stepped from a modern street into the walled garden round a house that Jessamy felt looked "half like a church, and half like a castle with those battlements and stained glass windows and things" (p. 14).

Back in time, Jessamy found she had fallen from a tree the previous day and should be recovering in bed from concussion. She was thought to have suffered some memory loss, which happily accounted for some of her strange questions. She was found by a parlour maid, Matchett, who was up and in street clothes suspiciously late, and asked crossly what she was doing in the cupboard, "'I don't quite remember,' Jessamy heard herself say slowly. 'I think I was looking for something'" (p. 28).

Readers are also helped over the time slip by the dazzling improvement it brought in Jessamy's life. In the present, she was a brave, well-meaning and intelligent enough girl, but isolated and deprived of love and companionship, not to mention adventure, and wishing she were able to go to boarding school. In her 1914 state, most of those deficiencies were met: she found an aunt, the cook-housekeeper Mrs Rumbold, who loved her dearly, took her in hand and gave her things to do; she gained a true companion in the younger boy Kitto and an untrue one in his ill-disposed sister Fanny; and she could bridge two societies: below stairs with the staff, and above stairs in the schoolroom with the children of the family, who were orphaned like herself, and being raised by an older sister and a rich grandfather who owned a pharmaceutical factory (hence Posset Place for the house).

The duality in the story continues, with Jessamy turning over in her present-day mind what was happening to her in a different life: "Quite suddenly Jessamy realised that she was very hungry. The faint rumble of her inside was reassuring. It belonged to the Jessamy of both worlds" (page 37).

The theft

Against this new-found love, companionship, and contentment, Sleigh sets about outlining Jessamy's new worth. The grandfather Mr Parkinson, owner of Posset Place, took Jessamy, his grandson Kitto, and the groom William Stubbins to an auction, where he bought a medieval book of hours for the large sum of £300. The eldest boy Harry, everybody's favourite, then returned from Oxford, set upon joining the army instead of completing his final year, and burdened by debts. After a dreadful row and Harry's departure in the night, the book of hours was found to be missing. Mr Parkinson assumed Harry had stolen it, but Jessamy, Kitto and others were appalled at the accusation. Not so the parlour maid Matchett or her lover, William the groom.

Trust is a recurrent theme in the book. On arrival in the earlier Posset Place, Jessamy promised Matchett, who was up late at night, not to betray her love affair. Soon after, Fanny grudgingly thanked her for not revealing that her fall from the mulberry tree came about because Fanny had pushed her. Now she set about helping Fanny again, for Fanny had borrowed her elder sister's mother-of-pearl penknife without asking, and left it in the tree house at the time of Jessamy's fall. Disobeying Mr Parkinson's orders to the children never to climb the tree again, Jessamy went up to retrieve the knife, but she was caught in the act. Again there was a row, and it looked as if Jessamy's escapade might cost Mrs Rumbold her job on the domestic staff. But Jessamy managed to slip the penknife to Kitto, and the danger to Mrs Rumbold passed when Fanny came clean about why Jessamy was up the forbidden tree. Returning to the schoolroom later, Jessamy went to the cupboard to see if Fanny's hat was there and she had returned from a walk. The door of the cupboard shut behind Jessamy and she found herself back in the present, still wearing her dressing gown and holding not a candle but her torch.

The aftermath

Back in the present, Jessamy had a second fall when the paper boy, Billy, opened the gate suddenly and knocked her over. But some of the improvement Jessamy had found in her 1914 life was matched in the present. She befriended Billy and told him her story, as if she were just making it up. She became fond of Miss Brindle, the caretaker, and helped her with the house. She enjoyed a seaside holiday with her aunt, despite her petulant cousins. But examining the second set of dated marks in the cupboard, from 1915, convinced Jessamy that if she were ever to get back to the other Posset Hall, it would have to be on August 14. She succeeded, picked up the strands, and became skilled at soothing Billy, the baby boy of Matchett, by then Mrs Stubbins with a husband away in the army. One day Jessamy and Kitto took along the baby in his pram when they went to deliver some magazines to a military hospital. There in a ward Jessamy found Harry, lying in bed with his arm amputated.

It was soon clear to Jessamy and Kitto that Harry did not even know the theft had occurred. They engineered a reconciliation between him and his grandfather, but the book of hours remained unfound. The children's suspicions fell on the Stubbinses. Jessamy cornered Mrs Stubbins into admitting, under a vow of secrecy, that her husband had stolen it, but she did not know where he had hidden it, and he was away at the war. The note he had written giving its whereabouts was with his will, in an envelope which Mrs Stubbins had promised not to open unless her husband should be killed. Jessamy, however, found the envelope tucked down the side of the pram, opened it and took out the note. She was seen doing this by Mrs Stubbins, who chased her, so that she was unable to read it. She managed to crumple the note and tuck it into the mouth of a tiger hearth rug in the drawing room, but Mrs Stubbins chased her up to the schoolroom, where Jessamy hid in the cupboard — and promptly returned to the present.

Back in the present a second time, it emerged that the paper boy Billy was the grandson of Stubbins the groom, who had after all died in the war. Furthermore, it emerged from remarks made by her holiday aunt that Jessamy's grandmother, whose name was Jessamy too, had lived as a child at Posset Place with an aunt who was on the staff. There was one more set of marks in the cupboard, September 10th, 1916, but Jessamy, to her sorrow, failed to slip back in time on that day. Later, Billy and Jessamy fixed a swing to an old bough of the mulberry tree, which broke off, revealing the book of hours hidden in a crack, just where the tree house had been. It was damp and discoloured, but Miss Brindle showed it to the house agent, who showed it to the owner of Posset Place. He was delighted to have it, for when the present-day Jessamy visited him at his request, he turned out to be the aged Kitto: "'You must forgive me, my dear,' he said, 'I'm afraid I may have been talking nonsense.... I almost thought I was talking to the other Jessamy, the one I used to know. You were so like her in the half dark'" (p. 157). Not long after, Kitto wrote to Jessamy offering to pay for her to go to boarding school, as she so much wanted to do (p. 159).

Reception

Jessamy appeared in a period when several children's novelists were turning successfully to the device of a time slip as a framework. A notable example is Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, the 1958 Carnegie Prize winner, where the protagonist had dreamlike encounters at different points in time. Earlier there was Ronald Welch's The Gauntlet (1951, back to the Welsh Marches in the 14th century), and Hilda Lewis's perennially popular The Ship that Flew (1939), which used time travel to convey characters to the age of Norse gods and heroes. In Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time (1939), the girl slipped back into the period when Queen Elizabeth I of England had imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots in Derbyshire. Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes (1969) was a darker, more complex novel about the way time slip (back to 1918) could threaten the main character's very identity.

Sleigh's approach in Jessamy was to slip her character from one thoroughly realistic situation into another. This produced a book that remains very immediate to its readers, allowing them to identify closely with Jessamy in either of her personae, one of whom, it emerges (p. 146), is the late grandmother of the other.

Jessamy appeared simultaneously in 1967 in the UK (London: Collins) and the United States (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill). It remained popular for a quarter of a century, but it seems not to have been reprinted since 1993. Interest among those who read it as a child has helped to hike secondhand prices on both sides of the Atlantic, especially for the bound UK and US first editions, with twelve naturalistic line drawings by Philip Gough, a leading illustrator of the time.

The novel was translated into Swedish under the same title in 1975.[2] A German translation, somewhat misleadingly entitled Der Spuk im alten Schrank (The ghost in the old cupboard), appeared in 1980.[3]

External sources

References

  1. ^ In-line references are to the first UK edition: Barbara Sleigh: Jessamy (London: Collins, 1967).
  2. ^ ISBN 9129444039. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
  3. ^ ISBN 3545321118.

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