I’m not quite sure why A Stitch in Time was among my bookshelves as a child. As I think back now, I recall a cover with an ammonite, a hint of a beach (or a cliff?) and a girl. But I’ve googled book covers and have yet to find anything resemble what I remember. Perhaps I made it up. But I do have this recollection of a pale sort of cover, not the sort of the book that would attract a child.
As I read the book today, decidedly not a child, I wonder who bought this book for us. Who thought of it? A Penelope Lively reader? One of my aunts, now estranged, was quite the reader, we used to hang out in her attic room on Sundays when my cousins, my sister and I went over for dinner with the grandparents (she always chased us out) and I would browse her shelves – perhaps it was her? Or was it just a bargain book at a sale? I ask my mother but she doesn’t remember the book.
While I faintly recollect possessing this book, and reading some of it (did I ever finish reading it?), it was not among my favourites. I read and reread Ballet Shoes and the other Noel Steatfeild books we owned like White Boots, Apple Bough, and Curtain Up. The Narnia series, the Black Cauldron series, and Enid Blyton’s books like Willow Farm and the Faraway Tree. Then when I was about 11 or 12, Christopher Pike was the thing to read. Chain Letter!. Ugh.
Today I have this faint thrill that I actually read – and owned – a Penelope Lively book when I was a child. Although now I worry that it has been given away, or horrors!, thrown away.
It’s a book in which nothing very much happens, a book that wouldn’t really attract many children.
Maria Foster and her parents are heading to the seaside for a holiday, staying in an old Victorian house in Lyme Regis. Maria is a quiet, introverted type of child with distant parents who seem to not quite know what to do with her or any other children. She’s an observant young girl, who prefers to make conversation with things:
“Animals frequently. Trees and plants, from time to time. Sometimes what they said was consoling, and sometimes it was uncomfortable, but at least you were having a conversation.”
She meets Martin, who is staying with his family next door, also on holiday. Martin’s family is of the rambunctious kind, and Maria is hesitant at first, but finds a lot in common with the watchful boy, who is keen on museum-going and bird-watching. The kind of kid who knows the names of trees and birds. Her first real friend.
There is a minute element of fantasy in this book. First, when we learn of the conversations Maria has, I wondered if that was like her superhero power of sorts, her special ability. Then when she hears these odd sounds around the house – a dog barking although there is no dog around, a creak of a swing in the wind – there is a hint of something otherworldly, a connection with a time long past. But this is not the kind of book where children enter cupboards and find themselves in a chilly wintery world, not that kind of fantasy. It is a far quieter kind of read, no dragons or talking animals, no witches or sword fights.
It is a book that is rooted in Maria and growing up, and her learning to separate reality from imagination, and discovering that other children and other people can be interesting too.
So while it is not strictly a fantasy or a fairy tale story, A Stitch in Time feels very much like it would belong in the Once Upon a Time realm. And not just because they both have the word ‘time’ in them. But because there’s this sort of dreaminess about it, about Maria. While she doesn’t spend her holiday with her nose in a book, she does a lot of gazing at the cliffs and the sea, hiding in trees, listening and watching for sounds that may be imaginary or real, it’s not quite certain.
Reading this book today, I am constantly tickled by Penelope Lively’s portrayal of adults. Maria’s parents don’t quite seem to know what to do with her most of the time, but when Martin and his siblings are thrown into their lap for a day, they more or less throw their hands into the air and call a retreat. Worse still is when their mother returns to pick them up:
“What a relief it was, she said, to see that they had been so good and quiet, and now she knew that they could behave themselves if they wanted to (at this point Mr Foster began to say something and then didn’t but went rather quickly out into the garden instead) she wouldn’t feel bad about pushing them over again another time… (at this point Mrs Foster opened her mouth to speak and then somehow managed not to).”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a cautionary tale but it is a tale about a reserved youngling growing up and learning that the real world is worth braving, that while the imaginary, the conversations with the objects and trees and animals are all well and good, other children and other people – even one’s parents – can surprise and delight and converse.
A Stitch in Time is such an enchanting little book. I wish I had treasured it more as a child.