Charlotte Sometimes (novel)

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This article is about the novel. For other uses, see Charlotte Sometimes (disambiguation).
Charlotte Sometimes
Author Penelope Farmer
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Children's novel
Publisher Chatto & Windus (UK); Harcourt (USA)
Publication date
Media type Print
Preceded by Emma in Winter

Charlotte Sometimes is a children's novel by British writer Penelope Farmer, published in 1969 by Chatto & Windus in the UK, and by Harcourt in the USA. It is the third and best known of three books featuring the Makepeace sisters, Charlotte and Emma,[1] and inspired the song "Charlotte Sometimes"[2] by English rock band The Cure. These three books are sometimes known as the Aviary Hall books.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

Although Charlotte and Clare never meet each other, they communicate with one another by writing notes in an old diary that looks like an exercise book. 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: Clare herself never appears in the narrative. 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.


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.[3] A second book, Emma in Winter, with Emma as the main character followed in 1966. Charlotte Sometimes was first published in 1969 by Harcourt in the US, and by Chatto and Windus in the UK in the same year.

Penelope Farmer arranged many of the incidents in Charlotte Sometimes ahead of time, based upon family experiences.[4] She later wrote that 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. She wrote, "Emma and Charlotte have grown in their own ways and aren't exactly based on my mother and her sister now, but this is where it started."[5] Penelope Farmer's mother, Penelope Boothby, who was "talkative and unconventional", besides being the inspiration for Emma, was also the inspiration for the character of Emily.[6] The boarding school where the story takes place is set near where Penelope Farmer lived in London.[5]

A revised edition of the novel was published in 1985, with a number of changes. While most revisions were minor, the most significant of these is that a few 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, with the original text, by The New York Review Children's Collection.

Plot summary[edit]

Part one[edit]

Emily and Clare are supposed to leave their room soon and go into lodgings with the Chisel Brown family. They have to make sure this happens when Clare is in 1918, because they won't be able to switch again after that.

Part two[edit]

Charlotte, expecting to have returned to her own time for the last time, is shocked to find that she has not and is still in 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.

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[edit]

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.


Charlotte Sometimes begins one year after the ending of The Summer Birds, after Charlotte has left her small village school, and covers the period of her first term at boarding school. While written three years after Emma in Winter — set during Charlotte's second term at boarding school — the events of Charlotte Sometimes occur beforehand. Charlotte's sister Emma, and their grandfather, Elijah, do not appear in Charlotte Sometimes, although there are references to them in the novel. For example, Charlotte compares Emily with her sister Emma in her own time; and compares the Chisel Brown family home with her own home, Aviary Hall.

Emma in Winter begins during the same Christmas holidays where Charlotte Sometimes ends, and indicates that Charlotte will stay a week with one of the friends she made at boarding school during the events of Charlotte Sometimes.[7] Emma in Winter then follows Emma's story while Charlotte returns to boarding school.

Charlotte Sometimes continues the theme, begun in Emma in Winter, of time travel into the past. While this is unexplained in Charlotte Sometimes, a theorised explanation is given in Emma in Winter. Emma and Bobby are reading journals in Emma and Charlotte's grandfather Elijah's study, where they find an article theorising the non-linear nature of time. It describes time as being like a coiled spring, which can be pushed together, so that some moments in time can be very near a moment in another time.[8]


Charlotte Sometimes received widespread acclaim by reviewers.

Margery Fisher, in a 1969 review for her children's literature journal Growing Point, wrote:

"Like Emma in Winter, this is really a study in disintegration, the study of a girl finding an identity by losing it... Above all, here is a dream-allegory which teaches not through statement but through feeling. We sense the meaning of Charlotte's changes of identity in the way that she senses them herself... [It is] a book of quite exceptional distinction... a haunting, convincing story which comes close to being a masterpiece of its kind... "[9]

In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Peggy Heeks writes:

"[Charlotte Sometimes] shows a brilliant handling of the time-switch technique and a sincerity which rejects slick solutions to the dilemmas of the two heroines."[10]

Children's novelist Eleanor Cameron wrote,

"Farmer writes with style. She is vivid in her depiction of place: on almost every page, scattered with colorful figures of speech, we are drawn into the school and the surroundings of the school through sights and sounds and smells and textures...above all we are moved by the depth and poignancy of the relationship between Charlotte and Emily."

She continues, "Farmer is always gifted in her grasp of possibilities that bring us up short with surprise and delight and satisfaction."

Neil Millar, in the Christian Science Monitor's review wrote that Charlotte Sometimes is, "essentially about humanity caught up in the still trickery of time."

In 1969, The Sunday Times described the book as, "This year's most haunting fantasy".[11]

Influence and adaptations[edit]

In 1993, Chivers Children's Audio Books released an adaptation of Charlotte Sometimes on audio cassette. Charlotte Sometimes has also been serialised on British television.[12]

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. The lyrics refer to the opening paragraphs of the book, "By bedtime all the faces, the voices had blurred for Charlotte to one face, one voice... The light seemed too bright for them, glaring on white walls.",[13] and to several events near the end of the book: people dancing in the streets at Armistice; and a school walk when Charlotte cries upon hearing of Clare's fate.[14]

Charlotte Sometimes was the inspiration for American singer-songwriter Jessica Charlotte Poland's former stage name, Charlotte Sometimes.[15]


  1. ^ Anita Silvey, ed: Children's books and their creators (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1995), p. 238.
  2. ^ Charlotte Sometimes author Penelope Farmer in 2007 about "Charlotte Sometimes", part one and two (via
  3. ^ 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 67
  4. ^ Margaret K. McElderry, 'Penelope Farmer: The Development of an Author.' In Elementary English Vol 51, No. 6, September 1974, p. 804. Quoted in Children's Literature Review Vol. 8. Gale Research Company, 1985.
  5. ^ a b 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 40 (1985) p. 77
  6. ^ 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 66
  7. ^ Penelope Farmer, Emma in Winter. London: Chatto & Wyndus, 1969, p. 6
  8. ^ Penelope Farmer, Emma in Winter. London: Chatto & Wyndus, 1969, Ch. 4
  9. ^ Margery Fisher, review of Charlotte Sometimes, Growing Point, November 1969, p. 1408, cited in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 68
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Penelope FarmerCharlotte Sometimes. Revised edition, Dell, 1985, rear cover.
  12. ^ 'Penelope Farmer' in Something About the Author 105 (1999) p. 65
  13. ^ Penelope Farmer, Charlotte Sometimes. Revised edition, Dell, 1985. p. 7
  14. ^ In 2002 film maker Eric Byler released a film entitled Charlotte Sometimes. It is not related to Penelope Farmer's novel.
  15. ^ Jessica Charlotte Poland, personal question-and-answer page, entry dated 2 May 2011. Retrieved 2012-02-21