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Jessamy (Barbara Sleigh book - cover art).jpg
First edition cover
AuthorBarbara Sleigh
IllustratorPhilip Gough
CountryUnited Kingdom United States
GenreChildren's novel; Time travel
PublisherCollins, Bobbs Merrill
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback)
Pages159 pp

Jessamy (1967) is a children's book by Barbara Sleigh, author of the Carbonel series. It sheds light on English life and childhood during the First World War, through a detailed pre-adolescent female character and a time-slip narrative.

The setting[edit]

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 53 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 itself into a candle.

The time slip[edit]

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" (p. 37).

The theft[edit]

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 had 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 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[edit]

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 the petulance of her 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 Place, 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 forebear, 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 10, 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. Dramatic irony appears. "'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).[2]


Kirkus Reviews considered it to be "tellingly told", noting that it had "so much of the intrigue and fantasy that a young girl loves to daydream over."[3]

Jessamy appeared simultaneously in 1967 in the UK (London: Collins) and the United States (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill). The novel was translated into Swedish under the same title in 1968, by Stina Hergin, younger sister of the children's author Astrid Lindgren.[4] A German translation entitled Der Spuk im alten Schrank (The spook – or mischief – in the old cupboard), by Marie-Louise Dumont and illustrated by Sita Jucker, also appeared in 1968.[5]


  1. ^ In-line references are to the first UK edition: Barbara Sleigh: Jessamy (London: Collins, 1967).
  2. ^ There are some differences between the last chapters of the first UK and first American editions. See Talk.
  3. ^ Jessamy, reviewed in Kirkus Reviews; published April 17, 1967
  4. ^ ISBN 91-29-44403-9. Stockholm City Library Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  5. ^ Booklooker Retrieved 16 February 2016. Archived 23 March 2015 at the Wayback Machine

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