Time travel is a pretty common genre preoccupation; I think we’re all simultaneously fascinated by both the future and the past – what was it like? What will it be like? How did/will it look, sound, and smell? But if you focus solely on films and television, it can start to feel like men get all the horological fun, and what I’ve always been especially interested in is stories of female time travellers. Of course, I always like to read about women having any adventures, but I’m particularly interested in the challenges women face when moving into the past or future.
It all started, as so many things do, with Madeleine L’Engle. Like scads of other bookworms, A Wrinkle in Time was one of the formative reading experiences of my young life; it shaped me in a multitude of ways, one of them being kickstarting my fascination with time travel. I remember with crystal clearness that first time I saw that iconic illustration of the ant on the fold of fabric, and felt the accompanying thrill of understanding that in this world, you (well, “you” being “a star in the form of a wry, bedsheet-swaddled crone”) could bend time to your will, and skim over it rather than travel through it. That such an experience could be had by a girl – the unruly, unpretty, imperfect Meg Murray, no less – only added fuel to the flame.
As an adult, Connie Willis and her futuristic series of stories about Oxford graduate students who travel in time for historical field research have proven utterly addictive to me. The fan favourite is usually the witty comedy of errors To Say Nothing of the Dog, but closest to my heart is the compelling, heartwrenchingDoomsday Book. I first readDoomsday Book while performing a little everyday time travel of my own, crammed onto a stuffy cross-country flight. Despite the less-than-ideal reading conditions, I was utterly enthralled by Willis’ eye for historical detail and especially by resilient, intelligent, and compassionate protagonist Kivrin Engle. At Oxford, Engle is fussed over by her protective, fatherly supervisor, but she proves herself more than capable when, as her situation goes from bad to worse to dire, she gets stranded in the 14th century while the Black Death mercilessly ravages England.
After Doomsday Book, I went on to read and love Willis’ WWII-era time travel novels, Blackout and All Clear. Both novels alternate a variety of narrative perspectives, both male and female, but it’s the warm, pragmatic, and determined Polly Churchill who holds the books together and who feels to me like the spiritual successor to Kivrin Engle.
I’ve recently become interested in more experimental or rule-bending explorations of time travel. Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet demonstrates a preoccupation with time in narrative and language. Human Croquet centres around another angry, unruly, whip-smart teenage girl: Isobel Fairfax, who begins uncontrollably popping in and out of pockets of time. Isobel may move in time, but she is geographically rooted, always remaining in the small wooded town where her family has lived for generations. Atkinson’s story itself travels in time, jumping back and forth between the Fairfaxes’ pasts (especially that of Isobel’s mother, Eliza) and Isobel’s present. Or rather, Isobel’s presents, potential timelines that start to behave increasingly strangely as Isobel gets closer to understanding her mother’s disappearance and the secrets of those in her small town. Through Isobel’s sharp wit and probing curiosity, Atkinson also draws attention to the strangely material way we talk about it – about making it, saving it, and losing it. InHuman Croquet, you can see the seeds for Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life. With a reincarnating protagonist, it is strictly speaking more Groundhog-Day-esque time repetition than time travel, but it clearly has its roots in the genre.
This is just a sampling of some of my favourite female time travellers, those ladies who lunch in another century or on another planet. It’s hardly comprehensive and I’m always looking to add to my reading list, so tell me: who are yours?