Jessamy by Barbara Sleigh, 1967.
Jessamy is a British orphan who is being raised by her two aunts, Millicent and Maggie. The two aunts aren’t really raising her together, though. Jessamy lives with Aunt Millicent during the school year, and she goes to stay with Aunt Maggie during school holidays. Truth be told, Aunt Millicent (her mother’s sister) and Aunt Maggie (her father’s sister) don’t really like each other, and they have different priorities and goals for Jessamy’s future. Aunt Millicent is doing her best to help Jessamy be pretty and popular, making sure that she wears a retainer to straighten her teeth and only allowing her to associate with “nice” children (apparently meaning ones from “good” families in the sense of social connections, who mostly don’t like Jessamy – Jessamy is usually not allowed to play with the children she actually likes and who like her). On the other hand, Aunt Maggie doesn’t care about beauty or popularity and just wants Jessamy to be well-behaved. Jessamy is confident that she is disappointing both of her aunts in all of these qualities. Her aunts are fond of her, but they are also occupied with their own lives. Aunt Millicent has her work, and Aunt Maggie has two children of her own, so Jessamy really has only half of their attention at any particular time.
However, Jessamy’s usual bouncing between her aunts is interrupted one summer when Aunt Maggie’s children, Jessamy’s older cousins Muriel and Edgar, catch whooping cough. Jessamy hasn’t had whooping cough herself, so she wouldn’t have any immunity. Rather than bring Jessamy into the household and have her end up sick, too, Aunt Maggie realizes that she has to find another place for her to stay until the other children are better. Jessamy can’t go back to Aunt Millicent because Aunt Millicent is leaving on a business trip, so Aunt Maggie arranges for Jessamy to stay with Miss Brindle, who is the caretaker of a large old house known to locals as Posset Place.
Miss Brindle is an older woman and is not used to spending time with children. Although Jessamy doesn’t really get along with her cousins, she isn’t sure if she’s going to like staying with Miss Brindle. However, Miss Brindle isn’t bad. She isn’t fond of Muriel or Edgar, either, and she says right up front that she’s glad that Jessamy seems different from her cousins. She also says that she’s going to treat Jessamy like an adult because she doesn’t know much about children, which suits Jessamy fine.
Miss Brindle tells Jessamy a little about the history of the old house. Posset Place was built in 1885 by a man named Nathaniel Parkinson, who made his money from producing a cough syrup called Parkinson’s Expectorant Posset. The house is largely empty now, except for the housekeeper’s quarters, where Miss Brindle now lives. Miss Brindle spends her time making sure the rooms are kept clean and well-aired.
Miss Brindle lets Jessamy explore the house a little before supper, and in particular, Jessamy is fascinated by the empty nursery. She finds herself imagining the children who used to live there and the toys and books the nursery once held. Then, she notices markings on the wall where the children’s heights were recorded, and she sees that one of the children was also named Jessamy. She tries to ask Miss Brindle about it, but Miss Brindle isn’t aware that there were any names written on the nursery wall.
During the night, Jessamy wakes up, still thinking about seeing her own name written on the wall of the nursery. She could have been mistaken, but it bothers her to the point where she feels like she has to go look at it again. Taking her flashlight, she goes upstairs again to look at the names. However, this time, the nursery is not empty, like it was before. There are clothes hanging on the wooden pegs on the wall and a line of shoes on the floor. When she checks the old measuring marks, she sees that there are fewer marks than she remembered before, but one of the names is definitely Jessamy, and the year next to that name is 1914. Jessamy lives in 1966 (contemporary with when the book was written), but the day in 1914 is the same day that she came to stay with Miss Brindle – July 23rd.
Then, to Jessamy’s surprise, she suddenly realizes that she is holding a lit candle instead of her flashlight. At first, Jessamy thinks that she must be dreaming, but then, an angry young woman comes and tells her that she should be in bed because she’s ill, not running around with a candle. The woman threatens to tell her aunt about this. When the woman lights her lamp, Jessamy sees that the nursery is now fully furnished.
It seems that Jessamy has gone back in time to 1914 and has been mistaken for the Jessamy who lived in the house in the past. The woman, who is Miss Matchett, the parlor maid, says that the other children named in the height markings – Marcus, Fanny, and Kitto – are all asleep and that it’s nearly midnight. The Jessamy of the past is the niece of the cook-housekeeper, which is why she is allowed to be with the children of the house. Jessamy’s head hurts, and she realizes that there is suddenly a bandage around it. Miss Matchett says that she fell out of a mulberry tree.
Jessamy realizes that the housemaid is only awake at this late hour and fully dressed because she had just returned from slipping out of the house secretly. When she points it out, Miss Matchett admits that she sneaked out to see her gentleman friend, and she says that if Jessamy doesn’t tell on her for doing that, she won’t tell her aunt that she was out of bed. Jessamy agrees, and Miss Matchett leads her back to her bed in the housekeeper’s quarters.
When Jessamy wakes up in the morning, she expects to find that everything that happened in the nursery during the night was a dream, but it isn’t. The room is the same one Miss Brindle gave her in the housekeeper’s quarters, but the bed and furnishings of the room are different. Jessamy is woken by a woman she’s never met before, not Miss Brindle.
This woman is the past Jessamy’s aunt, who tells her that she has had approval to stay on as the cook-housekeeper for the Parkinson family with Jessamy living with her. Not every household would accept a housekeeper with a young niece to raise, but as Nathaniel Parkinson himself says, the Parkinsons are not an ordinary family. Nathaniel Parkinson is a self-made man, from a humble background in spite of his current fortune, so he doesn’t put on airs, like other men of his current class. His granddaughter, Miss Cecily, at first disapproves of Jessamy, thinking that she might be too “common” (like the friends Jessamy’s Aunt Millicent disapproves of) and that she might not be a good influence on the children of the house, her younger siblings, who she is helping to raise. However, past Jessamy’s aunt defends her, and Nathaniel Parkinson says that she might actually be good for other children. He thinks Fanny has been acting too fine, and Kit could use the company of another child his age.
Jessamy is happy when she learns that past Jessamy has made friends with the Parkinson children and has really become part of the household. She is told that Fanny still thinks of her as being just the niece of a servant, but Kit (aka Kitto) is her special friend. Jessamy also likes this 1914 aunt better than her 1966 aunts because she seems nicer and more her kind of person. The realization that this is not a dream but that she has really traveled back in time is worrying, but Jessamy tells herself that she will somehow find her way back to her own time and that she should enjoy 1914 as much as she can while she can.
From the housemaid, Sarah, Jessamy learns that the Parkinson children live with their grandfather because their parents were killed in a carriage accident. Miss Cecily, the oldest girl in the family, takes care of her younger siblings and tries to manage the household while her oldest brother is away at Oxford. Miss Cecily is still learning about the running of a household, so past Jessamy’s aunt, Mrs. Rumbold, has to help her.
Jessamy also learns that she fell out of a tree house that she and Kit built together and that Fanny, who was also in the tree house at the time, was particularly upset by her accident. Fanny confesses to Jessamy that the reason she fell was because she pushed her. She hadn’t meant to push her out of the tree house or for her to fall, but the two of them were having an argument at the time. Fanny felt guilty about her getting hurt, but she’s still angry that Jessamy will be staying on at the house. She thinks that her grandfather and older sister decided to let her and her aunt stay partly because they felt badly about her getting hurt. Although Fanny is grateful that Jessamy didn’t tell on her for causing her accident, she still isn’t happy that Jessamy will be living with them. Fanny does put on airs, but she openly admits that she does it because everyone seems to be against her. Girls at school teasingly cough around her all the time because her grandfather made his money with his cough syrup, and since Jesssamy came, she feels like her brothers always side with Jessamy instead of her. Fanny has been in trouble before for bad behavior, and her brothers know that their grandfather has said if she does it again, he’ll send her to boarding school. Jessamy thinks that the idea of boarding school sounds exciting, but her brothers say that Fanny would hate it.
In spite of the drama with Fanny, Jessamy enjoys her time in 1914 and the other people there. She has the feeling that something important happened in 1914, and she remembers what it was when Nathaniel Parkinson and Kit talk about the possibility of war with Germany. Jessamy realizes that the coming war is going to be World War I and that it is going to start soon. Harry, the oldest boy in the Parkinson family, is back from Oxford, and he talks about how exciting it would be to be a soldier if there is a war, but Nathaniel Parkinson isn’t excited, understanding more about the nature of war than his grandchildren. Harry’s grandfather wants him to finish college, but Harry is in debt and wants to take his future into his own hands. Harry runs away, and at the same time, a valuable antique book belonging to his grandfather disappears. Jessamy doesn’t like to think that the pleasant young man stole his grandfather’s book, but what other explanation is there?
Just when Jessamy is getting caught up in the events in the Parkinson household and is concerned about the future of the past Jessamy and her aunt, Jessamy finds herself once again in 1966. Is it still possible for her to return to 1914 or learn what happened to the people she’s grown so fond of? Jessamy also begins to wonder who is the current owner of this old house and Mrs. Brindle’s employer? Learning the answers to those questions also explains a few things about Jessamy’s own family and past and gives her the one thing she really wants most.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
My Reaction and Spoilers
This story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, a combination that I always like. In some ways, this story reminds me of Charlotte Sometimes because the time switching takes place between similar eras, but there are some notable differences between the two books. Charlotte Sometimes took place at a boarding school, and Charlotte went back in time to the end of WWI, not the beginning. There was also no mystery plot in Charlotte Sometimes beyond Charlotte trying to figure out how and why she is switching places with a girl in the past. Also, in Charlotte Sometimes, it isn’t clear whether Charlotte influenced or changed anything in the past, but Jessamy definitely does. The modern Jessamy had to be the one to solve the mystery because she has access to information that the past Jessamy didn’t have.
In the past, Jessamy begins investigating the mysterious theft of the valuable book. Although she knows that Harry isn’t the type to steal from his grandfather, it takes a second visit back in time for her to discover who the real thief is and to clear Harry’s name. Unfortunately, she is unable to actually find the stolen book in the past to return it to its first owner. It is through a new friend that she makes in 1966 that she learns what really happened to the book and is able to return it to the current owner of the house … an old friend of hers from 1914.
Along the way, Jessamy also learns a few things about the history of her own family. She realizes at the beginning of the story that Jessamy is an unusual name, which is why she is surprised that the girl in the past is also called Jessamy. It turns out that Jessamy is a name that is passed down through her family. She is not a direct descendant of the past Jessamy, as I first suspected, but the past Jessamy is a relative of hers. She also comes to understand that her family used to be more grand, but during the past, they fell on hard times. This is also important to the story because class differences figure into the plot.
Everyone in 1914 is concerned about class differences, but in different ways. Nathaniel Parkinson is actually the least concerned with class because he has actually shifted to a higher class during his lifetime, making him aware that people from different classes are really just people, only in different circumstances. His granddaughters are more class conscious, although both of them also soften on that after getting to know Jessamy better. Even the servants are also class conscious, with some of the servants putting on airs because they’re above other types of servants.
Something that surprised me in the story is the realization, toward the end of the book, that class differences are partly the reason why Aunt Millicent and Aunt Maggie don’t get along. Aunt Millicent’s efforts to make Jessamy more pretty and popular and have her be friends with certain people are social-climbing efforts, partly because Aunt Millicent is aware of their family’s past and wants the family to climb up from their humbled circumstances. Aunt Maggie’s disapproval of Aunt Millicent seems to come somewhat from her disapproval of Millicent’s efforts at social-climbing or trying to act like she’s more grand than she actually is. It isn’t stated explicitly, but it is heavily implied. We don’t meet Millicent in the book, but from her description, I suspect that she disapproves of Aunt Maggie because she thinks of her as being too “common.” From the characters’ descriptions of Maggie’s children, it seems like people who don’t like them think of them as being “common” or uncreative, indicating that this branch of Jessamy’s family is rather prosaic, being typical in a rather dull way.
The objective reality is probably that Jessamy’s two aunts are not very far apart in their social status, but they have different attitudes toward their social status. Aunt Maggie doesn’t care much about it. She fits in well where she is, she doesn’t care about moving up in society, and she just focuses on the children behaving well within their social status. Aunt Millicent, however, has a high opinion of who she is and where the family ought to be in society, and she is focused on moving up. Jessamy doesn’t really fit with either of her aunts’ philosophies of life. What she really wants is the chance to make real friends and fit in somewhere with people who like her and who like the sort of things she likes. She gets the opportunity at the end of the story when the current owner of the old house becomes her benefactor and arranges for her to attend boarding school, which she has said is something that she’s always wanted to do. At boarding school, Jessamy will be out from under the direct supervision of both of her aunts and will have the opportunity to develop independently and make new friends who suit her, rather than her aunts.
Even Fanny finds boarding school beneficial. We don’t know exactly how her life ended up in the 1960s, but when Fanny realizes that she’s caused problems for the past Jessamy in more ways than one and that she needs to admit the truth to her grandfather and older sister, her character develops for the better. She begins to develop empathy and compassion for the past Jessamy, looking beyond feeling sorry for herself to feeling something for another person she has directly harmed, and she reforms her character. She accepts the consequences for her actions, even though she was afraid to do so before, and it leads her to better things because the consequences are not as bad as she thought and actually help her. Although she was initially afraid of being sent away from her family, when her grandfather decides that she needs the discipline and sends her to boarding school, she discovers that she actually likes it. Going to boarding school allows her to get away from the girls who were bullying her at her local school and make new friends, and she develops some self-confidence from the experience, turning into a young lady who helps her older sister in her volunteer work for the war effort.
One final thought I had is that every time I’ve ever read a book with a sickness like whooping cough in it, I feel like it really dates the book. I know this book does have a specific date by design, and I know people still catch whooping cough in the 21st century if they haven’t been vaccinated (get your tetanus shot – in the US, the tetanus shot includes the whooping cough vaccine), but to me, this type of illness feels like a time travel back to my parents’ youths by itself. My parents and their siblings had whooping cough when they were young, but I’m almost 40 years old and have never seen a case of it myself.