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Charlotte Sometimes (novel) facts for kids

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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 the English writer Penelope Farmer, published in 1969 by Chatto & Windus in the UK, and by Harcourt in the United States. It is the third and best-known of three books featuring the Makepeace sisters, Charlotte and Emma, sometimes known as the Aviary Hall books.

The story centres on a girl starting at a boarding school, who finds one morning that she has travelled mysteriously back more than 40 years. In the past, the teachers and students call her "Clare". Charlotte and Clare change places each night, alternating between the years 1918 and Charlotte's time. Although Charlotte and Clare never meet, they communicate through diary notes in an exercise book. The story is wholly written from Charlotte's point of view: Clare never narrates. As it progresses, Charlotte becomes trapped in Clare's time, struggling to maintain her own identity.


At the age of 21, Penelope Farmer was contracted for her first collection of short stories, The China People. One story originally intended for it 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. 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 United States, and by Chatto & Windus in the UK in the same year.

Penelope Farmer arranged many incidents in Charlotte Sometimes ahead of time, based on family experiences. 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." 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. The boarding school in the novel is set near where Penelope Farmer lived in London. However, it is based on the West Heath Girls' School in Sevenoaks, Kent, which she and her twin sister Judith attended in the 1950s. Elements in the book based on the school include the pillared front door, the glass verandah and the cedar tree, which still stands, as of 2020. Some of the characters there were based on real students of the time. The episode when Charlotte walks onto the glass verandah is based on a real event, when Penelope Farmer climbed on the glass verandah and broke it.

Two versions of the novel's text exist. A revised edition published by Dell in 1985 has a number of changes made by the author. Almost all the revisions were minor, such as modernisation of vocabulary and punctuation and minor re-wording of sentences. The most significant change is that a few events at the end of the story are dropped. These include a poignant episode where Charlotte, back in her own time, receives a package and a letter from Clare's sister, Emily, as an adult. Also removed is the original ending, in which the end of term comes and the boarders ride away in the school bus, Charlotte among them heading home to Aviary Hall.

The book has been re-issued, with the original text, in The New York Review Children's Collection.


Part one

Charlotte arrives at a new boarding school, and is shown around by a prefect named Sarah. Sarah's mother also attended the school. She is to share a room with other girls (Susannah, Elizabeth, Janet, and Vanessa). The next morning she finds herself in the same place, but in the year 1918 – with war still going on. A younger girl called Emily calls Charlotte her sister and addresses her as "Clare". She tries to spend the day in 1918 without being noticed. Each night, Charlotte finds herself swapping between her own time and Clare's time. They must learn to live two different lives. Charlotte and Clare manage to write to each other in Clare's diary, which they share and hide in their bed.

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

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. These include toy soldiers and a solitaire board with marbles. 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, being Charlotte sometimes but Clare at 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 her room, which is now being used as the school sickroom, 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 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.

One evening, the Chisel Browns hold a seance in an attempt to speak to Arthur. The girls hide behind the curtains to observe. During the seance, they hear Clare's voice crying out for Emily. Emily cries out, and the two girls are discovered and disciplined. Later, Miss Agnes asks about the voice they heard at the seance – Clare's. She then tells Charlotte and Emily of Arthur's war experiences.

Finally, the 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

Ruth recalls her "dream" of seeing Clare whilst in the sickroom. Because of the flu epidemic the students are able to play wild games in the dormitories, and eventually Charlotte is able to sleep in the bed that will return her to her own time.

On arriving back, Charlotte is startled to learn that her room-mate Elizabeth had deduced the truth about her swap with Clare. Charlotte wonders about Sarah's mother and what has become of Emily and Clare. At the school, Charlotte sees the elderly Miss Wilkin. Charlotte realises that she had known Miss Wilkin when she was a young teacher in 1918.

One day, Charlotte learns what has become of Emily and Clare through a conversation with Sarah. Sarah's mother is Emily, and Clare died in the flu epidemic after the war. Later, Charlotte and Elizabeth discuss the events Charlotte has experienced. They find the exercise book in one of the legs of the bed, where it has been for forty years. It includes the last letter Charlotte wrote to Clare.

Charlotte receives a package from Emily as an adult. It contains a letter from Emily, and the toys which Miss Agnes had given them over forty years ago. Charlotte places the marbles from the solitaire set in a jar and fills it with water, which the other girls admire. Charlotte feels a sense of personal identity in now having her own decoration to her dresser, yet muses that the marbles belonged her when she was living the life of another person, namely Clare. The end of term comes, and the boarders leave the school in the school bus, singing rhymes.


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. 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 at which 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. Emma in Winter then follows Emma's story while Charlotte returns to boarding school.

Influence and adaptations

The BBC One children's television programme Jackanory featured Charlotte Sometimes as a five-part abridged, serialised reading in January 1974, read by Rosalie Crutchley. Daphne Jones adapted the text as a serial, and the programme featured photographs by Jimmy Matthews Joyce. The executive producer was Anna Home.

In 1980, British writer David Rees published The Marble in the Water, a collection of essays on British and US children's literature. Its title comes from the episode in the final chapter of Charlotte Sometimes. When Charlotte, back in her own time, places the marbles from the solitaire set sent to her by the adult Emily in a jar of water, she notes how big they look in the water, yet ordinary when taken out.

In 1993, Chivers Children's Audio Books released an adaptation of Charlotte Sometimes on audio cassette.

In 1981, a single entitled Charlotte Sometimes was released by English band the Cure. Its lyrics are about Charlotte, the novel's central character. They 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.", 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. The title of the single's B-side, "Splintered in Her Head", was also taken from a line in the novel. The Cure later released another song based on the novel, "The Empty World", on their 1984 album The Top. In 2002 the film-maker Eric Byler released a film entitled Charlotte Sometimes. Its story line is unrelated to Penelope Farmer's novel, although its title comes from the song by The Cure, based on the novel.

"Charlotte Sometimes" was formerly used as a stage name by the American singer-songwriter Jessica Charlotte Poland.

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