Historical Musings #23: Time Travel

Historical Musings

I have always loved the idea of being able to travel through time so with my interest in history it’s not surprising that I enjoy reading fiction with an element of time travel. My recent read of The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick (in which a young woman from Tudor England travels forward to the present day) made me think of other time travel – or time-slip – novels I’ve read over the years. Before I start to list them, let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about the difference between time travel and time-slip:

The difference is that in time slip stories, the protagonist typically has no control and no understanding of the process (which is often never explained at all) and is either left marooned in a past time and must make the best of it, or is eventually returned by a process as unpredictable and uncontrolled.

It would seem, then, that time travel is deliberate and time slip is accidental, but thinking about the books I’ve read, it’s not quite as simple as that – sometimes a book doesn’t fit neatly into either category or is a mixture of both.

The first time travel books I can remember reading as a child were Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. The one that stands out most in my memory is Many Waters, in which twins Sandy and Dennys travel back to Biblical times – the days of Noah’s Ark – in a world populated by supernatural beings such as the Seraphim and the Nephilim. I also read Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, probably at around the same age, although I can remember very little about that book now. Most of my time travel reading has been as an adult.

The House on the StrandThe House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite time travel novels. Interestingly, I found that with this book it was not so much the historical storyline (14th century Cornwall) which interested me as the method of time travel, the fascinating questions it raised and the impact it had on the life of the person doing the travelling.

Then there’s Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, a book I read years ago, before I started blogging The movement between time periods in this novel takes place not as physical time travel but through reincarnation: a modern day American girl, Celia, relives a previous existence as a servant in Tudor England. Although most of the plot has faded from my mind, I still remember the atmospheric descriptions of the manor house, Ightham Mote.

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine is a similar story about a woman from the 1970s who undergoes hypnosis and is regressed to a former life as Matilda de Braose, a 12th century noblewoman. Sleeper’s Castle, published to mark the 30th anniversary of Lady of Hay, is the story of a woman in modern-day Wales who begins to have vivid dreams taking her back to the 1400s and Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.  Erskine has written a lot of other time-slip novels, although I haven’t read many of them yet.

MarianaI can’t talk about time-slip novels without mentioning Susanna Kearsley, whose books have impressed me more than Erskine’s. Not all of them involve a form of time travel, but those that do include Mariana (which takes us back to the 17th century), The Rose Garden (18th century Cornwall) and The Firebird (18th century Scotland and Russia). I think Kearsley makes the time travel in her novels feel quite natural and believable; the transitions between one period and another are very smooth.

I have already mentioned The Phantom Tree; I haven’t read Nicola Cornick’s previous novel, House of Shadows, but I’m looking forward to it. I think readers who enjoy Cornick may also be interested in Pamela Hartshorne’s novels. The one I read – The Edge of Dark – follows the story of a present day woman who begins to experience the memories of a woman who lived in the Elizabethan period.

And finally, there’s Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series in which World War II nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones to find herself in 18th century Scotland. There are eight books in the series so far; I loved the earlier ones, but was slightly less enamoured with the last two.  I’ve reviewed the most recent books, An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, on my blog, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series in order.


The titles above are the ones which came instantly to mind when I started to write this post. I was sure I must have read more, so I had a look back through my blog archives and was reminded of a few others:

The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return by Bee Ridgway – set partly in the modern day and partly in the Regency period. This would be a good choice for readers who are interested in the actual mechanics of time travel; I noted in my review that this is a novel “where the manipulation of time forms a big part of the plot – jumping forwards in time, jumping backwards in time, freezing time, speeding time up and slowing time down”.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness – the second book in the All Souls Trilogy, in which our two main characters – a witch and a vampire – travel back in time to the year 1590.  I remember finding the time travel aspect a bit confusing in this one.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler – this is a great novel about a black woman in the 1970s who is pulled into the 19th century and finds herself on a Maryland plantation where she meets one of her ancestors, who happens to be a slave owner.

The Map of Time by Felix Palma – an unusual novel made up of three separate but interlinked stories which pull the reader backwards and forwards in time.  HG Wells, author of The Time Machine, even appears as a character in this book.

Now it’s your turn.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned above?  What are your favourite time travel/time-slip novels?  Which methods of time travel do you find most convincing?  I am particularly interested in hearing about books which involve travel to or from the past, but if you prefer books which take us forward to the future – like The Time Machine – feel free to recommend those too.

26 thoughts on “Historical Musings #23: Time Travel

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I have not read any of these (aside from those by L’Engle and Pearce), but you make me want to look into some of them. Kindred has been on my list for a long time. Your description of The House on the Strand intrigues me especially, as it seems to deal with the time travel method itself in a more thoughtful way than often happens.

    Some books that I remember enjoying are Time and Again by Jack Finney; Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis; Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett; and the “Company” books by Kage Baker. Of children’s books I think I’ve read and forgotten quite a few, but The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston and The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit stick in my memory.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for those suggestions. I’ve been meaning to read the Connie Willis books for years! I’m sure I’ve probably forgotten a few children’s books too – I read some of E. Nesbit’s, but not The Story of the Amulet and I didn’t know there was time travel in it.

      • elainethomp says:

        Nesbit’s House of Arden duology has time travel, too. Harding’s Luck, the second title covers the same story from highly different angles. I like this pair best of all the Nesbit I’ve read for the intertwining stories.

        • Helen says:

          The only Nesbit books I remember reading are Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Railway Children. I never came across the House of Arden books, which is a shame as they sound interesting. I wonder if I would still be able to enjoy them as an adult.

  2. Small Review says:

    I like these types of books a lot. For me, I tend to put them into two categories that I like: Those where the heroine travels back in time and needs to contend with things like adapting to an older time and not messing up the future, and those where the heroine slowly uncovers a secret from the past (sort of like combining historical fiction and mysteries). Combine the two and I’m very happy.

    The first that comes to my mind is Mariana, which I’ve only recently read but very much enjoyed. A Knight in Shining Armor is another one I enjoyed and recommend. In the YA realm I liked Lisa T. Bergren’s River of Time series (time slip back to 14th century Italy). I feel like there have been many others, but I can’t remember them now. All that comes to mind now are books with dual timeline, but not time-slip/travel.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoy reading books from both of those categories too. Maybe I’ll write a future post about the dual timeline ones – there are a lot of those that come to mind! I’m glad you enjoyed Mariana too; it’s probably my favourite by Susanna Kearsley. I haven’t read A Knight in Shining Armor or the River of Time series, so thanks for recommending them.

    • Helen says:

      It sounds as though I need to read the Green Knowe books – I seem to have missed out on reading them as a child. I remember reading about Charlotte Sometimes on another blog a while ago and thinking it sounded interesting.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    Wrinkle in Time: loved it, as I love all her books, though I have not yet read the rest of that series. The House on the Strand: looking forward to it, as Du Maurier is another favorite author of mine. Lately time travel has come up for me in two recent speculative novels: Version Control by Dexter Palmer and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, both of which come at it from a scientific angle with advanced quantum mechanics as the foundation. (Reviews of both coming soon on my blog.) But whatever way it is done, I just get all excited when I read anything in the time travel/time slip genre. And you are right, it is not as simple a difference as Wikipedia says.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read and loved most of du Maurier’s novels (I’ve actually just finished Frenchman’s Creek) but The House on the Strand is one of my absolute favourites of hers. I hope you enjoy it! Your two recent time travel reads both sound interesting; I’ll look forward to hearing more about them.

  4. FictionFan says:

    It’s not something I’ve really looked for in books, so I haven’t read any of the ones you mention. I do have HG Wells The Time Machine down for a re-read though, which I guess is more time travel than time slip even if the method of time-travelling is a bit… unlikely!

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Time Machine, although with my interest in history I remember being a bit disappointed that the Time Traveller only went forwards in time instead of back!

  5. Karen K. says:

    I also read the L’Engle books back as a youngster, though I think Many Waters was published when I was in college so I wasn’t paying attention. I know I’ve read Tom’s Midnight Garden but I can’t remember a thing about it! As an adult, I’ve enjoyed some of the Outlander series, but I’ve gotten bogged down around the fourth or fifth book and never finished it (I also like the TV series so far.) I did really like Kindred and highly recommend it.

    There’s another good kid’s time travel series called the Gideon Trilogy in which some children are caught in an anti-gravity machine and travel back in time to 18th century London, where they have to team up with a cutpurse to get the machine back. I read the first book which was very good.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t remember anything about Tom’s Midnight Garden either, but I’m certain I read it! I think the first three Outlander books are the best – the others are still worth reading, but I can understand why you started to get bogged down.

      The Gideon Trilogy sounds interesting. I’ll have to investigate!

  6. Pam Thomas says:

    I’m not a huge fan of time slip/travel – it just strains the credibility too much for me, and there are so many questions. Having said that, I did like the first Outlander book, though not the others (the law of diminishing returns, alas), and ‘Lady of Hay’ (ditto – after a while, I began to wish that Erskine could write in another genre). And at least one of the books mentioned above had an (admittedly fairly minor) inaccuracy which led me to abandon it after a couple of chapters! Funnily enough, I find it easier to enjoy children’s time slip – the Green Knowe stories are amongst my favourites, though I’d say they were ghost stories rather than time travel.
    No-one’s yet mentioned Jodi Taylor’s St. Mary’s series, which is full of action and very amusing. Thoroughly recommended, though maybe not for the faint-hearted – cosy it is not.

    • Helen says:

      Time travel certainly requires disbelief to be suspended – and if you think about it too deeply you can end up very confused! I loved the first three books in the Outlander series but thought they started to go downhill after that, when the action switched from Scotland to America. I didn’t get on very well at all with Lady of Hay, mainly because I didn’t like the modern day characters, but I’m relatively new to Erskine’s books and haven’t given up on her yet.
      I’ll have to try the Green Knowe books – I do enjoy ghost stories as well as time travel anyway. The St. Mary’s series sounds intriguing too. Thanks!

  7. Sandra says:

    Great post, Helen! Time-slip, time travel – I’ve never thought of the differences in this way. Interesting.

    You’ve listed many books that grab my attention; the only ones I’ve read are Tom’s Midnight Garden (which I must re-read), and The Outlander series, which I love. I still have the most recent book to read but I’m so tempted to start from the beginning. I’m just not sure I can devote that much time to them! I enjoyed all the books in the series (so far) but some were definitely stronger than others.

    Off the top of my head the only book I can add to the discussion is the very well-known The Time-Traveler’s Wife. A book that I loved: very much a part of a particular chapter of my own life. I would be wary of reading it again for that reason. I prefer to think back on it fondly than to have those golden memories shattered 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I think I need to re-read Tom’s Midnight Garden too as the story has completely faded from my memory! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed all the Outlander books – I wouldn’t say I’ve disliked any of them, but the earlier ones are definitely my favourites. I still haven’t read The Time Traveler’s Wife; I remember there being so much hype surrounding it that I decided to wait a while before reading it – and then never did. Re-reading a much-loved book is always a risk. I can understand why you would rather keep your memories intact!

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Like you, I have been so impressed with Susanna Kearsley’s time-slip novels, including Marianna and, my personal favourite, The Rose Garden. I also enjoyed Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. While I am really looking forward to reading The Firebird and The House on the Strand. Another time travel/slip novel I loved you haven’t mentioned is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Rose Garden too, although I think Mariana is my favourite Kearsley novel so far. I still have a few more to read so that could change! And I’m glad to hear you loved The Time Traveler’s Wife – I’ve been meaning to read it for years but never have.

  9. calmgrove says:

    Several tempting titles here! You asked for recommendations and here’s a handful of titles that spring to mind, each with a link to a review.

    1. Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time is a wonderful timeslip tale, based on experiences she had as a child herself. ( https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/traveller/)

    2. Another Penelope Lively sort-of timeslip story involving an ‘auditory sensitive’ is A Stitch in Time ( https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/stitch/).

    3. Jill Rowan’s The Legacy (which I was sent for review) is an interesting cross-genre novel which veers mutates from a timeslip to time travel story — intriguing as well as quite enjoyable.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for the recommendations and the very helpful links! I was sure I’d read A Stitch in Time, but the plot doesn’t sound very familiar, so I’m not sure. A Traveller in Time does sound wonderful and I’m intrigued by The Legacy as well – I’ll have to think about reading both of those.

  10. Maureen Egan says:

    My absolute favorite time travel book is Time Out of Mind by John R. Maxim. It deals with present day and turn of the century New York City. Since I grew up close to NY and spent a lot of my childhood and school years going on family and school field trips there, I do love books set there especially in that time frame.
    Another author who has written two books on time travel, The Mirror and Threshold, and one on inner space travel, Nightmare Country is Marlys Millhiser.
    All are highly recommended

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, Maureen. I’ve never heard of any of those books, but they all sound interesting. It’s good to have some new authors to investigate!

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