Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Timeslips

The facilities of memory and foresight are fundamental to conscious life and intelligence; their limitations are a prison through whose bars the imagination is constantly reaching. Stories of actual displacement in time (as opposed to time-distorting Dreams) are of relatively recent provenance, but they have been produced in vast profusion during the last century. In spite of the paradoxes which stem from the idea, Time Travel was quickly adopted into Science Fiction. But abrupt and inexplicable timeslips are properly the stuff of fantasy.

Whether it is the individual consciousness which slips, taking up residence in another body or an earlier version of its own – as a sort of extension of the Identity-Exchange notion – or whether an object or a person is extracted from the timestream and thrown back again at a different point, literary timeslips are rarely random. They often link an ancestor with a descendant, and tales of time-crossed lovers are equally frequent; given that Love is so often represented in fiction as a kind of quasisupernatural force, it is perhaps unsurprising that it should occasionally be given the power to transcend time in order to secure a uniquely precious union (or, given that many such romances are distinctly bittersweet, to exaggerate the tragedy of its impossibility), and "timeslip romances" warrant consideration as a subgenre in their own right.

Tales of time dislocation associated with Time in Faerie (or the kind of long sleep featured in Washington Irving's "Rip van Winkle" [1819]) may be regarded as proto-timeslip fantasies, as can some early Reincarnation romances and Visionary Fantasies. Théophile Gautier's "Arria Marcella" (1852) was one of the earliest tales to blur the border between visionary fantasy and timeslip romance, but Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889) provided the most important precedent for modern timeslip stories. The theme was given a significant boost by the publication of J W Dunne's metaphysical treatise An Experiment with Time (1937), which helped inspire J B Priestley's "time plays", although J M Barrie had already demonstrated that timeslips are among the easiest fantasy devices to contrive in the theatre. Barrie's harrowing Mary Rose (1924) is another landmark in the history of the motif, as are Arthur Machen's escapist fantasy The Hill of Dreams (1907), Not in Our Stars (1923) by Michael Maurice (1889-1975) – an account of dislocated time-reversal – Christopher Morley's pessimistic study of the corrosions of maturation Thunder on the Left (1925) and Gerald Bullett's sad tale of temporally mismatched partners, "Helen's Lovers" (1932).

Henry James's unfinished The Sense of the Past (1917) would presumably have provided an important paradigm had he managed to complete it; the sentimental play Berkeley Square (1928) which John Balderston and J C Squire based on it is a poor substitute, although it was effectively filmed as Berkeley Square (1933) and as I'll Never Forget You (1951). Other notable tales of time-crossed lovers include The Haunted Woman (1922) by David Lindsay, Still She Wished for Company (1924) by Margaret Irwin, Portrait of Jennie (1940) by Robert Nathan – filmed as Portrait of Jennie (1948) – The Twinkling of an Eye (1945) by D C F Harding, By Firelight (1948) by Edith Pargeter, Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney, Bid Time Return (1975) by Richard Matheson, The Dream Years (1985) by Lisa Goldstein and Serenissima (1987) by Erica Jong (1942-    ). Timeslip stories which allow characters a second chance to get their lives right (which they almost invariably waste) include Barrie's Dear Brutus (1922), The Devil in Crystal (1944) by Louis Marlow (1881-1966), The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (1947) by P D Ouspensky (1878-1947), Time Marches Sideways (1950) by Ralph L Finn (1912-1999) and Changing the Past (1989) by Thomas Berger. Notable timeslip stories of more various inclination include Before I Go Hence (1945) by Frank Baker, The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne Du Maurier, The Mirror (1978) by Marlys Millhiser (1938-    ) and The Exile (1987) by William Kotzwinkle. John Dickson Carr failed to found a new subgenre of timeslip crime stories despite setting three notable precedents in The Devil in Velvet (1951), Fear is the Same (1956) as Carter Dickson and Fire, Burn! (1957).

In recent years timeslips have become a favourite didactic device in children's fiction, following such precedents in adult fantasy as Friar's Lantern (1906) by G G Coulton (1858-1947) – which assaulted G K Chesterton's and Hilaire Belloc's nostalgic affection for the medieval Church – The Burning Ring (1927) by Katherine Burdekin and Night in No Time (1946) by Eliot Crawshay-Williams. They are deployed to particularly good effect in A Traveller in Time (1939) by Alison Uttley, Tom's Midnight Garden (1958) by Philippa Pearce, Charlotte Sometimes (1969) by Penelope Farmer, Beadbonny Ash (1973) by Winifred Finlay (1910-1989) and To Nowhere and Back (1975) by Margaret J Anderson. Timeslips have also recently become a cliché of Military Fantasy, protagonists with specialist modern knowledge being projected into primitive contexts where they are able to commit more effective mayhem than the indigenous populations; Robert Adams's series begun with Castaways in Time (1979) is typical of the species.

Timeslips are numerous in the movies – too numerous to list. Search for Grace (1994) is an example of a straightforward treatment of the theme; Don't Look Now (1973) is altogether more enigmatic, since the timeslip may be either to the past, if the movie is read one way, or have been to the future, if read the other. The most famous "factual" occurrence was that experienced by Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain in 1901 at Versailles: they for a while found themselves seemingly in the 18th century. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.