I keep picking this book up, wondering why it isn’t in the Travel section instead of where I find it. Then I look it over and mutter, “Oh. Right.” I put it back where it belongs.
It’s a classic in its field, but it sure doesn’t look like one. Nothing but a skinny blue volume with an uninteresting title, a few folding maps, and a couple of illustrations, none of which look enthralling. If you didn’t happen to recall reading about the book in, oh, some little collection by Bernhardt J. Hurwood, you, too, might fail to realize how much it meant in its day, and how much its story is still debated online now, more than a century on. You might mistake it for a travel book.
Which, in fact, is what it is. It tells the tale of a couple of school administrators from England who took a trip to France in 1901. They checked out Versailles, as any good tourist ought to do, and were unimpressed, which happens to a lot of tourists. They went for a tour of the grounds, got lost, and found themselves among strange people they didn’t quite trust. This, I am told, frequently happens to English tourists in France. What help they got from people they talked to simply got them more lost. After a lot of wandering around looking at the odd French people in funny clothes, they became thoroughly frightened. But in the end they found their way back to a tour group and went to dinner.
This, at least, was more interesting than the palace, and they decided to do some research on the gardens and buildings. On their return, they were completely unable to find the path they had followed while they were lost. A bridge they remembered and a small building were also missing. Of course (if you follow ghost stories, you’re waiting for this) they discovered a portrait which looked a lot like a man they had met on the way. The fact that he had been dead for over a hundred years made them decide to tell their story in a book called “An Adventure”, in which they suggested that they had been lost not only in space but in time, and had, in fact, been trying to get directions from people walking around in 1789. They did not put their names on the title page of the book. School boards get fussy about what the administrators do in their spare time, and making a time slip always upsets them.
Well, ever since, people have been trying to explain what these ladies, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, were really up to. Some people stick to the time slip theory, while others go all the other way and call the whole story fiction. The fact that the ladies revised their story when the book went into new editions, remembering new details, didn’t help, though I think this is unfair. Do YOU remember every single story about your vacation when you get home? No, that’s why you keep having the neighbors over for pizza.
A theory proposed in 1965, which has come to be accepted by a number of experts (including the book’s editor, who took the book off the market when she heard the tale), involves a famous French reprobate not far away who was having a massive picnic for a number of his cross-dressing friends. Naturally, goes this theory, such a group would have seemed sinister and unsettling to a couple of innocent British schoolteachers. (This does NOT fit in with another theory which suggests the ladies were not as innocent as all that, and were channeling years of frustration with British society into hysteric visions.)
In any case, you will find this staid little British travel story tucked into our Science Fiction/Fantasy/New Age section. Unless, of course, somebody slips back in time and buys it last month before it’s donated.