P.L. Travers’ I Go By Sea, I Go By Land, first published in 1941, is a children’s novel, which seems to have been largely – and sadly – forgotten. Virago have just reissued it as part of their Modern Classics list, including Gertrude Hermes’ lovely black and white drawings. Travers writes in her preface that the characters and ‘the experiences recorded are authentic’.
The novel presents the fictional diary of eleven-year-old Sabrina Lind. With the Second World War raging, she leaves her cosy parental home in Sussex with her younger brother, James; their father tells them that their house, in the village of Thornfield, ‘had stood for over nine hundred years and was old enough to take care of itself and would probably go on standing no matter what happened. The pair have been invited to travel to the safety of America to stay with their aunt, Harriet, for the war’s duration: ‘Just when we were so sure nothing would happen, the German plane came over one night at one o’clock in the morning… Suddenly there were five loud explosions. After that there was a terrible silence and I knew that Father and Mother were looking at each other in the darkness and I felt myself getting small and tight inside. Then Father said quietly, “Meg, they must go””. Sabrina goes on to say, ‘We do not want to be cabin boys and see the world if there is a war on in England. We want to stay here. But we do not tell them [their parents] so because their faces will crumple’.
Sabrina has decided to record her experiences in an exercise book, each entry of which is undated: ‘Now I am going to write a Diary because we are going to America because of the War. It has just been decided. I will write down everything about it because we shall be so much older when we came back that I will never remember it if I do not. So this is the beginning… All of us felt the same thing, that this summer was not like all the other summers but only a Farewell’.
The narrative style which Travers has crafted is engaging, and Sabrina’s voice is believable throughout. Whilst her narration is, on the whole, unreliable due to her youth, she is an observer; she thus relays all of the information about the war which she hears from the adults around her, so as to set the scene further. It is most thoughtful in terms of the expressions which Sabrina uses: ‘Oh dear, what an exciting day. Not the birthday kind of excitement but the sort that makes you feel empty inside and the middle part of you all quivery like a telephone wire’. Her narrative also rather charmingly contains spelling errors, which makes the whole feel relatively authentic as a document; for example, ‘Walter and James went down into the crayter and found some jagged pieces of bomb and kept them for souvenires’, and ‘he does not like children trapezing over his garden’.
Sabrina and James are charming characters, and both are beset by what they believe to be pressing matters: ‘James is specially worried now about going to America because he has just remembered that in ten years he will be called up and that he ought to be here ready for that’.
Socially and historically, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land has been grounded so well. It would make a great introduction into the problems which the Second World War caused for civilians on British soil, describing as it does fears of air raids and rationing. The whole is very of its time, too. When asked about her future career prospects, for example, Sabrina says: ‘I might be a First Officer or perhaps a Clown in the circus because I like both but perhaps I would rather have some children’. Pel, a family friend and the woman whom the children are travelling with, announces that foreign waiters ‘are like all the Murders in Shakespeare, they burst in on you at any unexpected moment and have to be bribed before they will leave’.
I Go By Sea, I Go By Land is just as endearing for an adult audience as it surely will be to children. The novel is a lovely read, which has been well plotted throughout. We see how the children cope with being away from their parents and their feelings of homesickness, as well as the way in which they fit in to their new community. One can only hope that Virago reissue more of Travers’ books in the near future.