Who wouldn’t revel in the fun of a carefree 1970s childhood, with T. Rex blaring from the radio and a noisy, knockabout Christmas on the way? Insular 11-year-old Lucy, that’s who. Orphaned young, then raised (and indeed home-schooled) by her elderly Aunt Olive amid prim Victorian mores, her plight in this low-key, touching ghost story is the perfect encapsulation of the swift transformation of British society in the mid-20th century. Even as the 1970s began to swing in earnest, the stiff, formal pre-war rituals of Olive and her generation were being rigidly maintained behind the closed doors of gloomy, austere townhouses, and Lucy’s enforced journey between the two provides the trauma and grief at the heart of this book.
When Aunt Olive dies, Lucy is immediately transported from her Victorian bolthole, effectively friendless and at odds with the entirety of her generation, to live with a houseful of distant relations: the ultra-modern Aunt Gwen and Uncle Peter, and their children Patrick, Rachel and Bill. It’s a household straight from a stereotypically 1970s sitcom: imagine a moustachioed William Gaunt and a bob-haired Wendy Craig presiding over a gaggle of unruly kids in flared jeans while endlessly dashing to badminton lessons and local committee meetings; free-spirited denizens of a beige-coloured neverland where the fondue dip forever runs free. For the pinafore dress-sporting Lucy, raised on cribbage and lavender-picking and accustomed to nothing more rowdy than the clack of Aunt Olive’s crochet needles, the transition is little short of a living torment.
The contrast between the two households is, paradoxically, driven home by their similarity. Like Aunt Olive’s quaintly-named house The Shrubbery, Gwen and Peter’s family home is Victorian-built. But whereas Olive revelled in the insular familarity of this bygone age, Peter – an interior decorator of Sunday supplement repute – has delighted in replacing the vintage fixtures and fittings of Lucy’s new home with the pampas grass, central heating and abstract artwork of the new decade. “That’s Dad’s thing, modernizing old houses,” explains a proud Rachel to an aghast Lucy. “There was a big article about him in a glossy magazine not so long ago.”
Still consumed with grief following the loss of both her Aunt Olive and her secure, cloistered lifestyle, Lucy’s disgust and fury with her adoptive family is absolute: “She heard thunderous footsteps on the stairs as the boys chased each other down. She hated them. She wondered where Aunt Gwen and Uncle Peter were, and how she was to endure life with these strange people. She hated them all.” The anger and powerlessness of childhood is touchingly captured, but salvation soon arrives in the form of that most quintessentially 1970s of otherworldly experiences: a Victorian ghost.
Although describing Alice as a “ghost” is a potential misnomer. Alice, we learn, was a lonely child who lived in Gwen and Peter’s house exactly a century earlier; abandoned by absent parents to the care of her haughty governess (“Mademoiselle”) and with a cloistered upbringing and a passionate disdain for modern living that almost precisely mirrors Lucy’s. And it is a literal mirror that provides the two girls with a link across time. By concentrating on reflective surfaces (at first, she uses a Victorian mirror stashed carelessly in the attic, but later even her reflection in a puddle is enough to puncture the constraints of linear time) Lucy is able to transport herself back and forth between the 1970s and the 1870s. And the two girls effectively become ghosts in other’s respective eras: Lucy as Alice’s secret Victorian friend, evading the watchful eye of Mademoiselle, and Alice as a baleful spectre in Gwen and Peter’s 1970s household, a fleeting but powerful figure whose presence is eventually detected by the entire family.
The totemic power of Lucy’s reflection is pivotal here. Because Alice herself is a reflection of Lucy. Or at least the side of Lucy that wallows in kneejerk, reactionary hostility to anything – or anybody – that intrudes into the cossetted world of her pseudo-Victorian upbringing. It’s a harsh lesson: after all, Lucy’s upbringing is no fault of her own, and – for crying out loud – the poor girl is still dealing with the death of the only person in her short life to offer any semblance of safety and security. But Alice is a child seemingly without hope of redemption. Callous, selfish and manipulative, she has been consumed by her loneliness, and intends to claim Lucy as a permanent fixture of the 1873 household, little more than a permanent plaything to add to her lavish collection of possessions. And the message is starkly clear: unless Lucy begins to face the future rather than dwelling on her past, she too will become just as cold and self-serving as her Victorian counterpart.
This dawning realisation goes hand-in-hand with Lucy’s growing appreciation that Victorian life wasn’t all formal dances in frilly dresses, a point driven home when Uncle Peter’s bridge-building tour of the modern-day house reaches the cellar – or, as it was during Alice’s childhood, the scullery. “Damp and dark and full of cockroaches no doubt,” he points out. “But that kind of thing was considered good enough for servants.” The changes in Lucy’s attitudes are depicted with a warming subtlety, arriving as gently as a slow down on a winter’s morning, and – appropriately enough – it is the family’s last-minute preparations for the Christmas celebrations of 1973 that really bring her into their fold. Although it’s not overtly mentioned, one suspects that – on the big day itself – she might even have twitched a conciliatory foot to the chart-smashing sounds of Wizzard and Slade.
And while not a “Christmas Book” per se, the trappings of the festive season provide some evocative moments; particularly that of a gaggle of mysterious carol singers who – like Alice and Lucy – seem to flicker back and forth between the centuries, and a wonderfully creepy Victorian street scene that made me hanker for a handful of Quality Street. And Alice herself has a final, horrifically wintry trap to spring for Lucy that will conjure memories of both seasonal childhood nightmares and vintage Public Information Films alike. The intrusion of such a dark and baroque conclusion into the easy charm of upwardly-mobile 1970s family life is the perfect summation of the aesthetic of this downbeat but ultimately heartwarming story.
POINT OF ORDER: In April 1978, Come Back, Lucy was adapted into a six-part series by ATV. It didn’t star William Gaunt and Wendy Craig as Uncle Peter and Aunt Gwen, rather future Dalek voice actor Royce Mills and the always wonderful Phyllida Law. It has a brilliantly unsettling title sequence, too. Inexplicably, there has never been a full DVD release, but Episode 1 is available on this splendid compilation:
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1980 edition has pages the colour of fondue, and at some point a large price sticker has been removed from the back cover, leaving a sticky, rectangular patch that acts as a handy magnet for purple fluff and dog hair. A girl called Kirsten Clarke has written her name at the top of the inside cover, but that’s all the detail she’s left. Kirsten, if you’re reading this – get in touch. I have previous form in returning long-lost books to their original owners: