Time expands and contracts at will in the All Souls Trilogy as witch Diana Bishop timewalks her way to a better understanding of her self and her powers. We look at how marking time is a powerful tool in all our lives.
Reading the All Souls Trilogy has provided me with countless opportunities to reflect on my own life. Deborah Harkness’ words seem to reach inside and touch the most tender part of this hopeless romantic’s heart. Imagining time through the lenses of a witch’s timewalking and a vampire’s longevity gave me all sorts of ideas about I how interact with time each day and the seeming irrelevance of time when recalling the past.
My daughter’s watch just beeped somewhere down the hallway alerting me to the fact that it is the top of the hour. It also sounds an alarm every afternoon at 4:50. Fortunately, we only hear it on the weekends. It’s been marking 4:50 pm since we bought it for her, a last-minute purchase on the way to summer camp. None of us have undertaken the small amount of effort it would require to disable the alarm. I can’t speak for the others but it’s definitely not laziness on my part. Each time I hear that alarm I recall the mad dash into the store to purchase it. We had decided only moments before, at our last breakfast together for two weeks, that a watch would be an excellent thing to have at a sleep-away camp. We unboxed it and set the time on the drive north. When my daughter disembarked from the car she had the bright pink band strapped to her wrist and the air of a young woman who was determined to keep the cabin mates she hadn’t even met yet on a strict schedule. Now that we are firmly ensconced in the winter months, the alarm serves as a reminder to me that we are here, together, in this safe, warm, space filled with love and laughter and books and I always smile. The alarm stays.
Thinking about the watch’s hourly chime made me think of the ways that we mark time both in life and in fictional tales like the All Souls Trilogy. We categorize time in small increments (seconds and minutes) and larger spans (years, decades, centuries, and millennia). The scientific measurement of time begins to hound us as soon as we awake each morning and continues pressing into us, sometimes, long after we rest our heads on our pillows each night. We think about the 10:00 am meeting and the 3:00 pm volleyball practice. We worry if we will make it in time for the 6:00 pm dinner and the 8:00 pm lecture. The numbers, these time markers, keep us moving on a daily basis but when we reflect on our week or our month, we don’t recall the 10:00 am meeting or the 8:00 pm lecture. We rarely begin stories with “last Thursday at 8:15 pm a funny thing happened to me.” In our recollection of things, the exact time rarely matters. The essence of the memory is not the position of the hands on the clock but the way we felt, what we smelled, or how our worlds changed in a singular moment. While our brains struggle every day to manage the tiny amounts of time in our immediate grasp, our hearts and souls are cataloging time on a different plane. They are marking time in a way that we don’t fully appreciate until we recall a memory. It works this way in fiction for Diana and Matthew but it works in our real lives as well.
When Diana sees Matthew’s scars for the first time she is horrified. Matthew calmly explains to her the origin of many of the marks — the Hundred Years War, etc. He doesn’t remember receiving some of them. (On a side note, I love Diana’s reaction. She is angry and she wants to hunt down and find the people who caused her love so much pain. As often as Matthew talks about the protective instincts of vampires, Diana shows us that witches can be great protectors too, but back to the scars.) When Matthew catalogues them, he says that the scars are no longer painful but the recollections do conjure memories of battles fought. Matthew also points out that most of the people who inflicted the scars are dead. His long life is the ultimate victory. He doesn’t remember the time of day that he received the scars. What matters most is the memory of battles fought and won and the fact that he lives despite enduring 1,500 years of trauma.
I occasionally glance at the visible scars on my own hands and arms. I don’t remember the time of day that I received any of them, but I have a story for each. The “avocado incident” left me with two stitches in my pinky finger and a tiny scar after they were removed. The scar on my thumb was the result of trying to pry open a metal box with a flathead screwdriver. On a related note, that’s not what screwdrivers are for so please don’t use them like that. The chicken pox scar in the bend of my left arm reminds me of the time in second grade when my friends and I endured a rite of passage with the added bonus of infecting our younger siblings and making them miserable, too.
None of these scars hurt anymore and I can’t recall any pain associated with the original injuries. The sight of them makes me smile at the stories I tell about them and, in some cases, the cautionary tales they have become. Our bodies mark time with scars, remnants of battles fought or bad decisions made. They mark time with wrinkles and age spots, visible reminders of laughter, smiles that light an entire face, and days spent basking in the warm sunlight. Our bodies mark the passing of time and, wordlessly, tell the stories of our lives.
Cards and Letters
Diana reading the letter from her parents reminds me of how we mark time with cards and letters. While the letter from Rebecca and Stephen is dated, the date seems important only in that it gives Diana a reference point to the past. The information contained in the letter, words that help fill in the gaping holes of her childhood, are timeless and invaluable to Diana. The letter becomes a roadmap for Matthew and Diana’s search for Ashmole 782 and the untangling of Diana’s magic. It’s also confirmation that they are bound by forces that they don’t yet understand. The letter broadens Diana’s understanding of her parents. Until now, she has only been able to recall them with a seven-year-old’s memory and insight. As an adult reading her parents’ words, Diana gains a better understanding of their fears, the lengths that they went to protect her, and their deep love and awe of her. Rebecca and Stephen’s words reach through time to bring solace to Diana in a way that nothing else could.
When I was a teenager, I stumbled upon a stash of letters written by my father to my mother before they were married. The letters were dated but I don’t remember the numbers. What I do remember is the way I felt when I read them. In those letters, he was no longer the father of two who worked 14-hour days and seemed to always have a plan. He was suddenly an 18-year-old kid who was unsure of himself, his future, and the young woman to whom he was writing. He couldn’t have known then that one day his words would pierce the heart of his stubborn, eldest child but they did. He became human to me that day and I began to see his frailty and vulnerability and I loved him even more because of them. This experience might explain why I’ve never been able to throw away cards and letters that I’ve received. I know that one day when I reach into a storage box for an old envelope that I will be flooded with memories of the person who wrote the message. For a moment, I will remember a grandmother, a great-grandmother or a friend, and I will smile as I recall her love for me or an adventure that we shared.
The Magic of Timewalking
As Diana begins to think about her life within the context of magic she realizes that she has been timewalking since she was a small child. Sarah and Em confirm that she would sometimes go missing for hours. When Em coaches Diana on how to timewalk, Diana asks Em where she will be when she returns from her walk. Em says, “It depends on when you arrive. If it’s before we left, I’ll be there. If not, I’ll be here.” An exact departure and arrival time are completely irrelevant. Diana needs only to hold a feeling or memory in her mind and want “to be there more than here.” Em reminds Diana that “…magic’s in the heart, not the mind. It’s not about the words and following a procedure, like witchcraft. You have to feel it.” In that first conscious walk, Diana imagines Matthew in the still room, the feeling of his first kiss, the desire that she feels for him and the feelings that he rouses in her. She speaks his name and, in the next instant, she is back in the stillroom with him.
How many times has a smell, a song, or the sight of an object transported you to a different place in time? Even today, I can close my eyes and remember exactly what it was like to sit at my grandmother’s table for breakfast. I can smell the sausage frying, the strong coffee brewing, and hear the spatula scraping against the pan as she makes my favorite cheese eggs. I can hear my grandfather’s voice as he comes to the table and addresses her as “Granny” and then proceeds to stir far too much sugar into his black coffee. I can just as easily take myself to the homes of my great-grandparents, a field on a hot summer day, or a barn where I can smell the dirt floor and the remnants of dried tobacco and see the particles of dust as they dance in the late afternoon light. Em says that magic is in the heart and that you need to feel it. It occurs to me that these brief trips to the past might be as close to magic, and timewalking, as anything I will ever experience.
Has the idea of timewalking or long-lived vampires impacted the way you think about time? Are there ways that you mark time that don’t involve watches or calendars?