It is 1900, fifty-odd years before the prologue. Young Leo is invited to spend the summer at Brandham Hall in Norfolk, where his schoolmate Marcus Maudsley lives. The thought of going there gives Leo “bouts of stomach-turning trepidation,” but he’s also excited by the prospect. Brandham Hall is a great deal more opulent and upper class than he is used to. Leo knows Marcus by his surname, as that’s more common amongst schoolchildren.
The main narrative begins, casting the reader back fifty years or so. Leo is now twelve but soon to turn thirteen. He’s both nervous and excited at the prospect of seeing Brandham Hall in all its grandeur—and not just seeing the estate, but being welcomed there as a guest. That said, he doesn’t know Marcus all that well yet and doesn’t know what to expect from the trip.
Leo thinks that part of the reason for his invite might be that, when the boys had discussed their respective home addresses, Marcus had taken Leo’s “Court Place” to be a wealthier environment than it is (in fact it’s just a fancy name for an ordinary house).
This shows that social class is often about appearances and details. The name of Leo’s home is meant to make it sound more refined than it is—most people will only encounter it as a postal address. This then raises the question of whether Marcus invites Leo because he likes him, or he because he mistakenly believes him to be his social equal.
Leo reflects on his parents. His father, who is no longer alive, was a reserved man preoccupied with his principal hobbies of book-collecting and gardening. He worked as a bank manager and would have liked Leo to be home schooled, though Leo’s mother had refused. Leo’s father’s collection of books sold for a surprisingly high sum many years later, granting Leo “immunity from the more pressing cares of life.”
Leo lacks a male role model now that his father is no longer there. This creates a kind of vacuum of masculinity that Leo wants to fill as he makes his transition from boyhood to manhood. From what the reader knows of Leo’s life after Brandham Hall, it appears that he turned into a man quite similar to his father: bookish, reserved, and unemotional.
Leo’s mother is “attracted by the things of the world” and is a much more social creature than her husband was. Leo says she likes “to mix with well-dressed people on some smooth lawn…to greet and be greeted by them…all this gave her a tremulous pleasure.”
Leo inherits his self-conscious eagerness to be liked from his mother. She is more attuned to social life than Leo’s father was, and more aware of the importance of appearances.
Leo talks about his impressions of Marcus, thinking he possess a “savoire-faire that enabled him to be, without appearing to seek it, on the winning side.” Though Marcus had remained neutral during the diary episode (that is, during the curses on Jenkins and Strode), he had secretly rooted for Leo and happily told his family of Leo’s magical victory.
Evidently some of Marcus’ attraction towards Leo is based on the latter’s perceived supernatural abilities. Like Leo, he is a committed respecter of social codes—but his greater familiarity with manners and etiquette gives him the air of generally being in the right. That’s an attractive quality to Leo, who is trying to figure out how the world works and has little experience of places like Brandham Hall.
Leo enjoys the weeks at school after his “vanquishing” of Jenkins and Strode. His mother doesn’t understand his improved status, as it’s based on Leo being a “magician.” She’s not sure that Leo should be so prideful when the two boys who bullied him are hurt.
Leo’s mother offers him moral guidance and an alternative perspective on what he sees as his supernatural successes. These weeks at school before the summer are in a way the pinnacle of Leo’s life, when he has the respect of his peers and felt sure in his convictions about how the world works.
When Leo goes back to school after Easter, his friends and clients—who pay him to learn black magic—ask him to use his powers to make the school term end early. Leo uses all his “psychic force,” and, coincidentally or not, a measles outbreak means the school closes for summer weeks earlier than planned.
Leo has the luck of a second coincidence, firmly cementing his status as the authority on everything supernatural. The measles is highly contagious and causes the school term to be cut short, creating the lengthy summer holiday that gives Leo the chance to visit Brandham Hall. At this point, then, Leo feels like the architect of his own destiny.
Those at the school without measles are delighted at the prospect of such a long holiday. The children pack their belongings and are later picked up from the school gates, bidding goodbye to the schoolmaster and his family. The departing children make a loud uproar as they leave, not thinking about how the sound would affect the patients in the nearby sanatorium.
The nearby sanatorium—a medical facility for long term illness—gently introduces the possibility of trauma into the story. While the schoolboys hardly have a care in the world, they are not far from those suffering with chronic illnesses both mental and physical. This hints that the border between joy and suffering is not as difficult to transgress as the schoolboys might currently believe.
On the train leaving the school, the children are extremely joyous, intoxicated by “the very breath of freedom.” Leo takes out his dairy, and the others wonder whether a new spell is being cast. Leo himself wonders whether he really was supernaturally responsible for the measles outbreak. Leo feels his dreams for the “year 1900, and for the twentieth century, and for myself” coming true.
Leo gives the other children a deliberate glimpse of his diaries, again performing his professed supernatural talents. Deep down, he’s not sure whether he was actually responsible for what happened to Jenkins and Stroke or the measles, but either way, he enjoys feeling like he was, and his newfound status promotes a general feeling of optimism towards growing up in the new century.
The previous year had been a disastrous year: Leo’s father had died and Leo himself had been seriously ill with diphtheria, spending the entire summer in bed. Leo senses this year will be better.
Leo’s optimism is based on the questionable notion that he has a mystical power over what happens to him. He’s also excited to enjoy the coming summer as opposed to his severe fevers of the previous year.
Back at home, Leo and his mother discuss the invitation to Brandham Hall. His mother is hesitant for him to be away for so long, and especially that he will not be at home for his birthday in late July. She makes him promise to let her know if he isn’t happy. There’s also a chance, she thinks, that he or Marcus will get measles.
Leo’s mother is protective of him, but also knows that it’s important for him to develop a sense of independence and adventure. She also seems to partly hope he gets measles, since that would be a legitimate, objective reason for him to have to stay at home.
Leo prepares for his trip. Because June was not a hot month, he doesn’t think the summer is going to be hot either. His mother agrees, and packs only thick clothes for him. She warns him that “getting hot is always a risk” and against doing “anything violent.” She implores him to go to church if he can. Leo feels glad that she’s not coming with him, concerned that she would seem “socially unacceptable.”
Leo’s mother doesn’t pack him suitable clothes for the summer, instantly setting him up for ridicule amongst the inhabitants of Brandham Hall. She’s also a religious woman, with a simplistic moral worldview that she tries to impart on Leo. He’s starting to outgrow her influence, however, as he searches for other ways of seeing and understanding the world.
As the day of departure grows near, Leo becomes nervous about the trip. He asks his mother to write to Mrs. Maudsley and tell her that Leo has contracted measles and can’t make it. His mother refuses to lie for him. He tries to make a spell to bring about spots on his chest, but to no avail. On the eve of departure, Leo and his mother sit in their “one formal room” in silence; Leo senses she has something “special to say,” but is close to crying and it remains unsaid.
One interpretation of Leo’s sudden nervousness about the trip is that he is somehow experiencing a premonition of the traumatic events that are to come. Ironically, his mother’s steadfast morality confirms his departure—she does want him to stay, but she won’t tell a lie to make it so. It’s an emotional farewell, as it’s the first trip of its kind for Leo.