Saturday, 18 February 2012

More than red flannel petticoats: Edith Nesbit Part 2

Edith Nesbit’s most popular children’s novels are still available; several, such as The Railway Children, have never gone out of print since their publication over a hundred years ago.  On the other hand few, if any, have heard of her adult novels.  It’s more than just an irony of fate, however, that this unconventional author, who longed for recognition of her serious, adult novels, should be remembered for works that celebrate the conventional Victorian family.  Through her young characters, she speaks for the new middle classes spreading out of London into the garden cities, and which would become the backbone of England after the First World War destroyed the ‘gentleman’ class that had previously dominated life and culture.  That is, she speaks for us.

I’m an ardent fan of Edith’s children’s books.  My favourites, in roughly descending order, are: Five Children and It; The Enchanted Castle; The Railway Children; The Treasure Seekers; and The Phoenix and the Carpet (sequel to Five Children and It).  Others, for instance the sequels to The Treasure Seekers, are more hack work.  Here’s a taste of why I find them so delightful:

The ‘It’ of Five Children and It is a Psammead, a sand fairy the children accidentally unearth in a quarry.  The Psammead (a squat, furry creature with eyes on stalks) must grant the children one wish a day, that lasts until sunset – and of course, the disgruntled fairy takes their words very literally.  The children get to discover the truth of the proverb “be careful what you wish for.”  What, for instance, is the point of being “as beautiful as the day” if your own friends and family can’t recognize you, or having a pile of gold coins if they aren’t actually legal tender?

The Enchanted Castle is another fantasy with roots in real life.  Imaginary games of enchantment take on new life when a group of siblings and their friend discover that their ‘magic’ ring really is magical – and that real magic can be both delightful and dangerous.  Apparently, Noel Coward had a copy of it by his bedside when he died.

In The Treasure Seekers, the five Bastables, eager to help their widowed father ‘restore the fortune of the House of Bastable,’ look for ways to get rich, from digging for treasure to selling sherry to trying their hand at being highwaymen on Blackheath.  This novel earns the distinction of being one of only a few books that make me laugh out loud.

There’s no need to introduce The Railway Children to most English readers.  To those who haven’t had the chance to fall under its charms:  this is the story of three children living in relative luxury in London, whose father suddenly has to ‘go away.’  Their mother is forced to move the family to a shabby home in the country.  They begin to make friends with the railway workers and commuters, leading to a series of coincidences that change the family’s fate.  Though a children’s book, it highlights the real plight of dissidents and those caught up in the spy fever of the early twentieth century.

What I love about Edith Nesbit’s work is her feel for the sibling dynamics of her large families that might bicker and quarrel, but know that family sticks together.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I also love the way she explores the consequences of magic colliding with everyday modern life.  It’s interesting, I think, that the children are most often thrown on their own resources due to an absent or deceased parent and reduced family circumstances.  Edith certainly understood the latter, but tended to be the child sent away to school while her mother concentrated on her other, invalid daughter.  Perhaps even the realism of her stories, then, is part the fantasy of a childhood she herself rarely got to enjoy, and perhaps why her heart shines through the distance of a century to make these stories real for us today.

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