3.01.2013

The Railway Children by E Nesbit, illustrations by C E Brock,294 pp RL 4







E Nesbit's contribution to and influence on the world of children's literature is so great that, as with my review of Magic City, I feel compelled to talk about her career and personal life, which you can read about after my review of The Railway Children.

Roberta, Peter and Phyllis are living in Edgecombe Villa in London when "a dreadful change came quite suddenly." Their lives had been happy and comfortable. Rather than paying, 

dull calls to dull ladies, and sitting dully at home waiting for dull ladies to pay calls to her. She was almost always there, ready to play with the children, read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons. Besides this, she used to write stories for them while they were at school, adn read them aloud after tea, and she always made up funny pieces of poetry  for their birthdays and for other great occasions, such as the christening of the new kittens, or the refurbishing of the doll's house, or the time when they were getting over the mumps.

And father was perfect, "never cross, never unjust, and always ready for a game - at least, if at any time he was not ready, he always had an excellent reason for it, and explained the reason to the children so interestingly and funnily that they felt sure he couldn't help himself." One evening, shortly after Peter's tenth birthday, two men come to call. When the children wake up in the morning their father is gone and the mother spends most of every day away from home and exhausted when she returns, telling them father has been called away on business. The servants are sent away, Aunt Emma comes to help on her way to a new job as a governess, and soon the children find themselves on a platform waiting for the train that will take them to their new home. Arriving in the countryside late at night, the walk, following the cart bearing the few belongings they have brought with them, down a long dirt road to Three Chimneys, their new home. The children find themselves with an unheard of amount of freedom (by today's standards, for sure) and they happily explore their new home while Mother spends most of her days locked away in her room, writing stories and sending them out to publishers. The children have a growing sense of their new poverty - mother tells them that they can't have fires in every room as coal is exspensive. Jam and butter at tea is now a "reckless luxury they can't afford." For the most part, they have no idea what has happened to their father, although Bobbie (as the narrator says early on, "I am tired of calling Roberta by her name. I don't see why I should. No one else did. Everyone called her Bobbie, and I don't see why I shouldn't.) senses her mother's sadness. She also, perceptively senses that her mother does not want to be asked about it. Knowing she can't share in this burden with her mother, she makes an extra effort not to add to her burden, trying not to quarrel with Peter and Phyllis and getting her siblings to do things around the house unasked, like making mother's bed and cleaning up after tea. 

Reviewers have called Bobbie a "little Mother," and not in the kindest sense. However, what I love most about The Railway Children is the resourcefulness of the children to adapt to and thrive in their new environment physically and emotionally. Being the eldest, and not necessarily because she is a girl, Bobbie is the most conscientious of the three children and, in the absence of her father and, in most cases, her mother, she brings a sense of empathy to the story that keeps it from being a summer-free-for-all adventure story, making a story about siblings ultimately a story about family. Clearly, Nesbit thought much of Bobbie as well. She begins chapter 7, FOR VALOUR, saying,

I hope you don't mind my telling you a good deal about Roberta. The fact is I am growing very fond of her. The more I observe her the more I love her. And I notice all sorts of things about her that I like. For instance, she was quite oddly anxious to make other people happy. And she could keep a secret, a tolerably rare accomplishment. Also she had the power of silent sympathy. That sounds rather dull, I know, but it's not so dull as it sounds. It just means that a person is able to know that you are unhappy, and to love you extra on that account, without bothering you by telling you all the time how sorry she is for you. She knew that mother was unhappy - and that Mother had not told her the reason. So she just loved Mother more and never said a single word that could let Mother know how earnestly her little girl wondered what Mother was unhappy about. This needs practice. It is not so easy as you might think.

And, while the children have many adventures over the course of The Railway Children, often led by Peter, from preventing a horrible train crash when they discover a landslide on the tracks to rescuing a baby (and a dog that bites) from a burning barge and rescuing a hound that has been injured in a paper chase (interesting aside: I learned that a "paper chase" is a game, also known as "hare and hounds" in which the person designated the hare gets a head start running, preferably through a wooded area, leaving a trail of paper. The hounds follow, trying to overtake the hare and win the game) it is Bobbie and her thoughts and actions that make this a memorable novel worth reading and rereading, much like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess. Like Sara, Bobbie sometimes feels like a "goody goody," and is called that by her siblings. But, in the end, it is Bobbie and her good thoughts and actions that allow her to believe in the kindness of others and reach out for help, as well as spreading kindness on her part.

Besides the exciting rescues that the children perform, they also befriend a kind, elderly gentleman they see daily as the train passes by and, when Mother falls ill and can't afford the medicine the doctor recommends (beef tea and the best brandy) Bobbie passes a letter to the old man as his train stops in the station one day. A friendship is sparked and their paths cross again and again as the children take a Russian dissident under their wing, the old man eventually helping to locate his wife and child in London. And, when Bobbie inadvertently sees a newspaper article concerning her father, she turns to the old man for help again. The children also befriend Perks, the proud porter at the train station. Perks is both prickly and loyal, sharing afternoons with the children and speaking to them as equals. When Bobbie finds out that Perks has never really celebrated his birthday, she enlists the others to put o a celebration. Peter, commenting on how nice Perks is to everybody, is sure that "there must be lots of people in the village who'd like to help to make him a birthday." The children start at the post office, where they learn from the crusty old lady working there that she has a birthday tomorrow, too. They collect tea, a pipe, a scarf, meat, eggs, honeycomb and more from the villagers and Mother helps them to put pink icing on buns for the party. They even deliver a bouquet of roses and a needle-book to Mrs Ransome, the old lady at the post office. Upon coming home to his surprise party, the pride of Perks, which is also the name of the chapter, makes him angry when he thinks the gifts are charity. When Bobbie show Perks the labels that she forgot to put with the gifts, labels that bear words of respect and fondness for Perks from all his neighbors, then he is swayed - deeply moved, even. 

The excitement of train disasters averted, babies rescued, coal stolen and signalmen awakened just in time are the decorative layers that draw readers to this book. Like the camaraderie of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad in The Wind in the Willows or the friends of the Hundred Acre Wood, the connections and attachments made in The Railway Children are the backbone of the book, making it memorable and the deserving classic that it is.

 * Please note: There is a passage in the book that, by today's standards, includes an offensive term for the Japanese who, at the time of the story, were involved in a war with Russia. Perks refers to the Japanese as "Japs," and this is something you will want to edit out, if you are reading aloud, or discuss with your child before s/he reads this book.

*An interesting aside, Nesbit uses the word SNARKY in The Railway Children! I had no idea that word was more than 100 years old.

Please read on for background on E Nesbit and how she came to be known as the creator of modern children's literature, but first a bit about the two film adaptations of  The Railway Children that were made in 1970 and 2000, which is wonderful. In a very interesting twist, Jenny Agutter, the actress who played Roberta in the 1970 version, plays Mother in the 2000 version!







More about E Nesbit

I wrote a pretty shabby review of E. Nesbit's Magic City. Shabby because, while I did a decent job writing about a woman who is probably one of the greatest, most influential innovators of children's literature you have never heard of (please read the first three paragraphs of my review of Magic City for a detailed look at Nesbit's contributions) I picked one of her lesser known books to review. Also, I chose not to mention Nesbit's interesting life outside of the world of children's literature. Nesbit, born in England in 1858, was a bit of a revolutionary. In 1880 she married Hubert Bland, seven months pregnant with their first child. Bland went on to have affairs, Nesbit raising two of the children who were the outcome of these relationships, along with the five she had with Bland. Wanting to be a poet, Nesbit became a writer of children's books out of necessity when Bland proved to be a less than reliable provider for his family. Followers of the utopian socialist William Morris, Nesbit and Bland were among the founding members of the Fabian Society, a group dedicated to advancing the principle of socialism in a non-revolutionary way that now exists as the oldest think tank in England. Nesbit was a guest speaker at the The London School of Economics, which was founded by members of the Fabian Society. There is currently an E Nesbit Society and, in 1965, Gore Vidal wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on The Writing of E Nesbit.

The most recent influence of Nesbit can be found in Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwicks series. Birdsall notes Nesbit as her favorite children's writer and the Penderwick sisters mention the Bastables, the five siblings who are the central characters in six of Nesbit's most popular books, including Five Children and It. The Penderwick sisters also mention the wonderful Edward Eager's Magic by the Lake. Eager, who was a lyricist and playwright, wrote seven books in the "Magic" series. In an article for the Horn Book, Eager refers to himself as a "second rate Nesbit" and writes of his admiration for the "dailiness of magic" that Nesbit introduced in her books. By this he meant that, rather than falling through a rabbit hole, following the second star to the right or getting swept in to Oz on the tail of a tornado, magic appeared in the everyday world of regular children where psammeads (sand fairies) grant wishes and a new carpet for the nursery comes with a phoenix's egg hidden inside it. Nesbit's contribution to the world of children's literature is to great that CS Lewis begins The Magician's Nephew with the words, "This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our world and the land of Narnia first began. In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road."

However, The Railway Children happens to be one of Nesbit's books in which there is no magic, although it is quite idyllic and, looking at it over the hundred plus years since it was published, it could be seen as an overly romanticized view of childhood. As with so many children's writers of the time, from AA Milne to JM Barrie to Kenneth Grahame, Nesbit had a relationship with her own children that did not mirror that of the children and parents in her books. As Lyn Garner noted in her article for the Guardian in 2005, marking the 100th anniversary of The Railway Children, Nesbit was an indifferent mother, leaving the raising of her children to Alice Hoatson, her friend and Bland's mistress and mother of children by him, saying "Water runs downhill. The affection you get back from children is sixpence given as change for a sovereign." Yet, where Nesbit was unable to be a devoted mother, she was expert at writing the character of the devoted mother and especially gifted at writing independent, thoughtful, brave child characters who are well spoken but also speak like children. It's likely that Nesbit drew from her own childhood and the death of her father when she was four when writing her own novels. As Gardner notes,

All her life Nesbit longed to be taken seriously as an adult novelist and poet. Instead she was, as Julia Briggs noted in her excellent biography of Nesbit, A Woman of Passion, 'the first modern writer for children.' Her gift was to be able to speak directly to children. Perhaps the intensity of her connection to childhood emotions was a result of an unhappy peripatetic childhood: she was packed away to a succession of unsatisfactory boarding school in England and Europe while her mother concentrated all her attention on the seriously ill Mary [Nesbit's older sister]. The Railway Children draws directly on the happiest period of Nesbit's childhood - an adolescence spent at Halstead in Kent where the railway line ran close to the bottom of the garden and she and her brothers could walk, although not without danger, down the line to the station.

However, aspects of Nesbit's adult political life creep into The Railway Children as well. The arrest and trial of Mr Waterbury, the children's father, echoes the Dreyfus case. The Russian who turns up at the station having escaped imprisonment in Siberia and then conscription into the army to fight in the Russian-Japanese war is modeled on Sergi Stepniak who, along with his anarchist comrade Peter Kropotkin, was a friend of Nesbit and the Fabians. And, despite the fortitude of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis that allows them to endure and thrive away from their urban middle class life in London once they are forced to move to the country and live in poverty (albeit a poverty that allows them to have a housekeeper from the village but NOT butter and jam at tea - just one or the other because, as mother says, "We can't afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays.") the path to this life does seem like an odd choice at a time when the world of children and adults were distinctly separate, children never knowing the goings on of adults. Of course, Mother does keep this information from the children but Nesbit does not keep it from her readers.



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