Oh, yes, I quite enjoyed Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet and so on when I was a child; they’re magnificent children’s books. But listening to the Librivox recording of The Story of the Treasure-Seekers makes it very, very clear that the magnificent Ms. Nesbit had very firmly in mind the parents who would be reading the books aloud at bedtime. One beautiful example is a scene in which an adult abruptly rises from his seat and walks away to stand at the window with his back to the children in his office. The narrator says he believes the man was trying to conceal his emotions. Which is very true; the emotions, however, were not what the narrator thought. But the narrator, and any child reading or listening who has utter faith that all is just as the narrator perceives it, may believe one thing; the beautiful layer of comedy in the moment is reserved for the grown-ups.
Thank goodness we get something; in almost everything else the children are the fortunate ones.
The Bastable children possess an innocence which I’m very much afraid is impossible for even a twelve-year-old today. I’ve seen comments out there amongst the reviews about “imperialist overtones” and casual racism. Thing is, though, this was first published in 1899, and like it or not the world was a very different place then, and as I read it even what could be considered racist has an innocence that keeps it from being offensive. The children are given to understand that a visitor is an Indian, and – fed on adventure novels – assume Amerind, and ask him about beavers. He’s India Indian, though, and has no information on such creatures. I honestly don’t see how the
children’s honest excitement about and sympathy for someone from far away who describes himself as a poor broken-down fellow (which they also take literally) can be translated as racist, especially in 1899, and the one extremely unfortunate exclamation that can be (the same as is found in L.M. Montgomery’s A Tangled Web) was, sadly, a much more common epithet a hundred years ago.
These are the sort of fictional children that make me despair over today’s kids: imaginative, well-read, well-spoken, thoughtful under the childish self-centeredness, and self-sufficient; they make today’s kids (American, at least) look like Neanderthals. They’re not perfect little angels – E. Nesbit was never stupid. But they do set a ludicrously high standard.
Dora, the eldest (at 13 or 14?), comes off as a bit of a prig (though this is dealt with in a later chapter in such a way that it made me cry), desperately trying to maintain some moral high ground in a horde of siblings who think it would be absolutely smashing if there were still highwaymen on the heath – or, even better, if they could be highwaymen on the heath. Her objection is that it’s “wrong” – as in illegal and people hang for such things, not so much as in the victims of the highwaymen didn’t think it was quite so smashing. The again-innocent bloodthirstiness of the kids is remarkable, and just fun.
Oswald, the oldest boy at 12 and (you might guess, or you might not!) the narrator of the story, is very nearly as brave and honourable as he wants to appear, and very straightforward. It’s rather lovely to see him reluctantly, realistically doing the right thing throughout the book, proceeding quietly and alone when practical – the older ones all do that, shouldering responsibility and striving to make things right when they go wrong. The fierce affection and loyalty among the siblings is, like their father’s poverty and worries, never explicitly stated: it doesn’t have to be. It is shown, not told.
The four younger children – Noel and Alice and H.O. and Dickie, ranging down to I believe six years old – are every one expected by their elder siblings to be just as sharp and responsible and willing and able to contribute as Oswald and Dora. Some allowances are made for their extreme youth, but for the most part they are equal partners in the treasure-seeking, receiving an equal share in any profits – though sometimes excused by protective siblings from punishments.
I don’t remember E. Nesbit reducing me to tears in the past. This did. And, yes, I laughed out loud. I missed the magic element of some of the other books – but only at first. It didn’t take long to realize that most of the magic of E. Nesbit’s writing is actually in E. Nesbit’s writing.
To that point: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” ~ C.S. Lewis. I look forward to reading E. Nesbit when I’m fifty, and beyond.
- Fantasies That Refresh the Spirit (readaloudsforallchildren.wordpress.com)
- Time Traveling for Wishes: The Story of the Amulet (tor.com)
- The railway children [sound recording] by Edith Nesbit. (alleganylibrarycollections.wordpress.com)