The Railway Children – E. Nesbit/Karen Savage

Again E. Nesbit shows herself expert at showing-not-telling, and at writing for anyone and everyone. With the story told from the point of view of the children, and aimed at children, all anyone under a certain height level is going to understand is that the father of the family goes away one night and does not come back, and the mother tells the three that he is away on business – and everything changes. Mother is upset or sad all the time, even when courageously pretending otherwise. The children are made to understand that they are now poor – for a while. And almost overnight they pick up and leave their home – taking all the furniture the children deem “ugly” and Mother deems “useful”, but few of their pretty things – and move out to a cottage in the country and Mother begins writing most of the day and far into the night. And Father does not come back.

I can’t think how this story could be told more poignantly than as it is, obliquely through the children’s eyes. Peter and Roberta (Bobbie) and Phyllis are, of course, bright children, and good ones, well brought up and attentive and conscientious – but they are wrapped in the happy oblivion of what seems to have been an upper middle class upbringing, wanting for no essential and few non-essentials, a world in which it is utterly and in all other ways inconceivable that anyone could ever dream their father did anything wrong. As it happens, of course, they are correct, but even had their father been in truth Jack the Ripper they would have been difficult to convince. They are essentially self-involved, viewing the world only as it affects them; for Peter and Phyllis it is enough that their mother tells them their father is away on business and they mustn’t worry. They are upset when she is upset, but otherwise they are content and involved in their own lives. Bobbie is more attentive, more outwardly focused, and seems to step away from her childhood with this book.

Mother is, in this story, utterly brilliant – and I don’t think that’s just because the point of view is thoroughly sympathetic. She does a tremendous job of protecting her children – whisking them away from their old environment before they can hear a whisper of what has really happened to their father.

And of course the children are brilliant too. Roberta especially is rather magnificent. I love the narrator’s frank statement that she hopes the reader does not mind her paying particular attention to Bobbie, but she has become rather a favorite. And I also love the equally frank assessment of her tendency to a) interfere or b) help lame dogs over stiles or c) help others, depending on who you ask – she can’t help herself from making every effort to do something, and feels things very deeply, and this does not always make for easy relations with others.

The realism of E. Nesbit’s writing is a bit dinged by the heroic role of the children during the summer of the story. Not to spoil things, but the events the three of them become involved in might, individually, be acceptable; all together it’s a little bit ridiculous. But for the original target audience it would be so much fun. For me, a good bit older than the target? Also fun – and I admit to choking up at the climax. Oh, and Karen Savage, the narrator of the Librivox recording? Absolutely terrific.

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10 Responses to The Railway Children – E. Nesbit/Karen Savage

  1. Did you see the PBS version? Directed by Catherine Morshead. Based on the book, I’m sure. (Available on Netflix) I don’t remember the whole cast, but Michael Kitchen played the part of the father. And since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know how closely it caught E. Nesbit’s work.

  2. stewartry says:

    I don’t think I have, no; I’ll have to Netflix it, thanks!

  3. Helen says:

    Yet another favourite of mine as a child and now :) I had not seen the PBS version mentioned above, unless it was done in the late 60s or early 70s ?? This one had Jenny Agutter as Bobbie. Coincidentally I have recently reread the text courtesy of Project Gutenberg and have to agree about the childrens’ adventures, but the child in me wishes I could have been there.

  4. Helen says:

    oh, and it does not appear to be available on the Canadian Netflix ,,,,,,,,,,

  5. stewartry says:

    I was just thinking about you – nice to “see” you! These books are kind of like Arthur Ransome’s – wonderful adventures that probably weren’t ever possible, but sure as heck aren’t now (any parent leaving their children unattended and out of school so much would be arrested). I really need to see the PBS version – I’m sorry you can’t get it!

  6. Helen says:

    nice to ‘see’ you too.

    I have just come in from of all places, the book store! My library has been expanded by PD James’ ‘sequel’ to Pride & Prejudice which I opened on the way home ~ I am anxious to see how she treats it. In addition, Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers; I have not read her before but a quick peek says I will enjoy her writing style which is a good sign. Last but not least, the first in a fantasy trilogy, again by an author (or in this case, authors) whom I have not read, Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett – Have Mercy – about dragons (whom I love) albeit in this case mechanical dragons (which makes me wonder if I will like it). I had James Benn’s Billy Boyle on my list too but it was not on the shelf. And there goes the gift card my wonderful sister gave me for Christmas :) I have now realized I am out of coffee! So out I go again,(but this time just around the corner) and then into something comfy with a good book & a fresh cup of coffee!


    are you following Downton Abbey?

  7. stewartry says:

    Woo hoo! I hope you enjoy all of the above! I absolutely loved the sequel to Havemercy, Steelhands, but for some reason I haven’t gotten around to Havemercy yet. I have high hopes. I also picked up the first Billy Boyle (paperbackswap, I believe), and it’s high up on the to-read list.

    I loved the first season of Downton Abbey, but I’ve been saving the second till I can watch it with my mother. She tends to go to bed before it comes on here, so I’m behind; hopefully they’ll be quick with a dvd release.

    Now I want coffee. :)

  8. Helen says:

    psst – PBS have a DVD Season 2 of Downton on their website :) I am loving Season 2 … did you have your coffee ?

  9. stewartry says:

    Oooh! I keep forgetting the US gets it so much later than the UK! *makes note for income tax refund*

    I had tea! (We never make coffee at home, somehow.)

  10. Pingback: The Wouldbegoods – E. Nesbit « Stewartry

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