18 March 2012

The Enchantments of E. Nesbit

Thoroughly Modern Edith Nesbit:
Her short hairstyle was much remarked-upon in her day.

There is this to be said about owning books, and keeping them all about you: when you wake in the middle of the night, you may pull down to read something you’ve meant to read for a long time, owned but never gotten around to, held on to for the promise it holds. I first heard of the children’s fantasy novels by E. Nesbit in another set of children’s books, those of Edward Eager, who pays tribute to her by name in such (relatively) modern classics as Half-Magic and Magic by the Lake. But somehow, in the years since elementary school, I’d never managed to read anything by Nesbit until now.

The work that came to hand was The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Nesbit’s first book for children, published in 1899. Although it turns out to be quite magical, it’s not a fantasy novel, but grounded in reality that intrigued me and that speaks quite clearly to our own Recession-battered times. The tale takes place during an economic downturn, and its principal characters, the five Bastable children, are determined “to restore the fallen fortunes of our house.”

The Bastables, as seen in a BBC adaptation.
(Which I have not seen.)

Mercifully, the Puffin edition I have owned for at least 20 years contains an introductory essay and a biographical sketch: thus I learned that Edith Nesbit (1858–1924) was the wife of Hubert Bland and one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Suddenly the correct context was established. Naturally the Bastables aren’t upper class! And naturally they seek treasure not in a fairy kingdom but in the everyday Britain around them. The results are completely charming and unlike any other books of the period I know.

We must begin by admitting that the beloved Alice and even Dorothy Gale are rather stiff little Victorians: they have to be, because in Wonderland and Oz they’re surrounded by such fanciful creatures that we as readers require their sobriety as a sort of polestar, to keep us from spinning out of control until we fly altogether out of the book. (Child-characters in other Victorian-era books have no such excuse.) The Bastables, on the other hand, don’t inhabit a fantasy land; while virtuous enough, yes, they’re anything but prigs.

Because their widowed father has no money to send them to school, they’ve got days to fill. Being bright and imaginative, and getting along remarkably well as playmates, this is no great hardship in itself. But because they are the inventions of a Fabian Socialist, they want to do something productive: they want to get money, even if it means earning it. Beyond that, they are allowed quirks and wit that most other late-Victorian authors would seem unwilling to suggest as possibilities. You can almost hear them: “What if some child happened to read this book, and exhibit such behavior? No, wiser to show them only paragons and cherubim as models!”

Spying on the grownups’ conversation:
An illustration from the original (or nearly so) edition.

The Bastables are nice children yet imperfect, like real boys and girls. They’re close-knit but they do vie for dominance; they disagree, and they even bicker a bit — just a bit. They’re rather mean to the boy who lives next-door, and some of their treasure-seeking plans entail robbery and other ungentlemanly vices. Though Nesbit doesn’t rub our noses in squalor, the way Dickens might have done, she certainly never lets us forget the grit and the sheer want that the Bastables confront each day. The family are “shabby genteel,” as my grandmother used to say, but the suggestion is that worse privations may be looming just offstage.

The book is narrated by one of the Bastable children, who insists from the first page that he must remain anonymous until the end of the story — and then a paragraph or so later reveals his identity inadvertently. I’ll keep his secret, just so that you can enjoy it yourself, but in the reading what this means is that certain of his descriptions and his justifications for his character (to whom he doggedly refers in the third person) deliver plenty of ironic humor.

Indeed the conflict between expectations and reality is the core of the book and the source of most of its laugh-out-loud comedy. Again and again, the children’s ideas turn out to be mistaken when tested. Becoming a detective, or getting one’s poems published in a newspaper, or meeting a princess, or rescuing a wealthy man, or starting one’s own business aren’t so easy or rewarding as they are in other authors’ books. When the Bastables decide to publish their own newspaper, the results are in fact hilarious, perhaps one of the greatest examples of sustained comedy in a single chapter of any children’s book from any period I can think of.

Hubert Bland, Nesbit’s husband and father of her children.
With Nesbit, unlike other Victorian authors, you continually get the sense that she actually knew real boys and girls —
and rather liked them.

If you were an imaginative child yourself — and chances are, you were, or you wouldn’t have read this far — you’ll recognize yourself in Nesbit’s pages, and like me, you may see much of the world you inhabit today. I’m struck by the realization that the Bastable boys, including Oswald with his reverence for Kipling, were just the right age to die in the Great War. But I’m not sure anyone ever constructed a greater monument than this book to the promise of their generation.

Shortly after The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Nesbit turned her remarkable sensibilities toward the writing of fantasy, and after polishing off this first book in two sittings, I turned to what is perhaps her most famous novel, Five Children and It. Here, too, we get a realistic setting remote from the privileged realms where other authors’ characters live: these children go on vacation, but not to some palace but to an ordinary house outside London, where there is no seashore and no enchanted forest but an ordinary sand pit to play in. When they do meet a fairy, it’s a remarkably ugly, peevish one, and when it grants their wishes, it does so in ways that are complicating and often vexing, more fun for the reader than for the Five Children.

It’s here that my appreciation for Edward Eager’s work grew: his books truly capture Nesbit’s spirit, transport it to modern-day America, and nurture it with care. I have a few more of Nesbit’s books already close to hand — and in turn she’s made me want to return to Eager’s, which are on my shelf still, too — and I daresay I’ll have more to say on the subject sometime soon.


Thomas Mark said...

I read many--I don't recall how many-- of Nesbit's books as a kid. I loved them, and for a while imitated some of the (to people in New Mexico) peculiar expressions the characters used. One I liked, which you don't mentions, is The Would Be Goods.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks! I'll look for it.

Jesus It's Jim Hawk said...

Great Book & Film by Lionel Jeffries (1970). Thank You!!!

William V. Madison said...

Good grief! I had no idea that the actor Lionel Jeffries directed anything -- but there on imdb.com is a directing credit for The Railway Children, as well as four other titles, including an adaptation of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, another classic children's novel from Britain. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!