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Book Reviews: The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 1, 2013


I’ve been doing some house-keeping on the ANZ LitLovers blog, and have discovered a review of a book for children that I’ve neglected to cross-post here.

So here, belatedly, is my review of The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit.  It was written primarily in the context of reading A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, (which is not a children’s book) but you can skip those parts.  I thought it best not to delete them because the last couple of paragraphs about The Railway Children don’t make sense without them.

The Railway Children, written by Edith Nesbit in 1906, is one of those classic children’s books remembered with nostalgia by adults – but it really doesn’t stand up to mature scrutiny. No one at my school library had borrowed it in a very long time, and this is no surprise: why would Australian children of the 21st century want to read this quaint relic? What is surprising is the number of reviews on Good Reads which show that contemporary adults are uncritically reading it to their children and failing to notice that it is absurdly didactic, jingoistic, and sexist …

The reason I read it is because there is apparently some connection to A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book which was shortlisted for the Booker and was on the ANZ LitLovers schedule for May 2010. The Children’s Book ‘is about a famous writer who is writing a private book for each of her children. It deals with childhood and family secrets, against the backdrop of the Edwardian world with the First World War looming on the horizon’. (ABC Radio National Book Show) As I have yet to read The Children’s Book I offer this analysis of The Railway Children for those who have, and will refer to it later on myself.

BEWARE SPOILERS

The Railway Children features Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis whose father mysteriously disappears after a late night visit from some visitors in boots. Those of us who know our Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie know the significance of such boots, and it was a dead giveaway that Father has been arrested and put in prison. Mother keeps this information from the children but tells them that they are ‘quite poor now’ and they go away to live in the countryside by a railway line. (They are not so poor, however, that they have to do without a daily help, Mrs Viney, who presumably has the thankless task of running the household while Mother starts a career as a writer to support the family.)

Consistent with the didactic children’s literature of this period, the children are impossibly ‘good’. They get into a few scrapes, it is true, but they are kind and generous to the lower orders (except for poor Mrs Viney who is given short thrift when The Old Gentleman sends along two much superior domestics who dismiss her as an ‘old muddler’ (p182) and have her days unceremoniously cut back to two). The children save a train from a derailment; they rescue The Old Gentleman’s grandson Jim when he breaks his leg in the tunnel; they organise a birthday celebration for the gruff and somewhat ungrateful ‘Perks'; they rescue a baby from a burning canal barge; and – with schooldays knowledge of French superior to that of any of the workers at the railway station – they intervene to succour a Russian emigree. They also avert a disaster by waking up a sleeping signalman but they do not sneak on him, reacting with over-the-top indignation when he offers them all he has to keep quiet about it. (p165) They put in this splendid effort, soldiering on as inspirational role models for the children of the British Empire, while Mother does her bit as a saintly stalwart who never gets peevish or angry and weeps only in private. There is a triumphant reunion at the end when The Old Gentleman helps Father to clear his name and presumably they all live happily ever after.

Peter is especially insufferable. He and Dr Forrest have a heart-to-heart about how ‘girls are so much softer and weaker’ (p173) because Peter is The Man of the House in Father’s Absence. Bobbie is the moral pulse of the book, stoic and sensitive, and the first to find out the truth about their father. Phyllis is too little to do much other than tag along uncomplainingly. It’s hard not to be a prig ‘when you’re really trying to be good’, says Bobbie, and the narrator wryly comments that ‘the Gentle reader may perhaps have suffered the same difficulty’ (p136) but methinks E.N. had the problem herself…

Enid Blyton, writing later on in the 20th century, made a point of asserting the moral superiority of the Famous Five over the lower classes. Her villains were always gypsies, foreigners, and scholarship students and the police (with their clumsy boots) were always stupid. Nesbit is just the same. Even when Peter steals coal from the railway’s supplies, he gets off Scot-free because he had a noble cause – but we know from Perks’ remarks that the poor of the village obviously also nick the coal because they’re cold too – but they don’t get away with it. We also know though it’s not made explicit that Father has been unjustly imprisoned because of the stupidity of the police, and it takes the intervention of people with connections (i.e. The Old Gentleman) for justice to be restored.

So, what has this quaint story got to do with The Children’s Book, I wonder? I’ve read a few of A.S. Byatt’s novels:

  • The Game (1967)
  • The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
  • Still Life (1985)
  • Possession (1990) – the one that won the Booker, and the first one I read
  • Angels and Insects (1992)

All of them are notable for the diversity of her allusions and the wealth of knowledge on which they rely. According to the Random House blurb:

The Children’s Book is the absorbing story of the close of what has been called the Edwardian summer: the deceptively languid, blissful period that ended with the cataclysmic destruction of World War I. In this compelling novel, A.S. Byatt summons up a whole era, revealing that beneath its golden surface lay tensions that would explode into war, revolution and unbelievable change — for the generation that came of age before 1914 and, most of all, for their children.

The novel centres around Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer, and her circle, which includes the brilliant, erratic craftsman Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Phillip Warren, a runaway from the poverty of the Potteries; Prosper Cain, the soldier who directs what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum; Olive’s brother-in-law Basil Wellwood, an officer of the Bank of England; and many others from every layer of society. A.S. Byatt traces their lives in intimate detail and moves between generations, following the children who must choose whether to follow the roles expected of them or stand up to their parents’ “porcelain socialism.”

Olive’s daughter Dorothy wishes to become a doctor, while her other daughter, Hedda, wants to fight for votes for women. Her son Tom, sent to an upper-class school, wants nothing more than to spend time in the woods, tracking birds and foxes. Her nephew Charles becomes embroiled with German-influenced revolutionaries. Their portraits connect the political issues at the heart of nascent feminism and socialismwith grave personal dilemmas, interlacing until The Children’s Book becomes a perfect depiction of an entire world.

Olive is a fairy tale writer in the era of Peter Pan and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows, not long after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At a time when children in England suffered deprivation by the millions, the concept of childhood was being refined and elaborated in ways that still influence us today. For each of her children, Olive writes a special, private book, bound in a different colour and placed on a shelf; when these same children are ferried off into the unremitting destruction of the Great War, the reader is left to wonder who the real children in this novel are.

The Children’s Book is an astonishing novel. It is an historical feat that brings to life an era that helped shape our own as well as a gripping, personal novel about parents and children, life’s most painful struggles and its richest pleasures. No other writer could have imagined it or created it.

Nothing there about The Railway Children, eh? It’s a children’s book of the same period, but not mentioned in the blurb. Well, they can’t refer to every book that Byatt read when researching her novel, I suppose…

The structure of The Railway Children seems quite straightforward: a sequential narrative of 14 chapters with an orientation, complication, climax and resolution. The narrator is omniscient, with occasional patronising intrusions. Flicking though The Children’s Book I see that it seems quite different, because it’s in four parts: The Beginning, The Golden Age; The Age of Silver and The Age of Lead – which doesn’t imply a happy ending although there are fairy tales interspersed among the chapters.

There are some references to contemporary events in The Railway Children that might be relevant. Father is in gaol because he has been convicted of ‘selling State secrets to the Russians’ (p142) though of course he didn’t do it because ‘he is an Englishman and uncapable to do such things’ (p143). Peter is ticked off for playing at having a broken leg but is excused because he wanted his sisters to train for Red Cross nurses’ (p171). Uncle Reggie is away serving the Empire in Ceylon (p130) and Szcepansky, (the Russian emigree) had been sent to Siberia for writing a ‘noble’ book, translated into every European language’ (p95) that criticised the treatment of the poor under the Imperial regime. He had deserted when released to fight in the war (which one??) which is ok when you don’t owe your country anything because they have denied you Free Speech (p72). (According to Library Thing’s Author Profile, Nesbit and her husband were ‘founding members of the Fabian Society and their home was a centre for literary and socialist activities‘ but still, I bet some of her contemporary readers found this a shocking idea for children to be reading about).

What I think I’ll look out for when I read The Children’s Book is the extent to which the writer Olive Wellwood resembles Mother in The Railway Children. Mother, while lightly sketched because the focus is on the children, doesn’t have much time for them because she is so busy, and she lets them run wild. Apart from mild admonitions to be good, there’s no discipline. They don’t go to school, and she abandons teaching them herself until the intervention of The Old Gentleman. This suspension of real life is normal for children’s literature because adventures can only take place in the absence of adults and normal routines, but it’s the reason for their freedom that’s interesting in The Railway Children. It is because Mother – a single parent for the time being and therefore not subject to male domination – is pursuing a career. This scenario mirrors events in Nesbit’s own life because her father died when she was three and her mother ran an agricultural college for a while to support the family. In adulthood, Nesbit herself had to support her own family when her philandering husband Hubert Bland (a) went bankrupt and (b) became ill with smallpox. (Was it really? Or some other illness that the publisher thought not suitable for inclusion in a children’s book??)

***

There was a spirited defence of this book in comments on the original blog post, so in the spirit of fair play, I suggest you also click the link below and read them too.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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