Wednesday, March 12, 2008

E. Nesbit, Part 1

Edith Nesbit wrote around the turn of the 20th century, and she is sort of the godmother of modern fairy tales. The type of children in her stories are typically the sort who have governesses (or at least cook and the housemaid looking after them), and who go out in the country during the summer holidays. In those days, in middle-to-upper-crust London society, parents evidently didn't spare much time for their kids, who also did not have separate bedrooms that they guarded like their own private fiefdoms, but rather a sort of suite that consisted of a day nursery and a night nursery (or possibly two night nurseries, one for boys and one for girls).

These strange-to-us social conditions, as well as the dated conditions in which fireplaces, gas fixtures, and horse-drawn conveyances meant more to people than they do to us, and the overall Britishness of everything, makes the stories quaint and exotic for today's American reader, though in their day they were probably viewed as strikingly down-to-earth and frank about the realities of human nature. Yet also, laced with charm, humor, fantasy, and adventure.

Nesbit's unique take on fairy-tale adventure has influenced many writers after her, including Edward Eager and J. K. Rowling. Hers are the sort of tales in which ordinary, modern children come to grips with a world of fantastic, fairy-tale magic, and have to deal with the consequences of "worlds in collision." Her magical books include the Psammead trilogy and the Bastables trilogy (reviewed below), plus many one-off books, such as The Enchanted Castle, and The Railway Children (reviewed in Part 2).

The Story of the Treasure Seekers
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

Edith Nesbit's first children's novel is also one of her best-known and most popular. I have found references to the Bastable children in books by Edward Eager and C.S. Lewis. Set in the London suburb of Lewisham in about 1899, it is a story so warmly and wittily told, filled with such delightful characters and memorable events, that it seems filled with magic even though nothing at all "supernatural" ever comes into it.

The narrator is one of the six Bastable children, whose mother is dead, and whose father's time is taken up trying to keep his business afloat after a crooked partner ran away with a lot of the firm's money. They can't afford to go to school, and to look after them at home they have only Eliza, the general servant, who must single-handedly cook, keep house, and (ahem) suffer the children.

From the eldest to the youngest - and you have to find out for yourself who the narrator is - the children are Dora, Oswald, Dicky, sweet Alice and her frail twin brother Noël, and H. O. (Horace Octavius). And each child has a fool-proof idea for how to restore the family's fallen fortune-- or at least, earn a little pocket-money, since their allowance was one of the first things to go.

Those who know only a little about this story will instantly form a mental picture of the children digging for buried treasure in their backyard, but this is only the first of many adventures of these young treasure-seekers. They also try being detectives, bandits, and newspaper editors. They sell some of Noël's poems, and they try to sell mail-order wine. They meet a real princess and a money-lender (to understand the multi-layered irony going on here, it helps to know that G.B. also stands for "Golden Balls" - a term for pawnbrokers that is about as flattering as calling your doctor a "sawbones"). They rescue a rich man from mortal peril, they foil a break-in, and they use an umbrella as a divining rod. And in spite of rash ideas and unintended trouble, they prove to be generous, noble, brave, and honest.

Of course, they don't get along perfectly. In fact, they are about as beastly to each other as six siblings ordinarily are. In the voice of her narrator, Nesbit has achieved a remarkable combination of affection, honesty, and satire that place her among the foremost practitioners of the art form known as picaresque. I especially loved hearing her narrator say that he disapproved of letting women smoke because it would give them ideas (knowing that Nesbit herself was both an outspoken feminist and a heavy smoker). And when things turn out unashamedly like a story out of Dickens, you can't help feeling that the comparison works out in Nesbit's favor.

Perhaps recollections from Nesbit's own childhood contribute to the sense of loving detail and self-effacing irony in this story. It couldn't hurt that she was simply a good writer. But her love for these characters is shown, and our love for them is gratified, in that she wrote two other books featuring the Bastable children: The Wouldbegoods and New Treasure Seekers. The tough part is finding them in print!

The Wouldbegoods
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

The middle book of the Bastables trilogy once again proves Edith Nesbit to be a world-class humorist with a special touch for depicting the way children speak, feel, and behave. Another set of summer-holiday misadventures proves so side-splittingly funny, it's like discovering the British Mark Twain. And though there is no actual magic going on, as in so many of Nesbit's beloved books, the children make amazing things happen with their imagination, their sense of play, and their extraordinary talent for getting into trouble.

It all starts with the best of intentions. Having been sent away to Albert's uncle's house in the country, to get them away from the Blackheath mansion of their "Indian uncle" after a particularly disastrous game of Jungle Book, the six Bastable children find all kinds of wild and woolly things to do in the Kentish farm country. Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noël, and H. O. are joined by Denny and Daisy Foulkes, the children of their father's business associate, in a "Society of Wouldbegoods" that hopes to shape up their character by doing good deeds. But their childish way of looking at things, and their perverse inability to "mind their own business," leads them to be rather naughtier than otherwise!

What good works do the wouldbegoods try? They try to erect a tombstone to memorialize a neighbor-lady's son, shot down on a faraway battlefield. They fall prey to a scoundrel who locks them in a tower and demands money of them. They wreak havoc on the waterways by tampering with a river lock, damming a river (while playing at being beavers), and trying to control an indoors flood. They "adopt" a baby seemingly lost or abandoned. They get in trouble over a dead fox, a soft drink stand, and (my favorite chapter) an attempt to have a circus using untrained farm animals as talent. There's also a silly military adventure, a make-believe pilgrimage, and a bit of romantic matchmaking to round off the summer.

With so many children to keep track of, it would be easy to lose sight of some of them and not be able to tell them apart - but not in Nesbit's hands. Each of the eight children stands out in his or her own way, and they are all lovably silly and at the same time admirable. They take on ridiculous airs - especially Oswald, our narrator - but they also aspire to nobility of character, and in their cracked way they achieve it. They are vulnerable, yet full of fun and bursting with ideas. When their escaped "learned pig" leads them into the middle of a missionary society's tea party, a little girl who lives in the house speaks for me (and, I think, nearly anyone else who would read this book) - I do wish I could play like that, though perhaps it is better heard about than done!

In a way, perhaps these children are an adult's worst nightmare. But even the adults who are so often at their wits' end over them, seem to love them dearly; and this is quite understandable. One theme the book touches on is that the more you try to be good, the more appealing naughtiness becomes; and if you simply take what comes and do your best, you will often do better than if you made up your mind in advance to try and do good.

Another theme that goes right to the heart of the Book Trolley and its purpose, is to demonstrate that books that are fun to read (or have read to you) stand a better chance of influencing your character than books of the "Sunday School" variety that are preachy and moralistic. Great adventures, like The Three Musketeers and The Last of the Mohicans, capture the imagination of children like the Bastables and their little friends - though the Foulkes' "Murdstone aunt" may not approve - and allow them to be children. And maybe that's more to the purpose of helping them grow up into good adults than stifling their imagination and forcing them to haunt a restricted world of literature and pretend-play. I call E. Nesbit to witness in words from this book:
"I do not dislike Daisy, but I wish she had been taught how to play...

"I talked to Albert's uncle about it one day... and he said it came from reading the wrong sort of books partly - she has read Ministering Children, and Anna Ross, or the Orphan of Waterloo, and Ready Work for Willing Hands, and Elsie, or Like a Little Candle, and even a horrid little blue book about the something or other of Little Sins. After this conversation Oswald took care she had plenty of the right sort of books to read, and he was surprised and pleased when she got up early one morning to finish Monte Cristo. Oswald felt that he was being really useful to a suffering fellow-creature when he gave Daisy books that were not at all about being good."
For futher adventures of the Bastable children, be sure to look up The Story of the Treasure Seekers and New Treasure Seekers. These books seem to be going out of print (again). This is too bad, and I mean that in the original literal sense that you may rediscover by reading these books. Try your library or a used book dealer if you cannot get hold of these wonderful stories. But don't wait for your teacher to read this book aloud to you, because there are little "politically incorrect" moments in it that could finish a public-school teacher's career. All the more reason to seek these books out, you free-thinking rebel, you!

New Treasure Seekers
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

The last of three books about the six Bastable children is, again, written in the outrageously funny voice of Oswald Bastable, in a such a style that you can really believe it to be the words of a boy of his age and class. And once again Edith Nesbit proves herself to be a genius of humorist fiction.

Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noël and H. O. Bastable are the well-meaning, but hilariously adventure-prone children from The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods. Now they are in search of a new "theme" for their play, and the mischief that their play often gets them into. They have already tried rebuilding the fallen fortunes of their house, and being good.

Now they look for ways to help Mr. and Mrs. Arthur's Uncle get over the deplorable tragedy of marriage (such as stowing away on their honeymoon to Italy, and impersonating the readership of Arthur's Uncle's serial novel). They reform their obnoxious, vain cousin Archibald, they rescue an elderly Chinese man from a gang of rough youths, and they form an antiquarian society and explore the cellars of an old house.

They also prove that they believe in their family honor and in taking responsibility for your actions - and making up for the wrongs. This comes out when an attempt to make their own Christmas pudding results in a crisis of conscience, and when Dicky's revenge on a railway porter backfires on him.

In the last half of the story, however, they do find a purpose to unite their adventures. Having been sent to the seaside to recover from the measles, the children befriend a woman whose austere lifestyle leads them to believe she is desperately poor. And in one adventure after another, they try to raise funds to help her - including letting rooms out to an eccentric lodger, getting involved in a smuggling adventure, telling fortunes at a Primrose fete, peddling merchandise out of the back of a donkey cart, and being very quiet around a lady who is resting up from a long trip.

The results are simply breathtaking. The children are both adorable and wrinkles-and-all real. Their imagination, their play, the trouble they get into, and their good-intentions-gone-awry are both belly-laugh funny and a fascinating document of period, class, and family values. Nesbit apparently combined recollections of her own childhood adventures with her brothers and sister, with modern observations on the "high minded" people and, perhaps, a self portrait (Mrs. Bax?), to create almost an ideal world for imaginative children to run wild in.

The most wonderful thing about the Bastables is how they play together. I hope you had (or still have) playmates so rich in imagination, so ready and willing to pretend, and so concerned about doing good. Whether you have or not, I think you will enjoy the experience through the escapades of the Bastable children. It's the type of story one feels sorry to leave behind, when it ends. But you can always go back to it again!

Five Children and It
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 7+

E is short for Edith, a British authoress of magical stories for children who also happened to be an outspoken feminist and socialist in her time (late 19th century, early 20th). This one is regarded as her masterpiece. It really is quite a lot of fun. It mostly has to do with four children, really, though from time to time their helpless baby brother also gets involved.

They are siblings, two brothers and two sisters from London, who find themselves enjoying a summer holiday at a country house in Kent where there is a gravel pit on one side and a chalk pit on the other. While digging in the gravel pit one day, the children discover a Psammead, or Sand Fairy, the "It" of the title. It's described as a creature with the arms and legs of a monkey, the body of a giant spider, the protruding eyes of a snail, and the ears of a bat. This ancient magical creature, which is comically grouchy, offers the children a wish a day, and of course all their wishes go hilariously wrong.

What makes the magic work is that the children are such believable characters and have such an interesting relationship with each other, and the world they're in is so realistic - yet with these amazing, magical things happening, and having the very result they would likely have if they ever did happen. Imagine what terrible things might happen when four children successfully wish to be "as beautiful as the day," or to be "rich beyond the dreams of avarice," or to have wings, or to grow to giant size, etc., etc.

There's a lot of humor and adventure, a little suspense, and the children (Cyril, Anthea, Jane, and Robert) are quite the characters. I loved it when they wished to fight against real "red Indians" their own size, and had to dress up as Indians and make up names for themselves and their tribes (Robert panicked and said he was Bobs of the Cape Mounted Police). This would be very politically incorrect today, but it's a gas in its context and when read in the spirit it was intended - the fantasy world of 19th century English children, that is.

The hilarious, magical adventures of Cyril, Anthea, Jane, and Robert continue in The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, both by E. Nesbit.

EDIT: I was deeply disappointed the 2004 movie allegedly based on this book, featuring Freddie Highmore as Robert. Perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their young star, the filmmakers did radical reconstructive surgery on the story - to the point where it resembles the plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more than the book it is named after. A similar travesty was foisted upon John Katzenbach's inspiring book Hart's War when Bruce Willis was cast in what should have been a minor role. "Star Power" destroyed these movies! Which is just another illustration of the principle that, if you want to make a movie based on a beloved book, you should do it in New Zealand.

The Phoenix and the Carpet
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 7+

The sequel to Five Children and It picks up in the fall of the same year, when the children are beginning to miss having magical adventures. Then one rainy day, leading up to Bonfire Night (November 5), they decide to "sample" some of their fireworks inside their nursery. The result is a totally ruined carpet. Their mother buys a Persian rug to replace it, which turns out to be a magic wishing-carpet (it grants three wishes a day), and moreover, rolled up in the rug is the egg of the world's one and only Phoenix, which has been waiting a chance to hatch in somebody's fire. And so it does.

The Phoenix speaks in a highly educated, well-bred voice and is rather vain and egotistical. But it is an interesting guide on their adventures with the magic carpet, many of which do not (of course) turn out as planned. In fact things come to such a pass that it finally becomes necessary to get rid of both the carpet and the phoenix.

But until that time, you can thrill with the children to such adventures as forcing a burglar to milk a cow in their nursery in order to feed 199 caterwauling cats... leading their cook to become the queen of a tribe of savages on a tropical island... matching buried treasure to the poor landowners who desperately need it, and matching a pretty, nice spinster with an equally nice unmarried clergyman... getting stranded on a stranger's rooftop and at the bottom of a "topless tower"... and finally, a night at the theatre that goes up in smoke.

The Phoenix is really a loveable character, one of those that can be wise and silly at the same time, touching and comical ditto, modest and arrogant ditto ditto. I love the scene where the Phoenix makes up a poem to make the sun come out on a rainy day, and again the scene where the Phoenix insists that the Phoenix Fire Insurance Office is a temple in its honor.

One of the many charms of the story is that the chldren in it are not heroic, but emphatically ordinary: with all the weaknesses and moral blemishes that ordinary children have. Or had, in those days.

EDIT: The Phoenix and the Carpet was made into a TV miniseries in 1997 (at right is a still from that version, showing the Psammead and the Phoenix together), as well as a 1995 theatrical movie. I haven't seen either of them, so view at your own risk!

The Story of the Amulet
by E. Nesbit
Recommended Age: 8+

In this third story featuring the children from Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit steers the "magical adventures of four children during their school holidays" in a decidedly new direction. Set in 1905, it is mainly a tale of time travel, with colorful and exotic depictions of several ancient cultures and a quest to heal an ancient amulet that has been split in half. The children are able to use the half-amulet to find the part that is missing, by speaking the Name of Power engraved on it so that it becomes an arch into past times and distant places, until they find the rest of the artifact which, once completed, will grant them their heart's desire.

For Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane (also known as Squirrel, Panther, Bobs, and Pussy), the heart's desire is to have their parents and baby brother (the Lamb) back. The Lamb is with Mother in Spain, where she is recovering from an illness. Father is a journalist covering a foreign war for his London newspaper. And the children are left in the care of an old Nurse of theirs, who now runs a fairly dull boarding-house whose other tenant is an absentminded professor of antiquities.

Things start to improve when the children discover the Psammead (see Five Children and It) languishing in durance vile (actually, in a pet shop). They bring him home, and though he can no longer grant them wishes, he leads them to the half-amulet which can give them their heart's desire. But first they must hazard strange and perilous adventures in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Atlantis, and the Roman Empire. And they must be on their toes, as anyone else who speaks a wish aloud in the Psammead's presence is apt to cause really strange things to happen. It's bad enough that wherever they go, the children end up being thrown into a dungeon or sold as slaves... Besides which, an Egyptian priest who also has half the amulet is hard on their heels. And at one point, a Babylonian queen finds her way to modern London!

In and amongst these varied and colorful adventures, we experience once again the adorable characters and bonds between them - not only the children, but the Psammead too. My favorite part of the book is the one where the Queen of Babylon is at large in London, wreaking havoc with one wish after another on the poor Psammead. It's also hard to forget the Atlantis episode, in which the Learned Gentleman was so determined to see "the end of the dream."

But be prepared for a more grown-up adventure than the previous two books. This is not all simple, silly, innocent fun. At times you are quite strongly reminded that Edith Nesbit was a socialist, feminist, free-thinking type whose home was a meeting place for the great minds of her day, such as Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. One or two passages address the plight of the poor and workers, both in Nesbit's time and in ancient Egypt, in a way similar to how Charles Dickens addressed social and moral issues in his stories. Another passage, in which the children visit the future, is a piece of utopian "science fiction" truly in the tradition of H. G. Wells. And finally, the concept of the amulet with its Name of Power and the being (deity? spirit?) that speaks to the children through it, puts the story right over the line between fairy-tale magic and true fantasy. (Anyone concerned about occult content, be advised.)

On the other hand, all of this is done in Nesbit's beloved, lighthearted manner, full of personal warmth and knowing humor. In spite of its social conscience, it is not shrill. In spite of its forays into the genres of "sci fi" and "fantasy," it is still mainly a tale of the magical adventures of four charming children and their weird, crotchety, lovable friend, the Psammead. And though there is more seriousness and depth in this story than in the previous two in this series, it remains the kind of tale that you can read aloud to children with a hint of a smile and a twinkle in your eye.

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