Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2009

The Railway Children, by Edith Nesbit

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 is 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 socialism with 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??)


Responses

  1. Your observation about gypsies and foreigners being stereotyped in Enid Blytons’ literature has been well discussed in my book, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com) in a segment called, “The Gypsy Controversy” in the chapter I titled, “Stereotyping.” Though, Enid Blyton may have stereotyped gypsies, surprisingly, to some extent, she seemed to understand some of their plight, for instance in Five go to mystery moor when Georgina (George) and Sniffer visit the latter’s gypsy home and George is horrified to find that all of sniffer’s family lives under one caravan and in Six cousins Again, the gypsies retaliate against the farmer, iI guess in Mistletoe Farm by stealing items such as eggst, chicken, for having been mistreated and being blamed for everything that has gone wrong in at the farm. However, you are correct that there are some stereotypes of gypsies. Again in Five Go to Mystery Moor, Sniffer’s father who has come to the horse farm to retrieve his own horse is treted with suspicion by Julian, who even shadows him in anticipation that he could steal something from the barn. Nonetheless, Enid Blyton can be credited to having described the the plight of gypsies, despite the lingering obvious stereotypes they face as demonstrated in the aforementioned examples.
    Stephen Isabirye

    • Hi Stephen, this is interesting, but I’m not surprised given the enduring Blyton phenomenon that her books are still being analysed in a serious way. I only studied her stuff as an undergraduate, and that was rather a while ago, leaving me with impressions rather than details. Back in the seventies there was quite a furore about Blyton, but I think people have lightened up a bit since then.
      I guess my stance is, as with adult books that I read, why spend precious time reading something not particularly good, if there are much better choices to be had? My grandchildren, if I ever have any, will be getting Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux, not The Magic Faraway Tree!
      Lisa

  2. From the Railway Children:

    ————————-

    “Hum,” said Father, when he had looked the [Broken Model Train] Engine over very carefully.

    The children held their breaths.

    “Is there NO hope?” said Peter, in a low, unsteady voice.

    “Hope? Rather! Tons of it,” said Father, cheerfully; “but it’ll want something besides hope—a bit of brazing say, or some solder, and a new valve. I think we’d better keep it for a rainy day. In other words, I’ll give up Saturday afternoon to it, and you shall all help me.”

    “CAN girls help to mend engines?” Peter asked doubtfully.

    “Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys, and don’t you forget it! How would you like to be an engine-driver, Phil?”

    “My face would be always dirty, wouldn’t it?” said Phyllis, in unenthusiastic tones, “and I expect I should break something.”

    “I should just love it,” said Roberta—“do you think I could when I’m grown up, Daddy? Or even a stoker?”

    “You mean a fireman,” said Daddy, pulling and twisting at the engine. “Well, if you still wish it, when you’re grown up, we’ll see about making you a fire-woman. I remember when I was a boy—”

    Just then there was a knock at the front door.

    ————————-

    I wouldn’t really call that absurdly sexist. In fact for 1904 its pretty good! And if you read the “girls are softer and weaker” line you see in context that it is said by someone deliberately playing on the prejudices of the small boy it is said to in order to persuade him to apologise to his sisters:

    —————————-

    When Peter came home, his sisters looked at him doubtfully.

    “It’s Pax,” said Peter, dumping down the basket on the table. “Dr. Forrest has been talking scientific to me. No, it’s no use my telling you what he said; you wouldn’t understand. But it all comes to you girls being poor, soft, weak, frightened things like rabbits, so us men have just got to put up with them. He said you were female beasts. Shall I take this up to Mother, or will you?”

    “I know what BOYS are,” said Phyllis, with flaming cheeks; “they’re just the nastiest, rudest—”

    “They’re very brave,” said Bobbie, “sometimes.”

    “Ah, you mean the chap upstairs? I see. Go ahead, Phil—I shall put up with you whatever you say because you’re a poor, weak, frightened, soft—”

    “Not if I pull your hair you won’t,” said Phyllis, springing at him.

    “He said ‘Pax,’” said Bobbie, pulling her away. “Don’t you see,” she whispered as Peter picked up the basket and stalked out with it, “he’s sorry, really, only he won’t say so? Let’s say we’re sorry.”

    “It’s so goody goody,” said Phyllis, doubtfully; “he said we were female beasts, and soft and frightened—”

    “Then let’s show him we’re not frightened of him thinking us goody goody,” said Bobbie; “and we’re not any more beasts than he is.”

    And when Peter came back, still with his chin in the air, Bobbie said:—

    “We’re sorry we tied you up, Pete.”

    “I thought you would be,” said Peter, very stiff and superior.

    This was hard to bear. But—

    “Well, so we are,” said Bobbie. “Now let honour be satisfied on both sides.”

    “I did call it Pax,” said Peter, in an injured tone.

    “Then let it BE Pax,” said Bobbie. “Come on, Phil, let’s get the tea. Pete, you might lay the cloth.”

    “I say,” said Phyllis, when peace was really restored, which was not till they were washing up the cups after tea, “Dr. Forrest didn’t REALLY say we were female beasts, did he?”

    “Yes,” said Peter, firmly, “but I think he meant we men were wild beasts, too.”

    “How funny of him!” said Phyllis, breaking a cup.

    ———————————-

    I think you’re being pretty harsh on poor Edith here!

    • *chuckle* Ok, point taken, not bad for 1904, and well worth reading if studying Edith Nesbit from an academic POV (as when I studied Children’s Lit at university) – because she was definitely an improvement on her predecessors.
      But for kids to read, a century later? While it doesn’t matter for voracious readers who would whizz through it in a weekend, most kids don’t seem to have much time for reading these days anyway, so I’d rather see them reading contemporary books that speak to the issues that are relevant today.
      But, each to his own, I guess!

  3. Oh Lisa, say it’s not so! Your future grandkids would be missing out. I don’t remember knowing the Magic Faraway Tree as a child, but I read it to Lachlan when he was about 4. It was fabulous. He loved the concept of a different land up the top of the tree, and for quite some time he whenever he would go into a room in the house it would be a new “land”. It really sparked his imagination.

    I had loved the Famous Five as a kid, and of course I was keen to share it with the golden child. I have since read them all (yes all 21 of them) out loud to him. No they didn’t really stand up to a modern adult reading. But Lachlan did love them too. I suspect that I was older when I read them, 9 or 10, whilst he was 7 or 8 when I read them to him. Which I think is important when exposing todays kids to the stories of yesterday, the age level is often a bit younger now. No the writing may not stand up. They may be sexist or racist (or predictable) when viewed with modern moral adult lenses, but they often tell a story that kids still want to hear. The adults are put out of the way early on, and the children get to roam about having exciting adventures on their own, solving problems for themselves.

    BTW We’ve read a few di Camillo books (most recently Because of Winn-Dixie which we both enjoyed), but haven’t read Desperaux as yet.

  4. *chuckle* Nope, I’m unrepentant! I read them all the Fives and the Sevens, and Malory Towers etc etc, and then all the Cherry Ames, and those ones about the Twins in all the different countries of the world…
    and then I discovered Madeleine L’Engle, and Alan Garner, and I realised I’d been shortchanged by reading all those ‘formula’ books.
    BTW You *must* read Despereaux to The Kid *before* he accidentally sees the film. It is beautiful, and there are some superb moral issues to talk about…e.g. when Despereaux imperils the mouse community by talking to a *shock, horror* human, his own brother dobs him in and Despereaux has to appear before the Mouse Council and grave consequences follow. Is it perfidy? What should one do if a choice has to be made between a member of one’s own family and the community? Is it a forgiveable act?


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