The Lark by E. Nesbit

The Lark
Sherpa posing (/sleeping) next to The Lark.

Well, two days in to 2016 and I’ve finished a novel that I’m pretty sure will be on my Top Books 2016, unless a lot of truly spectacular things come along; it’s already on my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit is an absolute joy – charming, witty, dry, affectionate, and wry all in one go. May I offer a hearty thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow who first alerted me (and anybody who reads his excellent blog) to its existence, and a second hearty thanks to whichever person donated it to a charity shop in Yeovil, of all unlikely places. And, while I’m at it, a third hearty thanks to Lily P. Bond, who apparently bought this book at Ilminster Fair in 1925, and a fourth to Edith, who gave it to her mother with love at some unspecified date. (Copies can be found in ebook version for very little money.)

The novel starts off with a trio of children (Jane, Emmeline, and Lucilla) which is one of Nesbit’s few mistakes in this book, I think, because it will either disappoint those who like books about children or deter those who don’t: there is only a scene before they’re adults. The difference between their childlike naivety and their adult independence is, truth be told, only four years – but it might as well be a lifetime, so far as The Lark is concerned. As ‘children’, adventurous Jane decides to cast a spell which will show her the man she will marry (to the consternation of Emmie and Lucy): she wanders off to a wood to do so, and – lo and behold! – who should be passing but John Rochester. She sees him, he slips off, and the story is allowed to rush forwards to present day.

Now, if you’re thinking ‘Jane and Mr Rochester, how subtle, gosh I wonder what will happen to them’ then (a) you’re rushing ahead of yourself, and (b) Nesbit is consistently so knowing and self-knowing as a narrator that one can never get the upper hand. When he turns up again, and is ignored by the adult Jane, Nesbit coyly dismisses him as being ‘definitely out of the picture, which concerns itself only with the desperate efforts of two inexperienced girls to establish, on the spur of the moment, a going concern that shall be at once agreeable and remunerative’. It’s impossible to feel outraged at coincidences or unlikely behaviour if the narrator points them out too.

Jane and Lucie, you see, as destitute because their guardian has made bad investments with their inheritances (they are both orphans). ‘Destitute’ in this case means ownership of a beautiful cottage and £500, which this calculator tells me is the equivalent of over £20,000 today; this sort of destitute makes my full-time employment look rather inadequate. The indomitable pair decide to treat their misfortune (for such we must accept it) as ‘a lark’, and I can’t help agreeing with Scott that this is an excellent excerpt to quote:

“I want to say I think it’s a beastly shame.”

“No, no! “said Jane eagerly. “Don’t start your thinking with that, or you’ll never get anywhere. It isn’t a shame and it isn’t beastly. I’ll tell you what it is, Lucy. And that’s where we must start our thinking from. Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

“Is it?” said Lucilla. “And that’s my last word.”

This sentiment recurs – when one is unhappy, or bad things happen, they force themselves to laugh it off. It’s endearing rather than sickeningly Pollyannaish because they don’t find it easy, and they constantly tease one another about it. Their sarcasm and quips are delightfully witty, even if they retain a slightly cumbersome Edwardian propriety. In this particular instance, they must find a way to generate an income from within the narrow straits of a gentlewoman’s education – and land upon selling flowers. There are enough in their small garden to last them a day, but rather more can be found at an old shut-up house in the neighbourhood.

They manage to charm the old man who owns it to let them sell flowers from the garden room and – would you believe it? – he turns out to be John Rochester’s uncle. But Jane is far from pleased to see him, and insists that they can only be friends. There is much to enjoy about Jane and Lucy setting up a flower shop (including an improbable encounter with their future gardener in Madame Tussaud’s) – I love any story about people setting up a shop, particularly slightly feisty women in the 1920s. As The Lark develops, they will also start taking in paying guests – rather far into the novel, actually; it could have appeared earlier – and find their lives increasingly entangled with Rochester. Other characters I haven’t even had time to mention are the sceptical cook, the flirtatious maid Gladys, and the arrival of Miss Antrobus, who is supposedly Rochester’s intended. And there is a hilarious section involving poor Lucy disguising herself as an invented aunt.

The Lark could really have been about anything; it is Nesbit’s style that carries the day. There are more than hints of it in her children’s novels, but here – the first of her adult novels that I have read – she can give full rein to her dry humour and ability to show light-hearted exchanges between amusing, intelligent characters whom you can’t help loving. The whole thing is an absolute pleasure, and would be perfect between Persephone covers. It’s pretty rare that I’m sad to see a book end, but I will confess to feeling a little distraught that my time spent in Jane and Lucy’s company is over – until I re-read it, of course.


Two Classic Children’s Books

A Century of Books has led to me reading more children’s books than usual in 2012.  The debate about whether or not adults ought to read YA fiction (a phrase I hate) is probably best left for another day – but I think most of us understand the call towards unashamed classic children’s fiction, which doesn’t have the slightest pretence to being adults’ literature.

First, very speedily, a suggestion Claire mentioned when I was struggling to fill in 1909Ann Veronica went back on the shelf for another day (next to Rebecca West, amusingly enough) and Beatrix Potter came off instead.  Well, actually, since I don’t have a copy of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, I downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg, and read it on my Kindle for PC.  It’s lovely – of course it is.  Peter Rabbit’s sister Flopsy and her wife Benjamin have quite a few children – ‘They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.’  (Which picture book writer today would use the word ‘improvident’?  Or ‘soporific’?  Love you, Beatrix.)

You probably know the story.  Wicked Mr. Macgregor is back, and does his best to kidnap the Flopsy Bunnies… will he manage it?  Can you guess?  (By the way, this cartoon is an amusing counterpart to Beatrix Potter’s bunny stories.)  It feels a bit like I’m cheating with 1909 – but I suppose Potter is more influential than most of the other authors featured in A Century of Books.  And it was delightful!

*  *  *

A whistle sounds, a flag is waved.  The train pulls itself together, strains, jerks, and starts.”I don’t understand,” says Gerald, alone in his third-class carriage, “how railway trains and magic can go on at the same time.”And yet they do.
This seems like a very apt quotation from E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907), because she is best known (at least in our household) as the author of The Railway Children.  Her own writing, then, successfully combined the possible – if unlikely – story of children living near a railway, and this novel where all manner of extraordinary things happen.  But it is, perhaps, the possible events threaded through the novel which made it most effective, in my eyes.

Everything starts off believably.  Siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen are bored during their summer holidays, spent with one of those eternal Mademoiselles of children’s fiction from this period.  Only this one is not cantankerous or hysterical, and is quite happy to let them go off to explore.  On their exploits, they discover (as one does) a beautiful castle, with grounds replete with marble statues, etc.  And – look! – a sleeping princess!  She awakes, after Jimmy (somewhat reluctantly) kisses her – and she takes them through to see her jewels.  One of these is a magic ring, she confides, which can make the wearer invisible.  Only they have to close their eyes for a bit whilst it works.  And, yes, it works!

But the princess is rather surprised.  It turns out she is, in fact, Mabel – the housekeeper’s niece – and wasn’t expecting the ring actually to turn her invisible.  And thus their adventures begin…

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.  And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, anything may happen.
And anything does happen.  Invisibility, expanding, swimming statues, ghosts…  I prefer my novels’ fantastic elements to be rather more restrained, with parameters neatly set.  This all felt a bit scattergun, but I suppose Five Children and It is similar and that doesn’t bother me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Five Children and It, and this is my first reading of The Enchanted Castle.  I have a feeling that this would feel a much more coherent book for those who loved it as a child.  As for me, sometimes it seemed like dear E. Nesbit was making it up as she went along.

What saved it completely, though, was her delightful tone.  I wrote, in my post on The Railway Children, that I’d no idea E. Nesbit was so witty – and that continues here.  There are plenty of asides and sly nudges to the reader – a wit that was probably put in for the parent, but could well be appreciated by the child too.  Alongside the amusing style, my favourite aspect were the non-fantastic relationships – between siblings, between the children and Mademoiselle, between Eliza the maid and her young man, and between… no, the last two I shall leave you to find out for yourself.

It was all good fun.  And yet I’m going to throw my copy away.  Because it looks like this now…

Ooops!  TV tie-in paperbacks from the 1970s weren’t built to last, were they?

Two lovely children’s books to round off 2012.  Just one book left for A Century of Books… a biography for 1970.  Any guesses?

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

I’m still having trouble filling up the first twenty years of 20th century, so decided to take recourse to a reliable candidate for 1906.  When I started this project there were a list of authors I thought would come in handy for the decades I know less about.  Some I’ve read this year (Muriel Spark, Paul Gallico), some I haven’t yet (Milan Kundera, Penelope Fitzgerald) but E. Nesbit was always on that list, and likely to appear at least once before the end of 2012.  I haven’t read The Railway Children since I was about eleven, and I thought (given how often I’ve seen the film) that it was about time for a revisit!

Well, what on earth can I say about The Railway Children?  Surely – surely – you’ve all read it, or at least seen the film?  No?  Someone at the back hasn’t?  I’ll whip through the basics of the plot quickly, and then give you my 2012 response in bullet points.  M’kay?

Bobbie (Roberta), Peter, and Phil (Phyllis) are three young siblings who, when their father leaves mysteriously, must move with their mother to the countryside and ‘play at being poor’.  While she scrapes together money by writing stories, the children grow to know and love the railway and station.  It becomes the focus of their lives, and their various exploits and adventures are connected with it – whether rescuing an injured boy playing paperchase, preparing a party for the station master, or ripping off petticoats to stop a train derailing in a landslide.

Here’s how I responded to it in 2012…

It all happens so much more quickly than I remembered!  I suppose I’m used to the pacing of the film, and of course perception of time changes over the years, but I was amazed at how speedily E. Nesbit dashes through the events.

E. Nesbit is funny!  There’s an arch, dry humour that I hadn’t spotted the first time around.  It first crops up on the opening page, where Phyllis is described simply as ‘Phyllis, who meant extremely well.’  I’m not going to say that The Railway Children is a raucous knockabout, but this humour prevents Nesbit stumbling into over-earnest territory.

Lordy, she’s sexist.  Par for the course in 1906, I daresay, but she doesn’t seem to be using irony when the doctor says “You know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything – so they have to be hardy and brave.  But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and kind.”  *Shudder*

However, there is such a lovely feel to reading this book.  A mixture of the qualities inherent in the story, characters, setting – but also, of course, a little journey back to my own childhood.  Not only did I read and watch The Railway Children, but I grew up next to a railway.  No station, and no steam trains of course, but the noise of trains still takes me back.

Er, yes… yes, I did cry at the end.