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.

35 thoughts on “The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

  • September 24, 2012 at 9:35 pm
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    You reviewed a book that I have a, heard of, and b, read. Hang out the flags! Now we can discuss Bake Off AND E Nesbit at future at future rendez-vous' (what is the plural of rendez-vous??)

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  • September 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm
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    I was talking about E Nesbit to one of my classes the other day, as Jacqueline Wilson has just written a 'response' to Five Children and It, called…er…Four Children and It – inventive! – and some of the girls were reading the Jacqueline Wilson, so I launched into a reverie about how wonderful E Nesbit was, and how lovely The Railway Children is, and I was merely met with blank stares. Which made me very sad, and also determined to buy copies of her books, re-read them, and then have them in my classroom to give out to unsuspecting girls during 'quiet reading time'. I LOVE E Nesbit, I grew up on her, and terribly racist and dated as she is, I still think nothing says cosy Sunday afternoon like The Railway Children/The Treasure Seekers/Five Children and It.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm
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      I didn't realise Jacqueline Wilson had written that! I am intrigued… she must have written so many books by now. I wish I'd read more Nesbit at the age when, instead, I devoured Wilson…

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  • September 24, 2012 at 11:40 pm
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    i remember the first time I read and being young and modern (ha ha) was totally offended by the sexism Simon mentions. Now I just love this book(and the film) just as I love Carries War(original adaptation and the book). Grown up and you see it through a different perspective and I'd totally agree with Simon about the subtle humour

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    • September 24, 2012 at 11:42 pm
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      Please ignore the lack of punctuation – whilst I love your blog I don't usually post and did this one totally off the cuff. Please accept my apology.
      ann

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm
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      Lovely to have your comment, Ann!
      I wasn't too put off by the sexism – more the surprise that I didn't notice it the first time around! But I didn't notice the humour then either, so it's swings and roundabouts.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 12:57 am
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    Oh it's lovely to be reminded of this! The Railway Children is a family favourite- book AND movie. Also E Nesbit in general. I imagine it would seem quite dated if I read it now, but I love it anyway. Glad that you enjoyed rereading it despite the speed and sexism.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:05 pm
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      I don't think the closeness of a family can ever really be dated – the emotions are still the same, even if the language and activites aren't.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 6:33 am
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    E Nesbit has been one of my favourite authors since I was a tiny child. Like Rachel I can overlook the sexism, racism etc and just love her wit, her perceptiveness, and her imagination. Absolutely top of my own list is one that not many people seem to know — The House of Arden. It's about a brother and sister who discover a trunk of clothes in an old castle they happen to be staying in, and find that when they dress up in them they find themselves in whatever past period the clothes date from. Oh how I longed to be able to do this — still do! And yes the end of the Railway Children never fails to make me cry.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm
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      I remember you mentioning The House of Arden before, but I've never heard of it from any other source. One day, one day! I am realising that I've got an enchanted-castle sized hole in my reading century, though…

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  • September 25, 2012 at 6:45 am
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    I've never liked The Railway Children as much as Nesbit's other books, which are wonderful. As for the film, these days I start crying as soon as I hear the theme music!

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm
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      Oh dear! I must re-watch the film – I did re-watch the Daddy, My Daddy clip, and it was actually a little more hackneyed than I remember… (I'd better duck!)

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  • September 25, 2012 at 7:24 am
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    I adored The Railway Children (book) and quite liked the film, but haven't read or seen it in eons! I may take your lead and re-read it in the autumn or winter this year. It's definitely comfort reading, tears aside. It's also the reason my husband is still, to this day, madly in love with Jenny Agutter.

    I recently re-read Five Children and It which had been one of my childhood favourites, but I'm afraid it didn't really stand up and I wound up regretting picking it up again as a grownup. I don't know what it was … Nesbit just seemed a bit didactic, telling me how to fold my nightie properly and so on. I don't know why that didn't bother the child me!

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm
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      Your husband's abiding love for Jenny Agutter amuses me! I'm glad it doesn't cause too much jealousy ;)

      There were one or two didactic moments in The Railway Children, but fewer than I was expecting, and offset with some humour.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 7:46 am
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    I've been meaning to re-read this for years … I still have my childhood Puffin paperback. I adore the film and always cry at the end, and have had a soft spot for Bernard Cribbins ever since.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm
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      This year could be the year, Annabel! It's a wonderful restorative, I found.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 8:36 am
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    I think when you're reading older works you have to allow for the times they're written in – or you would simply exclude too many great works from your life.

    As for crying – I've always collapsed into a heap at the end of the film when she shouts "Daddy, my Daddy" and I defy anyone to be unmoved! If you are, you've a heart of stone!

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm
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      Oh, I agree with your first point. I was just surprised I missed it before.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 10:02 am
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    Love the book but the film is just childhood on a plate. One of the first times I went to the cinema, just adore it.

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  • September 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm
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    I do love this book. I suspend opinions on racism and sexism when I read old books. We don't avert our eyes from historical horrors. The truth is the truth, which is why most of the time I think a book about a certain period, written in that period, works better than newly written historical fiction. I learn so much from old books.
    I know there are things in our time which when read about 100 years on, will bring a shudder to the reader.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:41 pm
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      I do agree with all of this – I was just surprised I hadn't spotted it before!

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm
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      I know there is a lot of 'young adult' fiction around nowadays, but they don't have the same nostalgic glow, do they?

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  • September 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm
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    Ah, this is a family favorite. I used Nesbit's Book of Dragons for the 1901 slot. I may have to peruse the shelf for some rereads to fill some of those early 1900 dates. :)

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm
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      Oo, I don't know that one, sounds fun! But, yes, Nesbit very handy for the early part of the century.

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  • September 26, 2012 at 8:57 am
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    I have never read the book but the film marked my childhood. The bit where the tree slid down the embankment frightened me SO much that I would hide behind the sofa until the end (it was shown fairly regularly on the television when I was little) (oh all right I was still doing it when I was 15) (not really). So for a long time I never knew what happened in the end.

    I really ought to read the book some time…

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm
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      Aw, bless! Your comments are so funny, btw, Helen ;)
      You must give the book a read – it's very close to the film (or vice versa, I suppose.)

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  • September 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm
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    She does have a lovely turn of phrase. EG The Book of Beasts (from the Book of Dragons)- "They sat on committees and stood on guard, and lay in wait for the Dragon, but he stayed up in the hills, and there was nothing more to be done."

    E Nesbit's life story is also fascinating. Julia Briggs' biography is well worth a read and – as I've suggested before, forgive me – should be read together with Doris Langley Moore's to give an interesting illustration of what different generations were able (allowed) to draw out of the same source material.

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    • September 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm
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      Lovely!

      I will have to hunt out both biographies, and conduct the little investigation you suggest…

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  • September 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm
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    A late comment – I'm catching up after being with my mother who has been ill and, by co-incidence, has been re-reading this book with great relish, while we reminisced about how she read it to me when I was a child (complete with different voices for each character), and I read it to my daughters(complete with different voices for each character), and how we all still love it. She refused to lend me her copy, on the grounds that I will forget to return it (very true) and I can't find my copy (perhaps one of The Daughters has it), so now I HAVE to go and find another edition…

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    • September 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm
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      What a lovely coincidence, Christine! And how wise your mother is ;) I think I may have nabbed my copy from my mother, who didn't take such precautions…

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