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.