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 1909 – Ann 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?