The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
Illustrated by C.E.Brock
For a Victorian era woman, Edith Nesbit led a highly unconventional life. She married only after she was seven months pregnant and thereafter tolerated a ménage a trois which included her former best friend. She herself had affairs with a number of others, including George Bernard Shaw. She cut her hair short, smoked openly, and co-founded with her husband the socialist Fabian Society. She was the breadwinner of a household that included her own children as well as those of her husband’s mistress who she raised as her own. Though not particularly fond of young ones, her literary success came with her books for children, beginning with The Story of the Treasure Seekers in 1899. For the next prolific decade, she published two or three or four books a year, many of them remarkable.
The Railway Children is one of her most heartfelt books, perhaps because it is her most autobiographical. The three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis, are whisked out of their comfortable servanted life after the mysterious disappearance of their father and deposited in a country cottage existence of relative poverty (“’Jam or butter, dear – not jam and butter.’”) Their mother closets herself to write. The children, left to their own devices, center their lives on the railway line down below in the valley and its attendant station. They are befriended by Perks the Porter, the Station Master, and an old gentleman on the 9:15 up (the daily train to London which they christen the Green Dragon).
The children avert a series of disasters – they signal a train to warn of a potentially deadly landslide, they save a baby from a burning barge, they rescue a boy who has broken a leg inside a tunnel. They provide shelter for a Russian émigré writer who has escaped from Siberia and is desperate to find his wife and children (a character based upon a friend of the author). Through their many adventures runs the suspenseful thread of the mystery of their father’s absence (an absence no doubt inspired by the contemporaneous Dreyfus affair).
In addition to her realistic fiction, of which The Railway Children is the most celebrated, Nesbit created a fantasy genre in which everyday children stumble upon a key to magical happenings, often with awkward consequences. The Psammead trilogy (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet) and The Enchanted Castle paved the way for C.S. Lewis, Edgar Eager, and J.K. Rowling. None of her successors has matched her imaginative creation of the Psammead, an irritable sand fairy who begrudgingly grants wishes and who has the shape of a furry spider, ears like a bat, extremities of a monkey, and eyes on retractable horns like a snail.
Aside: “’I suppose I shall have to be married some day,’ said Peter, ‘but it will be an awful bother having her round all the time. I’d like to marry a lady who has trances, and only woke up once or twice a year.’”