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E Nesbit (1858-1924)

I've just read 'The House of Arden' (1908) by E.Nesbit.  This is not one of her most well-known books but is very enjoyable.  It's about an ordinary brother and sister Edred (9) and Elfrida(11).  They are somewhat poor and have to take in lodgers! It takes place in 1908, and on the eve of his 10th birthday, Edred discovers himself to be the heir to the Arden title and the treasure (lost) that goes with it. The two children, with the aid of a magic white mole, the Mouldiwarp, travel back into the past in search of it.  They have exciting adventures in 1808 and in the time of the Gunpowder Plot, where Elfrida's knowledge of history gets her into trouble, and the children find themselves in the Tower of London. The book works very well for the most part, but I couldn't help feeling that  the magic was sometimes over-complicated, especially in the concluding chapters where the mechanics of enchantment become too elaborate. But the book is very entertaining - Nesbit is a wonderful storyteller - and contains a lot of her characteristic humour, especially in the person of the rather bad-tempered Mouldiwarp.  She's also superb in her believable depiction of children and their relationships.  Her Socialist beliefs - she and her husband Hubert Bland were founder members of the Fabian Society - emerge towards the end when Dick, a fellow time traveller from the past,
refuses to travel to 1908, and instances the many social injustices of those times as his reasons.  One of the delights of Nesbit's books is her ever-present authorial voice. She pops into the narrative frequently. It's like sitting on a sofa in firelight - in a sailor-suit (your sister in a pinafore)-with a favourite aunt who's telling you the story, and commenting on it at the same time.   This extract is absolutely typical Nesbit describing a difficult moment between brother and sister.

'How can you be so aggravating?' Elfida found suddenly that she was losing her temper. 'You can't be as stupid as that, really.'
'Oh, can't I?' said Edred. 'I can though, if I like. And stupider. - MUCH stupider,' he added darkly. 'You wait.'
'Edred,' said his sister slowly and fervently, 'sometimes I feel as if I MUST shake you.'
'You daren't,' said Edred.
'Do you dare me to?'
'Yes,' said Edred fiercelly.
Of course, you are aware that after that, by all family laws, Elfrida was obliged to shake him. She did, and burst into tears. He looked at her for a moment and - but no - tears are unmanly. I would not betray the weakness of my hero. Let us draw a veil, or take a turn round the castle and come back to them presently.

'The House of Arden', although fun, is not as quite as good as 'Five Children and It' or 'The Phoenix and the Carpet' or her masterpieces 'The Railway Children', or the stories about the Bastable children 'The Would-Be-Goods' or 'The Treasure Seekers'.  I have an especial fondness for 'The Enchanted Castle'. This has a chilling episode in which the children dress up brooms and brushes in hats and coats to be the audience for their play. These creatures, which the children call Ugly-Wugglies, come alive and chase them. Scary.
I wonder how much E Nesbit is read by modern children. I like to think, and hope, that she is part of every English child's literary luggage.

Re: E Nesbit (1858-1924)

Mikeharvey wrote:
I wonder how much E Nesbit is read by modern children. I like to think, and hope, that she is part of every English child's literary luggage.

I can assure you she isn't. Our daughter is now nearly 14, and no-one in her class would have so much as heard of Edith Nesbit, or any of the other classic children's authors we used to take for granted.

Yes, I'm afraid you hope in vain, Mike, though having been a schoolboy not that long ago myself I can vouch that she is at least still read by some children, which is more than one can say for other great authors of children's books who have fallen further by the wayside. I didn't read Nesbit as a child, but I am catching up as an adult.

My son, admittedly now 26 and perhaps no longer to be considered a child though he still reads books like Roald Dahl's Matilda and is very fond of the Harry Potter books, loved Five Children and It when I read it to him in his youth.   Perhaps these sort of books, as with books like Swallows and Amazons and Doctor Doolittle, are books better read to younger children rather than expecting them three or four years later to read them themselves.  

These older classics were books I read to them; I don't know if they revisited them later or not.  Louis was interested when I bought second-hand the other day another Ransome book - We didn't mean to go to Sea - but whether either of us will ever read it is another matter.

Cheers, Caro.

Hello Caro,
Arthur Ransome is an author I never enjoyed or finished, although I did try several times as a child and once as an adult. The world of sailing boats did nothing for me at all.

Isn't this who Byatt loosely wrote The Children's Book about?  I mean based on her life?

Michael,  I think our teacher must have read Swallows and Amazons to us.  I may well have mentioned before that I spent some time after that writing a story at home about a group of kids on boats - regardless of the fact that our family had nothing to do with boats and what I knew about them was precisely zilch, I imagine!  

My book ran to about 15 pages I think before I lost interest (but I was only 9 or 10 at the time).  I think I enjoyed Ransome all right when I read him to my son.  

Cheers, Caro.

Hello Caro, I'm sure A.S. Byatt had E Nesbit and her circle in mind when writing 'The Children's Book'.
Interesting to read about your novel written when a child.  Have you still got it?  Have you got any remnants of juvenile literary endeavour?  From time to time I come across stuff I wrote when a lad, stories, poems, plays etc and old school exercise books.  I was agreeably surprised when I re-read some of my essays.  
I wonder if other Readers still have their juvenilia tucked away somewhere.  What did they think of it when they re-read it?

I remember enjoying Nesbit's "The Enchanted Castle" as a boy of 9 or 10. There was a TV series of it a bit later. Other than that, I haven't read Nesbit. The only Arthur Ransome I've read is his "Bohemia in London", about artistic types in the Edwardian era. The Bohemian quarter at the time was principally Chelsea - now one of the most expensive postcodes in Britain!

I have a biography of E Nesbit around somewhere but I've never got around to reading it. Must try to do so sometime. I think she had quite an "interesting" life. Andrew Marr mentioned both The Railway Children and Wind In The Willows  in his current TV programe as escapist children's literature of the Edwardian era, but The Railway Children has politics in it - and poverty. The children steal coal, their mother is constantly worrying about the cost of everything, and their father is in prison for political reasons. And WITW has some dark things in it - those weasels, the war on our very doorstep....

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