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Monday, January 09, 2012


First sentences: Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

The house was three miles from the station, but, before the dusty hired hack had rattled along for five minutes, the children began to put their heads out of the carriage window and say, "Aren't we nearly there?"

Now there is the first sentence of someone who's travelled with children.

One of the most influential and charming of children's authors, Edith Nesbit is a standard-bearer for the friendly, non-instructive authorial tone. No concern to be 'improving' here; Nesbit's address is direct, chatty, friendly, almost maternal. The sentence bowls along merrily, subclause rattling upon subclause, breathlessly informative.

Immediately clear is one of Nesbit's most striking features: the cheerful ordinariness of things. These are not aristocratic children but middle-class ones, and not wealthy: they travel by railway and by hired coach, and not even a particularly clean one at that. These are not implausibly selfless or mature children: journeys are a matter of lively impatience. Normal surroundings are filled with physical energy - and Nesbit observes this with amused tolerance. The sentence notes that the children are being a little silly in their questioning - even a child new to counting can calculate the numbers 'three' and 'five' and work out that three miles and five minutes do not add up to a 'Yes, we're nearly there' - but the sentence is full of motion and humour. The carriage rattles and is dusty, an object in use, no more perfect than the children. The children put their heads out of the window, enthusiastically participating in their environment in a naturalistic, well-observed gesture. All is normal. The modern reader may find the carriage quaint, but the energy of the scene is a pair of open arms to children: these characters are no more saintly than you, but Nesbit cares for them. You are all right.

Nesbit is a writer of incident, small moments, small mistakes leading to entertaining disasters. As we meet her children, they are already in the middle of a mild mistake, already excited at the relatively undramatic (by storybook standards, though not by real-life ones) experience of moving to a new house, already doing what they will do throughout. Her imagination is, once it gets to work, vivid and witty, but her plots revolve around the hair-clutching disasters that arise from the interaction of these ordinary, faulty children and the ancient magics they trip over in their ordinary, faulty way. The drama arises not from the magic itself, but from what happens after the magic - how to deal with being beautiful as the day when the cook doesn't recognise you and won't let you in the house, how to deal with being hungry when your magic wings have flown you into being thoroughly lost, how to cope with everyone wanting to kidnap your baby brother after a moment's irritated wishing to be free of his company. Magic upends the world, but it's wordly reality that creates all the character interaction, and we start as we mean to go on: excitable, jostling, eager.

There's a fundamental kindness in Nesbit's writing, an ability to address without patronising, that's a lot subtler than it looks. Surroundings and children interact, and silly behaviour is noted but not condemned - indeed, treated as normal and natural under the circumstances. After all, if we're coming from the station then we must just be off a train, and with three miles of rattling dust to go through, impatience is something that even an adult might feel. Behaviour might not always be sensible, but the feelings that provoke it have reasons for existing, and those reasons are not unreasonable. Nesbit does not necessarily excuse, but she forgives, because she understands, and encourages us to understand too. For all her lightness of wit, the little cramps and rubs of life are treated with respectful seriousness.

Children, in short, are treated as human beings. Nesbit does not forget that they are children, and shows them in tumbling motion with their child-ness fully on display, but neither does she forget that children are people and people, whatever their age, usually have a reason for doing what they do. Life is real and important to these characters, just as it is for us.

With Edith Nesbit babysitting us, we can all relax.

I'm rather fond of the title of this book.

"It," the Psammead, is a mysterious and fascinating creature. But the Five Children come first, it's their story, in all their ordinary, faulty, excitable, eager glory.

And it is, in fact, five children; the four older siblings deal with the magic and its consequences directly, but even the baby is allowed to be a person.
Yes, that's rather charming, isn't it? Nesbit is one of those writers who makes something look easy when it really isn't; C.S. Lewis, for instance, is heavily influenced by her but his understanding of children comes across as leaden compared with hers. (Which is one reason I never liked him; that conspiratorial tone comes across as extremely patronising if it isn't backed up with genuine understanding and respect for children.)
Yes, I did wonder if you had Lewis in mind with that paragraph!

Did you ever read any of Edward Eager's books? They were quite popular when I was young, but seem to be rather out of fashion now, although I was pleased to see a few of them on my nieces' bookshelf.

His description in Half Magic of his own four ordinary children reading The Enchanted Castle was what sent me looking for Nesbit books in the first place when I was a kid:

"And now yesterday The Enchanted Castle had come in, and they took it out, and Jane, because she could read fastest and loudest, read it out loud all the way home, and when they got home she went on reading, and when their mother came home they hardly said a word to her, and when dinner was served they didn't notice a thing they ate. Bedtime came at the moment when the magic ring in the book changed from a ring of invisibility to a wishing ring. It was a terrible place to stop, but their mother had one of her strict moments; so stop they did."

I'd had bedtimes like that!
I have Five Children and It somewhere in my bookshelf from childhood. I hardly remember it, but this breakdown makes me want to go reread it.

I'd had bedtimes like that!

I had bedtimes, and mornings and afternoons like that. I'd sit on my bed half-dressed and read. After a while, my mom started charging me a nickle every time she saw me reading when I was supposed to be doing something else. She loved me reading, of course, but not when I was supposed to be getting ready for school. The punishment certainly didn't discourage me - she had to raise the price to a quarter because I wouldn't stop!
I've read Eager as an adult and he still works. And the books are still in print (or were a few years ago)--I used to recommend them a lot when I was working in the bookstore.-Fraser
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