— And something wonderful did happen exactly four days after she had said this.
I wish I could say it was three days after, because in fairy tales it is always three
days after that things happen. But this is not a fairy story, and besides, it really
was four and not three, and I am nothing if not strictly truthful.
Edith Nesbit had her tongue well in her cheek, of course, as she came to the end of her children's classic, published 110 years ago in 1906. After all, this story of three children forced into sudden poverty with their mother when their father is arrested has its full share of romance: the children thrive in their new environment next to a railway cutting, they make friends everywhere they go, and by a wonderful coincidence one of these friends turns out to be exactly the person who can help them. And yet, the enduring strength of the book has less to do with its romance than its truth. This is a real family, under real conditions, talking as people really talked—a far cry from the magical time-travel of THE STORY OF THE AMULET which preceded it.
Though equally fascinated by steam trains, I did not read the book as a child. I ordered it now as a footnote to Helen Dunmore's recent novel EXPOSURE, which takes THE RAILWAY CHILDREN as its narrative frame—something I naturally didn't know until it was pointed out by friends. Dunmore's focus is primarily on why the father was arrested; with Nesbit, this is simply a fact that the reader must conjecture in the opening pages; it is not until quite close to the end that we hear any details (and discover that the case is very close to Dunmore's). But I think she is right to say nothing up front; it reproduces exactly the child's feeling of being carted off to new places and situations without understanding the adult reason behind it. It also gives a clear foundation for their resilience: their task is simply to help their mother get the new cottage in order, take chores off her hands, and make the most of their new environment.
The three children are Roberta (12), Peter (10), and Phyllis (8). But the author explains on page 30:
— I am tired of calling Roberta by her name. I don't see why I should. No one else
did. Everyone else called her Bobbie, and I don't see why I shouldn't.
So we get to know them by boys' names: Bobbie, Peter, and Phil. This matches the children's active independence, yet Nesbit does not turn the girls into tomboys; her gender balance is carefully thought out, and breaks the usual pattern of an elder boy leading the girls. Peter is there for physical strength and mechanical ingenuity, but Roberta is the one with the most responsibility, the one closest to her mother, the thinker, and in many ways the protagonist of the book. It is she who suggests that they get up early on their first morning, light the fire, lay the table, and put the kettle on for breakfast. After which, they go outside, discover the railway, and lose track of time:
— They had made an excellent fire, and had set the kettle on it at about half past five.
So that by eight the fire had been out for some time, the water had all boiled away,
and the bottom was burned out of the kettle. Also they had not thought of washing
the crockery before they set the table.
But their mother is nothing if not resilient too, and soon the children are off to visit the little rural station and make the first of their many friends. Even here, Nesbit values truth. Very few of the adults who come to help them fall in love with their cuteness at first sight; the children make mistakes and have to work on repairing them. Peter makes friends with the Station Master only after he has been caught "mining" coal from the heap outside the station and has duly apologized. Perks, the porter who tells them so much about trains, is as easily offended as befriended, and the children risk upsetting him when they plan something nice for his birthday. The bargee whom they encounter on the nearby canal behaves like an aggressive bully, and it is only when they help him in an unexpected crisis that they see his good side. I was also struck by the fact that while the book is naturally full of adventures, they are mostly of a small and believable kind. The biggest of them, when they save a train from crashing, is not saved for some grand climax, as another author might do, but placed before the half-way point in the book. It is the simplicity and naturalness of the book that makes it great—not its romance but its truth.
In reviewing THE STORY OF THE AMULET, I pointed out Nesbit's occasion tendency to insert herself into the story as a moralist, generally to advance her socialist beliefs. There is much less of that here. A Russian emigré who shows up in the village turns out to be a celebrated leftist writer, but little else is made of it. There is one slightly awkward scene where the local doctor tell Peter how to treat girls, but in general the life-lessons are introduced subtly in the everyday course of events; this is indeed an improving book to read, but the kids will never know it! Of course, Nesbit does introduce herself frequently into the action as author, with charming effect as in my first two quotations above. The mother who spends her days writing stories for sale while the children roam free in the countryside is Nesbit herself, who passed through some hard times of her own. Which leads to a delightful example of what we would now call meta-fiction:
— "I say," said Peter, musingly, "wouldn't it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were
writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim's legs get
well at once and be all right tomorrow, and Father come home soon and — "
Little does Peter know, they are already in a book, and their mother is indeed making all sorts of jolly things happen. But she is not doing it the easy way. And that is what makes this more than a footnote to a later novel, more than a charming period piece, but a true classic, as satisfying now as in the year it was written.