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Riding the Wave of the Future

Friends—fellow citizens—I cannot disguise from myself or from you that this purple dragon is a poor penniless exile, a helpless alien in our midst…. The defense of our country have been swallowed up,” said Uncle James.

Everyone thought of the poor army….

Could we ever forgive ourselves if by neglecting a simple precaution we lost…our navy, our police, and our fire brigade? For I warn you that the purple dragon will respect nothing, however sacred.”

Everyone thought of themselves—and they said, “What is the simple precaution?”

The present the dragon expects,” said Uncle James cheerfully, “is a rather expensive one. But, when we give, it should not be in a grudging spirit, especially to visitors. What the dragon wants is a Princess. We have only one Princess, it is true, but far be it from us to display a miserly temper at such a moment.”

Nesbit’s stories also take account of contemporary economic realities. Her families tend to be in financial trouble, just as the Blands so often were. Father is ill, or has lost his job or been defrauded by a business partner (as actually happened to Hubert Bland); he may even, as in The Railway Children, be in prison. Mother too may be ill (in Five of Us—and Madeline she has had a nervous breakdown) or she may be away caring for a sick relative. Often, as a result of these domestic disasters, the children have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in bleak, unattractive lodgings. Even when the family is intact they are usually in cramped economic circumstances. The situation is most depressing if they live in town: for, as Nesbit remarks in Five Children and It, “London is like a prison for children, especially if their relatives are not rich.”

Even Nesbit’s classic fairy-tale characters may have to cope with Edwardian London. After the King and Queen in “Princess and Hedge-Pig” are turned out of their castle by an usurper, their daughter finds them “living in quite a poor way in a semi-detached villa at Tooting” where “the garden is small and quite full of wet washing hung on lines,” and the road is “full of dust and perambulators.”

In Nesbit’s fiction, urbanization is always associated with capitalist greed. The King in “Fortunatus Rex & Co.” establishes “the largest speculative builders in the world”:

They bought up all the pretty woods and fields they could get and cut them up into squares, and grubbed up the trees and the grass and put streets there and lamp-posts and ugly little yellow brick houses, in the hopes that people would want to live in them. And curiously enough people did. So the King and his Co. made quite a lot of money.

It is curious that nearly all the great fortunes are made by turning beautiful things into ugly ones. Making beauty out of ugliness is very illpaid work.

One of Nesbit’s recurrent themes is the aesthetic unpleasantness not only of jerry-built modern suburbs but of cities in general and especially of London, that “hateful, dark, ugly place.” Many of us are now so accustomed to the nostalgic, prettified BBC version of Edwardian London that we have forgotten, if we ever knew, that in the early years of this century much of the city was filthy and many of its inhabitants sick or starving; its streets were fouled with horse manure and urine, its river polluted, and its air often unfit to breathe. (The pea-soup fogs that lend mystery and charm to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were in fact a damp, poisonous smog.) In The Story of the Amulet, a rash wish brings the Queen of Babylon, whom the children have met in the past, to London. It appalls her.

But how badly you keep your slaves. How wretched and poor and neglected they seem,” she said, as the cab rattled along the Mile End Road.

They aren’t slaves; they’re working-people,” said Jane.

Of course they’re working. That’s what slaves are. Don’t you tell me. Do you suppose I don’t know a slave’s face when I see it? Why don’t their masters see that they’re better fed and better clothed?… You’ll have a revolt of your slaves if you’re not careful,” said the Queen.

Oh, no,” said Cyril; “you see they have votes—that makes them safe not to revolt. It makes all the difference. Father told me so.”

What is this vote?” asked the Queen. “Is it a charm? What do they do with it?”

I don’t know,” said the harassed Cyril; “it’s just a vote, that’s all! They don’t do anything in particular with it.”

I see,” said the Queen; “a sort of plaything.”

Later in the same book the Amulet takes the children into a future in which England has become a Fabian Utopia, a city of parks and flowers with clean air and an unpolluted Thames. People live in beautiful uncluttered houses and wear loose woolly clothes of the sort favored by William Morris and the Aesthetic Movement. There are no idle rich: everyone works and no one goes hungry; the schools are progressive and coeducational, and both men and women care for babies.

The typical Victorian fantasy for children, though it may begin in the real world, soon moves into some timeless Wonderland or country at the back of the North Wind. One of Nesbit’s most brilliant innovations was to reverse the process, and bring magic into modern London.3 She was the first to imagine, for a child audience, what might be the actual consequences of the delivery by magic carpet of a hundred and ninety-nine Persian cats to the basement dining-room of a house in Camden Town, or of the transformation of one’s brother into a ten-foot boy giant.

Even Nesbit’s short tales, though they may contain magicians and dragons and kings and queens, clearly take place in the present. The details of the stories, and the language in which they are told, are always up-to-date. Discarding the romantic diction of the fairy story and its conventional epithets, the golden hair and milk-white steeds, she uses contemporary juvenile slang and draws her comparisons from the Edwardian child’s world of experience. The dragon in “Uncle James” has “wings like old purple umbrellas that have been very much rained on,” and the court officials wear “gold coronets with velvet sticking up out of the middle like the cream in the very expensive jam tarts.” The hands of the unpleasant Miss Minto in Five of Us…are “like hot goldfishes, red and wet.”

Though we tend to take it for granted, the importance of magic in juvenile literature needs some explanation. Why, in a world that is so strange and wonderful and various, should children, to whom all this is new, want to read about additional, unreal wonders? The usual explanation is a psychological one: magic provides an escape from reality, or expresses fears and wishes. In the classic folk tale, according to this theory, fear of starvation becomes a witch or a wolf, cannibalism an ogre. Desire shapes itself as a pot that is always full of porridge, a stick that will beat one’s enemies on command, a mother who comes back to life as a benevolent animal or bird. Magic in children’s literature, too, can make psychological needs and fears concrete; children confront and defeat threatening adults in the form of giants, or they become supernaturally large and strong; and though they cannot yet drive a car they travel to other planets.

Magic can do all this; but it can do more. In the literary folk tale, it often becomes a metaphor for the imagination. Nesbit seems aware of this. “The Book of Beasts,” for instance, can be read as a fable about the power of imaginative art. The magic volume of its title contains colored pictures of exotic creatures which become real when the book is left open. The little boy who finds it releases first a butterfly, then a Bird of Paradise, and finally a dragon that threatens to destroy the country. If any book is vivid enough, this story says, what is in it will become real to us, and invade our world for good or evil. It is imagination, disguised as magic, that gives Nesbit’s characters (and by extension her readers) the power to journey through space and time: to see India or the South Seas, to visit Shakespeare’s London, ancient Egypt, or a future Utopia. It will even take them to Atlantis, or to a mermaid’s castle under the sea.

All these places, of course, are the traditional destinations of fantasy voyages, even today. But an imagination that can only operate in conventional fantasy scenery is in constant danger of becoming sentimental and escapist. At its worst, it produces the sort of mental condition that manifests itself in plastic unicorns and a Disney World version of foreign countries. True imaginative power like Nesbit’s, on the other hand, is strong enough to transform the most prosaic contemporary scene, and comedy is its best ally. Nesbit’s magic is as much at home in a basement in Camden Town as on a South Sea island, and it is never merely romantic. Though it grants the desires of her characters, it may also expose these desires as comically misconceived.

Five Children and It, for instance, is not only an amusing adventure story but a tale of the vanity of human—or at least juvenile—wishes. The children in it want to be “as beautiful as the day”; they ask for a sandpit full of gold sovereigns, giant size and strength, and instant adulthood. Each wish leads them into an appropriate comic disaster. When they become beautiful, for instance, their baby brother does not recognize them and bursts into howls of distrust, and they begin to quarrel among themselves—a not-unusual result of such transformations in real life. In every case, when the spell ends at sunset the children are greatly relieved. The reader, of course, has the pleasure of living out these granted wishes in imagination, plus the assurance that his or her unattainable desires are not so desirable after all; it is the same sort of double satisfaction that adults get from reading in People magazine of the discomforts of the rich and famous.

Sometimes Nesbit’s magical transformations are not so much imaginative projections of what might come to pass as metaphors for the actual state of things. Often they make literal the perception that many adults have no idea of what is going on with the children who are living with them, and possibly don’t even care. In The Enchanted Castle, for instance, Mabel finds a ring that makes her invisible; but it is clear that she was already more or less invisible to the aunt with whom she lives. Mabel’s aunt feels not the slightest anxiety about her disappearance, and readily swallows a madeup story about her niece’s having been adopted by a lady in a motorcar. The other children are shocked by this insouciance, but Mabel explains that her aunt’s mind is clogged with sentimental fantasy: “She’s not mad, only she’s always reading novelettes.” (We would call them popular romances.)

The same kind of thing occurs in Five Children and It. When, as the result of an impetuous wish, the children’s home is attacked by Red Indians, the cook and parlormaid remain quite unaware of what is happening. They continue to go about their domestic business with self-absorbed complacency, just as many adults do in the presence of children who are haunted by imagined terrors that are nevertheless real and threatening to them.

For Nesbit, comedy is the frequent ally of this sort of metaphoric magic. In “The Cockotoucan” the laughter of a magical bird transforms everything and everyone, in the process revealing their true nature. The unpleasant nursemaid Pridmore, for instance, becomes an Automatic Nagging Machine like the candy dispensers in London railway stations, “greedy, grasping things which take your pennies and give you next to nothing in chocolate and change.” (What comes out of Pridmore are little rolls of paper with remarks on them like “Don’t be tiresome.”) As the Cockotoucan continues to laugh, the king of the country is exposed as a vulgar, undersized fraud: “his crown grew large and brassy, and was set with cheap glass in the worst possible taste;…his sceptre grew twenty feet long and extremely awkward to carry.”

In the most striking episode of The Enchanted Castle, Nesbit’s Fabian convictions, her comic sense, and her use of magic as a metaphor work together. Mabel and the other children decide to put on a play, and because there are only three adults to watch it, they construct an audience out of old clothes, pillows, umbrellas, brooms, and hockey sticks, with painted paper faces. A magic ring brings these ungainly creatures to life, and they are transformed into awful caricatures of different types of contemporary adults. Eventually, most of the “Ugly-Wuglies” (as Gerald calls them) are disenchanted and become piles of old clothes again, but one remains alive. He is the sort of elderly gentleman “who travels first class and smokes expensive cigars,” and Jimmy, the most materialistic of the children, is rather impressed by him:

He’s got a motor-car,” Jimmy went on, “…and a garden with a tennis court and a lake and a carriage and pair…. He’s frightfully rich…. He’s simply rolling in money. I wish I was rich.”

And, since he has the magic ring, his wish is instantly granted:

By quick but perfectly plain-to-be-seen degrees Jimmy became rich…. The whole thing was over in a few seconds. Yet in those few seconds they saw him grow to a youth, a young man, a middle-aged man; and then, with a sort of shivering shock, unspeakably horrible and definite, he seemed to settle down into an elderly gentleman, handsomely but rather dowdily dressed, who was looking down at them through spectacles and asking them the nearest way to the railway station….

Oh, Jimmy, don’t!” cried Mabel desperately.

Gerald said: “This is perfectly beastly,” and Kathleen broke into wild weeping.

In his new persona Jimmy no longer knows the other children and is very unpleasant to them. But he turns out to be well acquainted with the elderly Ugly-Wugly, and they travel up to London together, followed by Jimmy’s desperate brother Gerald. There it appears that both Jimmy and the Ugly-Wugly have offices in the City complete with “a tangle of clerks and mahogany desks.” An office boy tells Gerald that in spite of their apparent friendship, the two stock-brokers “is all for cutting each other’s throats—oh, only in the way of business—been at it for years.”

The whole episode plunges Gerald into a kind of existential crisis:

[He] wildly wondered what magic and how much had been needed to give history and a past to these two things of yesterday, the rich Jimmy and the Ugly-Wugly. If he could get them away would all memory of them fade—in this boy’s mind, for instance, in the minds of all the people who did business with them in the City? Would the mahogany-and-clerk-furnished offices fade away? Were the clerks real? Was the mahogany? Was he himself real?

Since Gerald is a character in a book, the answer to this last question is No. He is literally no more real than the elderly Ugly-Wugly—he too is a creature composed playfully out of odds and ends and imagined into life. But however unreal Gerald may be, Nesbit is clearly suggesting, there is something even more unreal about the successful City man. Essentially, in spite of the pomps and circumstances of his exterior life, he is, as Gerald puts it, “only just old clothes and nothing inside.” He is an empty assemblage of expensive tailoring—and/or a greedy little boy who has grown up too fast.

It is also possible to see the magic in Nesbit’s tales as a metaphor for her own art. In many of her fantasies the children begin by using supernatural power in a casual, materialistic way: to get money and to play tricks on people. Gradually they find better uses for magic: in the final volume of Five Children, to unite the souls of an ancient and a modern scholar, and at the end of The Enchanted Castle to reveal the unity of all created things. Nesbit, similarly, first used her talents to produce hack work and pay the bills; only much later did she come to respect her gift and write the books for which she is remembered.

Nesbit’s magic can also be read as a metaphor for imaginative literature in general. Those who possess supernatural abilities or literary gifts, like the Psammead, are not necessarily attractive or good-tempered; they may be ugly, cross, or ridiculous. We do not know who will be moved by even the greatest works of art, or how long their power will last; and the duration and effect of magic in Nesbit’s stories are unpredictable in the same way. Certain sorts of people remain untouched by it, and it is often suspected of being a dream, a delusion, or a lie. The episode of the Ugly-Wuglies also suggests that things carelessly given life by the imagination may become frightening and dangerous; the writer may be destroyed by his or her second-rate creations—by the inferior work that survives to debase reputation, or by some casual production that catches the popular imagination and types its creator forever. And, though they were written nearly eighty years ago, Nesbit’s books express a common anxiety of writers today: that the contemporary world, with its speed of travel and new devices of communication, will soon have no use for literature. As practical Jimmy puts it in The Enchanted Castle: “I think magic went out when people began to have steam engines,…and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing.”

New as Nesbit’s stories are in comparison to most children’s books of her period, in some ways they also look back to the oldest sort of juvenile literature, the traditional folk tale. They recall the simplicity and directness of diction, and the physical humor, of the folk tale rather than the poetic language, intellectual wit, and didactic intention of the typical Victorian fairy tale.

Socially, too, Nesbit’s stories have affinities with folklore. Her adventurous little girls and athletic princesses recall the many traditional tales in which the heroines have wit, courage, and strength. And there is also a parallel with her political stance. The classic folk tales first recorded by scholars in the nineteenth century tend to view the world from a working-class perspective—not unnaturally, since most of them were collected from uneducated farmers, servants, and artisans. The heroes and heroines of these tales are usually the children of poor people. When they go out into the world to seek their fortunes they confront supernatural representatives of the upper classes: rich, ugly giants and magicians and ogres. Many of the traditional tales, like Nesbit’s, make fun of establishment figures. And, as has often been pointed out, the good kings and queens of the folk tale seem from internal evidence to be merely well-to-do farmers. (Literary retellings of these stories, however, from Perrault to the present, usually give their royalty a convincingly aristocratic setting.)

There is no way of knowing whether E. Nesbit went back to these traditional models consciously, or whether it was her own instinctive attitude to the world that made her break so conclusively with current conventions. Whatever the explanation, she was riding the wave of the future; and today, when writers like Mrs. Ewing and Mrs. Molesworth and Mrs. Mulock are gathering dust on the shelves of secondhand bookshops, her stories are still read and loved by children, and imitated by adults—including the present writer.

  1. 3

    In this, it has been pointed out, she may have been following the lead of a contemporary writer of adult fantasy, F. Anstey.

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