Aug 25 2011 12:00pm

Mining Tired Characters for Money: The New Treasure Seekers

The New Treasure Seekers (available from Gutenberg at the link) is not exactly a novel. Rather, it contains some additional stories of the Bastable children, narrated, as always, by the pompous and not-particularly self-aware Oswald. The stories follow no particular chronological order, and take place at various times: before the first book, between the first two books, and after the second book. And the stories follow no particular theme, other than “The Bastables misinterpret matters/are misinterpreted yet again,” familiar to readers of the first two books.

Which in turn leads to a a deadening sense of repetition, and several bits where Nesbit, perhaps in desperation, changes her all too probable children and adventures to considerably less probable ones. Which in turn makes The New Treasure Seekers by far the least satisfactory book of the series — which, after all, found much of its fun in showcasing realistic endings to unrealistic expectations.

Admittedly, some of the stories in the first two books had skirted the edges of plausibility — the encounters with the loan shark in the first book and the butcher in the first book; the encounter with the thieving tramp and the whole business with the boat lock in the second book. But in this book, we are expected to believe that the Bastable children would believe that their dog has been stolen by a Chinaman (Nesbit’s word), and, based on an exceedingly slim piece of evidence, cross — and be able to cross — the Thames and find themselves fighting a gang of Chinese boys — and winning. After we’ve seen, and been assured, that most of the Bastables get sick in boats.

And that’s the more probable part of that chapter. (Also problematic, if typical of the period: this chapter ends up featuring noble white kids rescuing a Chinese man from young Chinese boys and then enjoying the gratitude of various Chinese people — who are never mentioned again.) A later scene asks us to believe that a group of grown-ups will not question why an adult fortune teller has been unexpectedly replaced by a group of kids — or at least, not ask questions until said questions are required by the plot. A third scene that asks us to believe that officials searching for smuggled goods will be deterred by the presence of two kids and a jug of water.

Adding to the problem: the lack of a unifying theme and motivation. In the first book, the Bastables desperately wanted — and needed — to get money. In the second book, the Bastables desperately wanted — and needed — to be perceived as good. These motivations provided both suspense and a reason to cheer on the not always likeable kids. But here, apparently unable to think of anything that the Bastables could possibly want — including their greatest need, common sense — Nesbit largely just allows the kids to wander about committing random acts of mischief. And if the last few chapters are loosely connected by a need to recover from measles (which has only a slight physical effect on the kids) and a complete misinterpretation, as usual, about the financial situation of their hostess, that still leaves the most of the book without even this loose connection.

I said “as usual,” and perhaps that’s another part of the problem. As I noted, some of this book does occur at least chronologically before the other two books, but at least half occurs after the first two books — and none of the children, except perhaps Noel, writing slightly better poetry, and H.O., now demanding that he be treated on a more equal basis as his siblings, have matured at all. Dicky does take on a somewhat larger role, and in one story correctly denounces his younger siblings (who have, not at all incidentally, been doing something nearly identical to what Oswald did in an earlier book while desperate for money.) But Oswald and Dora, the two oldest children, have not changed in the slightest, and while that does allow Nesbit to continue using Oswald’s delightfully unselfaware voice, adding to the irony, it also adds to the book’s implausible feeling. Oswald and Dora are, after all, older teenagers by now, not children. And by now, the stories have settled into an all-too-tired pattern: Bastables attempt something which goes wildly wrong because of some mistaken assumptions on their part, a story retold over and over in the first two books, and again here.

The one slight change: in this book, most of the time, the Bastable children go unpunished. In one case, Dicky is overly punished for heading back to his house to grab one forgotten item — thus missing a much desired expedition and leading to an attempt at revenge (which, naturally fails). But that is a rare event in this book, which also helps rob the stories of tension.

Which is not to say that the book is a total failure. One chapter, where the Bastables attempt to form an Adoring Public for Albert’s uncle, the novelist, is admittedly brilliant, with the multiple layers of irony and humor that Nesbit had mastered so well in the earlier two books. (Perhaps irritation at editors and critics inspired her.) And if the book is less amusing than its predecessor, less amusing Nesbit can still be very amusing indeed.

And in one chapter, Nesbit plays with a bit of crossover fiction — sending the young Bastables right into her adult novel, The Red House, to do some Antiquarian business and a bit of exploring. (As I noted last week, this story is retold, from the adult point of view, in The Red House, which also allows readers to see the exceedingly inept letter from the Bastables requesting permission to see the house.)

If you haven’t quite tired of the amusing voice of Oswald Bastable, by all means pick this book up — with a warning that three of the chapters contain some potentially offensive material (the return of the n-word, some stereotypical comments on Gypsies, and some stereotypical depictions of Chinese characters in the hands-down least believable chapter in the book.) Otherwise, you are probably better off reading only chapter 8, “The Golden Gondola,” (the Adoring Public chapter), and then skipping the rest of this book entirely and continuing on to Edith Nesbit’s next novel, The Phoenix and the Carpet, sequel to Five Children and It.

Mari Ness’s Adoring Public is also deeply ironic but thankfully not beset by Bastable children. She lives in central Florida.

Chris Lough
1. TorChris
I love the probably accidental existentialism of this book's cover.
Bill Spangler
2. Bspangler
So that's where the name Oswald Bastable comes from...interesting. (For the record, Bastable--a parallel Bastable, I guess--is the star of three novels by Michael Moorcock: The Warlord of the Air; The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. He also made what I think is first comic book appearance in issue two of Elric: The Balance Lost.)
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@TorChris - Awesome, isn't it? Where does that ladder go?

@Bspangler - :: nods :: Nesbit's been tremendously influential on numerous fantasy and science fiction writers, leading some, like Moorcock and Lewis, to give a polite nod back to her.

I really wouldn't start reading about Oswald Bastable's origins from this book, though -- definitely go to the first Bastable book, The Treasure Seekers.
(still) Steve Morrison
4. (still) Steve Morrison
I had the impression Oswald was younger than that. In chapter nine of the first book, “The G.B.”, he says he is twelve years old:
‘I wish we could secure that partnership,’ said Oswald. He is twelve, and a very thoughtful boy for his age.
(still) Steve Morrison
5. Maricats
@Steve -- He's twelve in that book, so the voice is right for his age. But, that book takes place over about a year's period, so he's 13 in the next book, and some of the events in this book occur a few months to a year after the second book, making him at least 13, more likely 14. Nesbit is fairly clear that the various kids are continuing to have birthdays and so on, so they're definitely aging. Dora starts out at 14 and is 16 or 17 by the end.

"Older" teenagers probably wasn't the right word, but, still, they have hit their teens, and Dora, especially, should be acting older, and Oswald should definitely be more perceptive by now -- especially after an adult narrator in The Red House told us how clever and perceptive he is.

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