The success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (post) encouraged Edith Nesbit to write an immediate sequel, The Wouldbegoods, featuring the same characters. If this time, she lacked the strong motivation that had made the previous book so compelling, she was still able to draw upon her humor to create an entire novel illustrating the theme of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The result, if less viciously entertaining than the first novel, still provides several laugh out loud moments — the chapter interpreting Chaucer is particularly priceless — along with giving Nesbit still more opportunities to skewer society and literary writers. Except, again, Rudyard Kipling.
The Wouldbegoods begins with another well-intentioned disaster led by the Bastable children, which results in their exile from the wealthy mansion where they have been living to a summer in a country home with Albert-next-door’s uncle, in this version shortened to Albert’s-uncle. Albert himself — that pathetic boy next door, and a minor character in the earlier novel — is unceremoniously dumped by Nesbit for two replacement children, Daisy and Denny, presumably on the basis that Denny is less pathetic than Albert and shows some potential for character growth and Daisy… somewhat helps make the numbers of boys and girls less lopsided. Somewhat, because although Daisy is clearly there to give Alice another girl to play with, Daisy ends up quietly sitting at home for many of the adventures, along with Dora, perhaps because Nesbit found juggling the conversations of eight separate children, one with a tendency to spout poetry and another still convinced of his complete superiority, too difficult.
In any case, once in the country, the eight children, distressed that adults think they are poorly behaved, decided to form a club focusing on good deeds, which they can then record as proof of their goodness. Not that everyone is excited about this — Oswald and Dicky, in particular, think it will be awful, but agree to go along with it. And so, the Bastables and friends begin hunting for Good Deeds to do, pretty much all of which go hilariously wrong. An attempt to weed the garden of a neighbor mourning for her soldier son leads to the destruction of that garden; an attempt to help out an angling competition and a seemingly stuck boat leads to the destruction of both, and so on.
Nesbit’s chief target here is the Sunday-school stories, so despised by Osward and Dicky, that filled such a large part of the children’s literature of the day. (One contributor across the pond, L.M. Montgomery, eventually rebelled against making money from short stories like this, and happily created Anne of Green Gables who offered some decidedly irreverent opinions on God.) In these stories, good children independently thought of good, kind things to do around the house or with neighbors, and were inevitably rewarded for their virtues. The more cynical and realistic Nesbit demonstrated that the good intentions of children will not necessarily be regarded in the same light by adults.
But that is not to say that The Wouldbegoods does not have its own serious moral message: a denunciation of hypocrisy and of, for the lack of the better phrase, I could call “good for show-off’s sake.” After all, the Bastables are not motivated by either actual goodness or generosity: they are trying to show off their good deeds and gain praise, and are shocked when the praise is not forthcoming. Oswald is the worst of the lot here — going on and on about not getting credit for a deed that, frankly, deserves none, and feeling that his one actual good deed in the entire book — admitting to a lie of omission — should not be recorded. It’s shameful, it upsets him, and he only wants it forgotten about. His siblings and friends, however, recognize it as a good deed — and carefully record it, partly because those are the rules of the club, partly because they have so few other genuinely good deeds to record.
A more dangerous scene helps to reinforce this idea. In the previous book, Oswald and his siblings had become successfully only when they had shared their wealth. Here, they have the opportunity to do the same thing, when a man along the road begs them for money. Oswald gives the man a coin — but not before showing him the rest of the coins in the purse. Oswald claims this is to let the beggar understand that Oswald can readily afford it. The beggar, of course, immediately assumes that this means that Oswald can readily afford to lose his entire purse, leading to one of the most dangerous moments in the entire book. Had Oswald simply handed over the coin, without showing off the rest of his money — or, simply shared the money, as in the first book — he and his siblings and friends would not have been in danger.
A second, related message is that children left on their own cannot be expected to be good. This is the second book where the Bastables are, for the most part, raising themselves, despite the presence of two adults in the house. One, however, is fiercely working on a novel, and the other is a heavily overworked housekeeper. This perhaps mirrors the situation in the Nesbit household, where the three adults theoretically watching the children instead focused on their own writing and research projects, leaving the children feeling neglected and distant. Oswald stoutly tells us that he does not feel neglected at all — although he and his siblings admit to missing their dead mother terribly — but the continued absence of his father speaks volumes. If not quite an apology from Nesbit to her children, it is, perhaps, as close as she could come to acknowledging her (frequently reported) deficiencies as a parent.
That said, I found it frustrating, if realistic, that after multiple failures, the children did not once think to ask a single adult for further information before attempting the next helpful deed. Partly, of course, this is their ages — Oswald, at thirteen, quite clearly thinks he knows everything he needs to know, whatever evidence to the contrary, and the youngest brother, H.O., doesn’t do much thinking at all. But I did find myself thinking that one or two of the other children would ask a few questions.
This leads into the related problem: the depiction of the eldest Bastable, Dora. In the previous book, Dora was one of the leaders of the Bastables, and the one providing — or at least, trying to provide — some moral guidance for her siblings, as well as looking after them and mending their clothing. If she was not always successful, that could be blamed on her age (14 or 15) and the fact that she was often summoned away from home by godparents and family friends, presumably in the hopes of increasing her socialization and preparing her for society, two issues that Oswald barely noticed.
If Dora was less forceful than her siblings, and more apt to follow society’s dictates on proper feminine behavior (in direct contrast to her younger sister Alice, who plays with the boys and clearly wants to be one), she had an inner strength and moral code that her brother, Oswald, begrudgingly recognized. In this book, however, Nesbit wavers between forgetting Dora’s age entirely, portraying her as a child of about 8 or 9, or hastily removing her from the story altogether on increasingly contrived excuses whenever she suddenly remembers that Dora is 15 — and should be acting like a teenager. Nesbit is more successful with the tomboy Alice, who manages to play with the boys, come up with half of the adventures, and still be a girl — something she’s not above using when talking to adults. Her siblings and friends, recognizing this, generally allow Alice to do most of talking — fairly successfully.
But speaking of those social dictates, Nesbit presents, for the very late Victorian/shifting into Edwardian era, a refreshing lack of social divisions. The formerly middle-class Bastables and their decidedly still middle class friends mingle happily with new friends and enemies of all classes, including tramps, farmers, and gentry. This was the sort of world that Nesbit, for all of her occasional snobbery and awareness of social dictates and divisions, could happily promote, at least in her fiction.
And if I rather missed Noel’s terrible poetry (enjoyable because Nesbit and Oswald know how awful it is) this time around, I still found much of the book hilarious. If you liked the previous one, you will certainly want to continue on to this.
One word of warning: Nesbit does use the n-word once as part of a commonly used phrase of the period, which may make some readers uncomfortable. The word has been deleted or changed to “fury” in some editions; the Gutenburg etext uses the original language.
Mari Ness is off to Gen Con this week, but her friends have promised to drag her away from the board games, eventually, or at least by sometime next week, to answer comments.