Sep 22 2011 4:00pm

Adventures in Railroads: The Railway Children

With The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit abruptly abandoned the fantasy novels for children that she had been writing to return to a more realistic vein — if one that still, to a certain extent, followed the structure of a fairy tale. It’s been adapted several times for film and television, mostly by the BBC (I haven’t seen any of the adaptations), and I’m trying to figure out why I just didn’t like it very much. Earlier this year, an antiquarian bookseller and a granddaughter of mostly forgotten novelist Ada Graves accused Nesbit of plagiarizing the book from one of Graves’ novels, and although I don’t entirely buy this theory, it hasn’t made me any fonder of the book.

Roberta—called Bobbie—Peter, and Phyllis are living quite happily with their parents in a London suburb until two mysterious gentlemen arrive one evening. Their father abruptly leaves the house, and the children find themselves moving to an old house in the country with their mother, experiencing genuine poverty for the first time. (They can have either jam or butter, but not both, and they cannot afford to keep their house warm.) Their mother begins working if not always successfully as a writer, banging out quick stories and novels at rapid speeds while complaining about editors who reject her tales. (Some of you may sympathize.) Meanwhile, the children, mostly banished from the house so that they will not distract their mother, find themselves enthralled by the sight of a nearby railway.

That railway not only provides an abundance of trains to watch, but some new adult friends and adventures, as well as an opportunity to help their parents. It’s all charming and sweet and only occasionally wildly and improbably coincidental and I’m still not entirely certain how the Russian writer just happened to end up there, although that does prepare readers for the even more unlikely coincidence at the end of the book. And — perhaps one reason for the book’s popularity — the children triumph in the end largely because of friendliness and politeness, in a nice message of the importance of being kind to others. As I said, all very charming and sometimes even amusing. And yet.

Part of the problem is the little things. For instance, at one point, Nesbit has Mother say, “Back in the days of the Tsar….” I blinked, and had to check, but yes, this book was published in 1906, shortly after Tsar Nicholas II had survived his first revolution, but while he was still on the throne. Perhaps Nesbit, writing during the Russo-Japanese war and the 1905 Revolution, assumed that the tsarist regime would have ended by the time the book was published, but it still seems an odd thing to say. This is followed by other small oddities. For instance, given that the mother is supposedly desperately trying to free her spouse from jail on suspicion of spying for the Russians, it makes little sense for her to increase that suspicion by welcoming a Russian into her home and then writing letters on his behalf.

Nor was I thrilled by a small passage where the kindly (male) doctor lectures Peter on the importance of being kind and protective towards women and girls because, this is what male animals do, and because girls and women are softer and weaker. It’s not just biologically questionable, but problematic in a book where Bobbie has been the single most heroic character, displaying unexpected strength, courage and bravery, including remaining behind in a dark tunnel with an injured character — and insisting on saving this character to begin with. Bobbie also chooses to protect and care for her siblings. Peter, meanwhile, steals coal. (And even after “realizing” this is wrong, tries to justify it later.) Bobbie’s not the one in need of protection here.

And part of my problem is that if these children are old enough to go running over the country on their own, watching and saving railways, they are old enough to be told that their father has been imprisoned — especially since their father has been imprisoned under false pretenses. This isn’t, “I don’t know how to tell you that your father is a murderer.” This is, “The government screwed up, your father is in jail, please don’t bug me when I’m trying to write so we can eat.” To be fair, the children are pretty good about the not bugging her part, regardless of not knowing the reason, but I still felt that leaving them in limbo, rather than telling them the truth, was cruel.

And the failure not to disclose the truth about the father until later in the book robs the book, I think, of some of its impact. We do get a heartbreaking scene when Bobbie finally and accidentally learns the truth. But we lose both a triumphant scene in the last pages where the children finally learn the truth, and a book long quest to free their father — which may seem beyond their capacities, but then again, this is a book where the children successfully prevent a deadly train accident and rescue a kid from a railway tunnel. That quest could have worked both as a theme and a plot device.

The plot device here, instead, is railways, and although I like trains, and find that Nesbit provides some fascinating details about the operation of early 20th century trains, it’s just not enough. Nesbit does add another connection, that of poverty, charity and pride, with virtually everyone in the book unable to accept charity unless they are assured that absolutely, positively this is not charity. This leads to another problem scene, where the mother lies to her doctor about the family finances. I get pride, yes, but her lack of finances means two things: she’s deceiving the none too well off doctor, who is hoping to get a paying patient, and, even more critically, she can’t follow his medical advice, but fails to tell him this. I don’t know what the doctor might have advised, given the financial situation, but he cannot treat her effectively if she is lying about her ability to follow his treatment plan.

I did enjoy some parts of this book — the fact that the mother’s writing career, seemingly snatched up out of desperation, contains several bumps. The positive message that yes, life can be restarted even after a disaster, and that compassion comes in many forms. The quiet scene with Bobbie and Jim in the dark tunnels, trying to keep themselves from despair. The realistic squabbles and outright fights between the children, who, in pure Nesbit fashion, have more than a couple of flaws. The scene where the three children flag down and stop the oncoming train, genuinely well thought out, by both Nesbit and her characters, and thrilling.

But overall, this is one of my least favorite of Nesbit’s books, and if you’ve never read her works before, I can’t recommend starting here.

About the plagiarism: as an earlier commenter on these posts noted, in March of this year, Nesbit was accused of lifting several incidents of her book from Ada Graves’ The House by the Railway. Having read the articles, I am skeptical, for various reasons:

First, and most importantly, although news reports initially said that that The House by the Railway was published in 1896 — ten years before The Railway Children — that turns out to be the publication start date of the series that the book appeared in, not the actual book. Both books were published in 1906, and then as now, books took some time to get from the typewriter into actual print. Nesbit was a notoriously fast writer, but I am still skeptical that she had time to read House by the Railway AND plagiarize from the book AND get it into print the same year.

Second, the first similarity of the books — that they begin with the death or disappearance of the father — is not, on closer appearance, all that similar (in The Railway Children, the father is most definitely not dead), and is beyond that a very standard plot device of Nesbit, who preferred to write about children whose father figures were generally nowhere in sight.

The next similarities, using red flags/petticoats to stop a train, and getting rewarded with gold wristwatches elsewhere, could very well be coincidental. After all, if you want a train to stop, chances are, you want to wave something red at it — a petticoat in Nesbit’s book; a jacket in Graves’ book. And giving gold wristwatches as rewards were a fairly standard staple in fiction at the time. Nesbit herself credited the theme to her train-obsessed son Paul Bland, which seems plausible enough.

None of this is enough to completely rule out plagiarism, of course. Nesbit’s feat of pushing out four novels in 1906 (two adult and two children’s books) is enough to raise eyebrows. And Nesbit was certainly not above plagiarizing her own books for material and scenes, not to mention mining ideas from H.G. Wells and others. But for the most part, I’m inclined to believe that this was mostly coincidence — though I welcome disputes in the comments.

Mari Ness likes trains more than she liked this book. She lives in central Florida.

1. EmmaPease
Iirc the Russian welcomed into the house was a Russian dissident (i.e., someone opposed to the very government the father supposedly was selling secrets to). Admittedly the authorities can't always tell the difference.
2. a1ay
And part of my problem is that if these children are old enough to go
running over the country on their own, watching and saving railways, they are old enough to be told that their father has been imprisoned

I suspect people in 1906 wouldn't have agreed. In 2011, it seems obvious that children of a certain age can be told about (say) their parents getting divorced on grounds of infidelity, but still can't be allowed to spend all day running round without adult supervision for fear of getting injured. In 1906 the calculus probably went the other way. And imprisonment - even unjust - would have been disgraceful.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@EmmaPease - You're correct about the Russian welcomed into the house, but again, give

@a1ay - Full agreement that imprisonment would have been disgraceful, and that in 1906 children were granted considerably more freedom to run around than most children are today.

But that's also my problem with this reading -- in 1906, or at least in Nesbit's novels and the tradition that she spawned, children were not protected from hearing hard truths. The Bastables may not be aware of just how bad finances are, but they do know their father is in severe financial trouble and has been cheated by a business partner. The kids in The House of Arden are told in tedious detail about their family financial and other issues (the recital bores them) and so on.

Especially given that the mother in this book believes, correctly, that the father has been unjustly imprisoned, and there's an excellent chance that the kids will find out by mistake, I find it difficult to believe that she wouldn't explain what had happened, and add that she was doing everything possible to get the father out of jail. This isn't a case of explaining to the kids, look, your father really screwed up; this is, people believe that your father did something hideously wrong, but he didn't. He's innocent, and never forget that.

The kids know something is very wrong - after all, they've just had their entire lives upended -- but not the reason, and not knowing is a terrible stress on them. And forcing Bobbie to keep secrets from her siblings, who are also her playmates and friends, just seems cruel.
4. a-j
This was my favourite Nesbitt as a child though I don't remember the scenes you mention and I agree with your issues with them. The Lionel Jeffries film version (with Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbens) is charming and, if memory serves, never tells us why the father has been imprisoned, just that he has. There was also an excellent radio 'sequel' on the BBC a few years back set after WWI with Bobbie caring for the now very ill mother, Peter a shell-shocked veteran and Phyllis a flapper.
5. OtterB
You know, I love this book. It's high on my list of comfort reads. I can see why the points you object to put you off, but my mileage varies. The thing about not telling the children that their father is in prison, and about refusing charity, all seem typical of the time to me. Peter stealing the coal and trying to justify it, reads to me like a setup for the kind of enjoyment kids get from something like the Amelia Bedelia books - the young reader will know better and will be shouting "No, don't do it!" in the background. Even the doctor's sexism didn't bother me - perhaps because it wasn't at all "girls can't do anything interesting and must sit and be quietly decorative."

I think I love the book because of the way the kids become part of the community along the railway, making a variety of friends and giving to the community and getting back from it. There is conflict, but there's no on-screen evil (there's the person who framed the father, and there's the background to the Russian dissident's story); there is niceness but it's not piously saccharine.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@a-j Hmm. That might be part of the problem that I'm having with the book -- like you, I first read this when I was a kid, and I was expecting magic, not trains, so that childhood disappointment may be lingering, coloring my impression of the book.

I've only heard good things about the BBC adaptations, but for whatever reason I never got around to seeing them.

@OtterB - Huh. Part of my problem with the book is that some bits are decidedly saccharine - not as much as in Harding's Luck, but much more than in many of her other books. But you're right that Nesbit does handle the plot of the kids becoming part of the community quite well.
7. Julie K
I remember reading _The Wonderful Garden_ as a kid, and being sure that eventually something magic would happen. I was quite disppointed that it never did. (It was easier to make this mistake with Nesbit, because she has other books that start out as straight fiction and then after a couple of chapters something magic happens.)
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@Julie K -- I'll be posting about The Wonderful Garden in a few more weeks, I think -- we still have a few more of the more magical books to get through (The Enchanted Castle, The House of Arden, and Harding's Luck where the magic seems to be making people believe that the Jacobean era was some sort of nirvana for social relations, which, er, no). But yeah -- it takes a few chapters for magic to appear in both Wet Magic and The House of Arden, which means readers don't initially know whether they are going to be realistic or magical books, and it takes seemingly forever for any magic to appear in Harding's Luck at all. (Harding's Luck is not one of my favorites for multiple reasons.)
9. (still) Steve Morrison
Thanks for researching the plagiarism charge. Having now seen the details, I don't grasp how this could rise to the level of plagiarism, even assuming that Nesbit really did copy all these story elements from Graves. That is, I'd describe it as "being influenced by" Graves instead. Nobody accuses C. S. Lewis of stealing from Nesbit herself when he has, say, an ancient queen appear in Edwardian London and cause havoc, or a set of bickering children explore a magical world!
10. Julie K
Ooh, The Enchanted Castle, The House of Arden, and Harding's Luck are my favorite Nesbits so I'm looking forward to those. I read Harding's Luck before House of Arden (I have a knack for reading books in the wrong order) and adored it at the time. (What, you don't think poor people were better off in 1608 than in 1908? Shocking.)
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@(still) Steve Morrison -- I have no doubt that Nesbit was influenced by numerous books, including any depictions of Julius Caesar, who tends to show up on a regular basis as a minor character in this book.

But having just finished Wet Magic again, my doubts really grew -- whatever else you can say about that book (and I have a lot of negative things to say about it) the battle between the books scenes show that Nesbit was very, very familiar with a wide variety of 19th and early 20th century books, popular and unpopular (and strongly preferred Sir Walter Scott and Dickens to Austen, the Brontes, and George Eliot), including authors now so obscure they don't even rate a bad Wikipedia entry, but Ada Graves is not one of them. In addition, by the time Ada Graves published her novel, Nesbit's children had grown, and the contemporary novels Nesbit refers to are all her own or adult novels. (By most accounts Nesbit just didn't like children and did not go out of her way to talk to them after her own grew up.)

Which again, is not to say that Nesbit wasn't very strongly influenced by other works -- she clearly was -- but to say that this particular charge seems a bit of a stretch.

@Julie K - I think The Enchanted Castle is one of Nesbit's best books - I love the scene with the statues - but I may be biased because that was a childhood favorite and I loved the way Gerry kept calling himself the great detective. I encountered The House of Arden and Harding's Luck much later and, well, neither are favorites at all, partly because Nesbit was intelligent and educated enough to know that claiming that 1608 England was some sort of joyful time for the lower classes is just completely, completely wrong.
12. Tehanu
I think it is a mistake for you as a critic to assume that what the doctor said to Peter was necessarily in agreement with what E. Nesbit herself would have said. In fact, I think that his sentiments would have been much more believable to contemporary readers than if he had made some sort of feminist speech.

But then The Railway Children is my favorite of all her books so perhaps I'm just annoyed that you didn't like it.
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
@Tehanu - Oh, I know that annoyed feeling of "what, how could you NOT like this?" so well. Hopefully we can both agree on the wonders of The Enchanted Castle and The Magic City? (The Enchanted Castle is my favorite.)

And yes, I think his speech was perfectly believable to contemporary readers; I suspect, given statements made elsewhere by Nesbit, that this was a speech she heard frequently. But usually she undercuts these sorts of speeches one way or another, or uses them to show that women and girls of her time were not always delighted with gender restrictions and stereotypes. I guess I was frustrated to see more and more of this showing up in her work -- even as Nesbit herself continued to defy social and gender conventions in her own life.
14. John Cowan
As a child, my very favorite line from this book was the mother's reaction to selling a story: "Hooray, hooray. Here's a sensible Editor." It gave me the impression that such creatures were very rare.

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