Sep 8 2011 12:00pm

Time Traveling for Wishes: The Story of the Amulet

Looking for fairies in London pet shopsThe wage-system of modern England is a little difficult to explain in three words even if you understand it—which the children didn’t.

The Story of the Amulet opens on an unexpected note, with Edith Nesbit cheerfully informing readers that the first book of this series, Five Children and It, had ended in a “most tiresome” way. (The perhaps unexpected long term result of this was that it took me years to read Five Children and It, since I encountered The Story of the Amulet first and took Nesbit at her word. I note this as a caution to authors planning on inserting derogatory comments about their earlier works into any later novel.) To correct this error, Nesbit has the four children meet the Psammead, that magical, wish-granting creature, in a pet shop, quite by accident for a second time. The Psammead, apparently deciding that even they can’t be as bad as the pet shop, begs the children to buy him.

And although the Psammead still can’t grant their wishes, it can and does urge the children to buy an amulet with magical powers. The amulet does have one tiny, teensy problem: it’s broken. To fix it, the four children are going to have to do a bit of traveling in time and space, and also try chatting with the upstairs neighbor, an antiquities expert.

It’s more than probable that this shift into a somewhat more science fictional slant was inspired by her growing acquaintance with science fiction master H.G. Wells — not just because Nesbit was also writing a time travel story (admittedly a considerably sillier one, despite its many harsh criticisms of Edwardian society), but also because Nesbit not only quotes Wells approvingly, but gives him a small and, er, rather laudatory cameo role in the book. (Wells, incidentally, chased after Nesbit’s adopted daughter in a decidedly creepy fashion, although he was older, married and sleeping with other women at the time. This was one reason contemporaries questioned Nesbit’s parenting skills, however gifted her understanding of children.)

But this shift also allowed Nesbit to amuse herself with journeys to Egypt, Babylon, Atlantis (the Psammead strongly disapproves of this venture, since water will kill him); the camps of Julius Caesar (where Jane accidentally encourages Caesar to invade Britain); Egypt again (with food riots); a utopian future (whose citizens worship the memory of H.G. Wells!); the cloth dyers of Tyre; several added adventures that annoyingly, Nesbit only hints at, but doesn’t tell (she could always sell these as separate stories and earn additional income); a magic lantern show; and what is hands down the strangest ending of any of her books.

And the varying settings also gave Nesbit the chance to return to her sometimes none too subtle critiques of Edwardian society and economics, most notably in the second trip to Egypt, where the children encounter rioters who sound suspiciously like working class rioters in Edwardian England, mouthing statements that sound suspiciously like those penned by the socialist society Nesbit helped to create. She also tells us how many children are burned to death each year in England (3000), and outlines the dangers of failing to pay living wages.

Nesbit’s descriptions of ancient places are not, to be sure, particularly accurate (I am trying to figure out just how pineapples showed up in ancient Babylon, as but one of many problems.) And she merrily skips out of the linguistic issue that no one in these past cultures can reasonably be expected to know or understand modern English and vice versa by airily announcing that she can’t explain it; it’s just one of those time and space things. (Which does not prevent her from also having fun with cultural and other misunderstandings whenever the children do attempt to explain how things work in London.) And I would think that a utopia so focused on and delighting in education would be more aware of historical realities and facts. But as I noted, this is less a book of details, and more of grand ideas.

She also finally allowed the four children to develop slightly separate personalities. (It only took three books, although I guess you could argue that some of this started in the second book.) In this book, Jane, already the least enthusiastic of the children, becomes genuinely terrified and uncooperative. While the others regard their adventures as high entertainment and well worthwhile, Jane does not, and three books in, she frequently stalks away from her brothers and sisters. While this makes Jane considerably less fun, it allows her older sister, Anthea, tactful, intelligent, and brave, to shine on more than one occasion with her quick thinking. Cyril and Robert, too, have learned some practical ways to deal with magic gone wrong.

The quest for the amulet provides a strong way for Nesbit to link all of these stories together. And the children’s very real desire to be reunited with their missing parents gives the book an emotional depth that its immediate predecessor just didn’t have. Nonetheless, I’m not entirely sure that this book always works. Part of the problem lies in the details: although Nesbit had certainly done her research on some of the ancient cultures, none of them manage to feel particularly real. (It doesn’t help that several minor characters keep noticing that they are experiencing a dreamlike feeling.) A larger part of the problem is the ending, a science fiction/fantasy concept that Nesbit doesn’t quite pull off.

On the other hand, as an early experiment with a time travel story, this works well, with Nesbit already exploring just how much (or little) time travelers can change the past and the future, leavened with sharp, often hilarious dialogue, and equally sharp social observations. (And the bit with H.G. Wells is hilarious.) If not one of Nesbit’s best works, it’s definitely worth picking up. Just don’t believe what it says about Five Children and It.

Mari Ness has decided that she would prefer her magical objects nicely unbroken, thank you very much. She lives in central Florida.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
I thought I had read this book before--the illustration, and premise, certainly seem familiar--but reading the description of the actual contents, I don't remember any of the stories within. Off to the library I go!
Lenny Bailes
2. lennyb
I thought this was the third in the series. Did you already review "The Phoenix and the Carpet" and I missed it?

I liked the story a lot when I first read it, although I think my 12-year old self missed most of the political nuances. Are you familiar with Hilda Lewis's "The Ship That Flew?" It's a magic four-children-and-time-travel adventure in a similar vein that was originally published in the 1930s.
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@fadeaccompli - I don't know that any of the individual stories are as memorable as the ones from Five Children and It, except for the Julius Caesar bit (which is pretty funny) and the trip to the future. But it's worth a reread in any case.

@lennyb - Yes, you're right, it is the third of the series -- I reviewed the second one last week:

I don't think I've read "The Ship That Flew," but now I'm intrigued.
Doug M.
4. Doug M.
H.G. Wells was a playa, no question. You probably wouldn't want him around your teenage daughter. IMS Rebecca West took up with him at seventeen or so, when he was forty-something.

Doug M.
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Doug M - By many accounts, Nesbit didn't care that Wells was around her teenage daughter, despite his tendencies, and certainly encouraged him to come around. And by some accounts the daughter reciporcated because of unresolved jealousies/hostilities towards Nesbit.

Reading all of this has made me decide that I have to read a biography of Wells just as soon as I finish this current biography of Thackeray. Who also slept around but not to anywhere the same degree.
Doug M.
6. Pam Adams
I love this book- the children are much more developed and who couldn't love Jimmy the archaeologist? (Can you imagine the Bastables making a 'sorry present' for their nurse?)

Nesbit gets in plenty of licks at current society. I think the most poignant are in the 'Little Black Girl' chapter. To my surprise, the black referred to Imogen's dress- she's in mourning due to the death of her mother. (The father is previously dead) No one wants her and now she's headed for the workhouse. Imogen's comments when she sees the 'woman who looks like Mother' are telling.

Mother wouldn't never a-beat me if she lived here- I don't suppose there's a public house nearer than Epping.

Having her rescued through the Amulet is a wonderful thing. When Imogen and her 'new' mother find each other, we see something we didn't see in the earlier books- magic used for good.

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