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.


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