It is all very wonderful and mysterious, as all life is apt to be if you go a little below the crust, and are not content just to read newspapers and go by the Tube Railway, and buy your clothes ready-made, and think nothing can be true unless it is uninteresting.
The House of Arden begins on familiar ground for Edith Nesbit, as she once again introduces us to two upper middle class children, Edred and Eldrida, turned poor through the vagaries of capitalism. In this case, however, her protagonists have a bit of an advantage: Edred is about to inherit a barony. True, the barony is not worth much, and their newly inherited and crumbling castle is apparently staffed by only one servant (a tragedy and mark of extreme poverty in Nesbit’s era). But, titles are titles, and, as a magical Mouldiwarp assures them, thanks to an incredible dollop of coincidence and fate, the two children might—just might—be able to find the lost treasure of the House of Arden. If, of course, they can be nice to each other—not a given—and if they are willing to go back in time to do some searching. Oh, and write some poetry.
(British friends assure me that this sort of thing almost never happens to aristocrats when they inherit their titles, but you never know.)
The time traveling—a concept Nesbit may have borrowed from her friend H.G. Wells—may make this book seem like science fiction. But as Nesbit makes clear, these are magical, not scientific journeys, brought about by spells. That same magic that when the children arrive, ensures that no one spots them as time travellers, mostly because—by a remarkable coincidence—every historical era they return to just happens to have an Edred and an Elfreda of about the same age. Their travels, too, feel almost dreamlike, and Edred and Elfreda can never really be sure if they are changing the past, or even really entering it. (For what it’s worth, they do not seem to have made any permanent changes to the timeline—but then again, I read this book only after their journeys to the past, so how would I know?)
But if The House of Arden is not exactly science fiction, and not exactly fantasy, it does provide a nice setup for Nesbit to sneak in some history lessons and a rather nasty and somewhat inexplicable potshot at Robert Browning. (What did he do?) It also allows Nesbit to sneak in some references to her own novels and poems—Elfreda just happens to have read The Story of the Amulet, and the poems she’s memorized? Just happen to be Nesbit’s poems.
And the setup allows Nesbit to deliver a sudden outburst about the evils of the early 20th century—poor wages, sanitary conditions and—a genuine surprise from Nesbit a tirade against an economic system that forces women to work and leave their babies at home.
A surprise, not because Nesbit was pointing out the evils of the early 20th century—this was a passionate theme for her—but because she had previously presented positive portraits of working women, suggesting in her adult books that happy marriages could only be obtained when both spouses were able to pursue careers. Does this outburst, along with the forlorn feelings displayed in The Railway Children, suggest that Nesbit was beginning to regret her career role, and the fact (reported by her children and her contemporaries) that she did not spend as much time with her children as her friend/housekeeper/husband’s mistress and mother of two of the children in the household, Alice Hoatson, did? Or was she responding to critics of her child-rearing methods, or to the very real fact that her own son had died eight years earlier at the age of 15 from (probable) neglect after an operation to remove his tonsils?
Certainly, by 1908 Nesbit was aware that her relationships with her children were problematic. At the same time, although she certainly took joy in writing, she wrote her children’s books and focused on her writing career because her family and household had no other financial support. Whatever the case, it does suggest that if Nesbit believed that a career was essential to marriage (as her own life demonstrated), it could be considerably more difficult to balance with motherhood (again, as her own life demonstrated.)
But this somewhat uncharacteristic outburst from Nesbit is only the beginning of the problems with the book. For one, the history lessons—particularly in the earlier sections of the book, where Nesbit seems determined to let readers know that yes, yes, she really did do her research into the Ordinary Life of Private Citizens Awaiting the Bonaparte Invasion—come off as preachy, as do some of her moral lessons later in the book. This is unusual for Nesbit, who usually manages to avoid morals altogether, or squeak them in under the cover of her rapier wit, and whose narrative voice is more usually confiding, instead of preachy.
And Nesbit knew enough of history—or should have known enough—to know that the Jacobean period was hardly a positive time for women or the lower classes, even apart from the ongoing waves of plague and disease. She may not have been aware that during the Jacobean period lower class women continued to work outside of the household via necessity, or were trapped by so much housework (not a joke before appliances and, in this period, reliable stoves) that they did not necessarily have extensive time to spend with their children.
It doesn’t help that one minor theme of the book is that knowing anything about history can, for time travellers, be very dangerous indeed. Eldrida’s knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot—she sings a little Guy Fawkes song in front of a shocked supporter of James I—ends up tossing her and her brother into the Tower of London. And Eldrida is completely unable to forget that very, very soon, Anne Boleyn is about to lose her head—which does make a normal conversation with the doomed queen (here presented in a very sympathetic light) rather difficult. And in a sudden return of her rapier wit, Nesbit explains that Elfrida’s later attempts to fail history work remarkably well. Learning nothing of history is remarkably easy when you have an incentive. But given this counter narrative, Nesbit’s attempt to teach history through this book somewhat fails.
But the larger problems are pacing and tone. Unusually for Nesbit, this is a slow book to get into, partly, I think, because it takes her some time to find individual voices for her child protagonists. Eldred and Elfrida become interesting by the end of the book—but not immediately. Partly because, whereas Nesbit typically begins her children’s book by almost immediately plunging her protagonists into trouble or magic, this book begins with background detail, and then a rather slow journey, and then some more background detail, and so on. It begins with people telling stories, rather than living them, and where Nesbit excels is in stories about people living in stories.
And a second problem: much of this book seems old, stale. Not because Nesbit is essentially retelling well known historical tales—she does give these tales a new twist, particularly with her take on the Old Pretender. (With a bit that I can’t help thinking may have inspired several Georgette Heyer novels, although I don’t know if Heyer ever read Nesbit’s books.) But because so much of this book feels pulled from other Nesbit novels—the relationship between the siblings, the hunt for treasure, the desire for a father, the time traveling. (It doesn’t help that Nesbit deliberately references and recommends her earlier time traveling novel.) Even the end, after substantial, er, borrowing from Rider Haggard novels, is a replication of the end of The Railway Children although here for plotting reasons, robbed of its emotional impact.
Nonetheless, even weak Nesbit is generally worth reading, and Nesbit has several good moments here—the story of Elfrida and the highwayman; Edred and Elfrida’s stay in the Tower of London, and a bit where Edred suddenly realizes just what he will have to sacrifice in order to save someone really important to him—and the beautifully done realization that Edred does not want to make this sacrifice after all. That moment, when Edred realizes that he is not the person he thought he was, and is going to have to carry that knowledge for the rest of his life, is realistically and beautifully done. And as I’ve suggested, the uneasy emotional background of this book, written to support her family who resented the time she spent writing it, gives the book a certain power. And here and there, Nesbit’s rapier wit still flashes out, showing that even after all of these novels, she had not lost her powers of irony. It would continue to serve her well in a few more upcoming books.
Mari Ness wouldn’t mind returning to the Jacobean period as long as she could be an aristocrat surrounded by plenty of servants to do all the housework. She currently lives in central Florida with two cats who stubbornly refuse to do any of the housework.