Misinterpreting the Past: Harding’s Luck

Harding’s Luck, the companion volume to The House of Arden, tells the story of Dickie, one of the secondary characters in that first novel—the same one who had so suddenly and vehemently denounced women working outside the home and leaving their children. Perhaps feeling that this and other outbursts deserved some explanation, Nesbit chooses to tell Dickie’s background story in some detail, before beginning to weave this new book in and out of the plot of the first, and taking some potshots at harmless anonymous Elizabethan poets along the way.

As neither a prequel nor a sequel nor a full secondary story, Harding’s Luck does not always work, on a number of levels. The first problem is with Dickie. In the first book, Dickie was a sometimes helpful and heroic, sometimes surly and irritating, but generally believable boy. Here, he is a Tragic Orphan, who is also (sniffle) Lame, with a Little Crutch. The strictures of Edwardian and Victorian literature ensure that this means that Dickie is a Good Child. And Nesbit, skilled at creating selfish, nasty, quarreling children, has absolutely no idea what to do with a good one.

And, for all his orphan status, Dickie spends more time with parental figures than any other Nesbit child protagonist, who, as previous comments on this blog have mentioned, spend more time enjoying their independence and happily wandering around the country. He is, admittedly, not particularly close to or interested in the woman who raised him (to be fair, she caused his injury.) But he soon meets a happy homeless wanderer named Beale, who crooks a finger and urges Dickie to come travel with him, because he—Beale—is lonely.

Erk. To be fair, I don’t think Nesbit intended this scene to come off as creepily as it does, but creepy it is—my nine year old self was convinced Beale was going to kill little Dickie. (My adult self in the reread was kinda hoping Beale would, as well as being somewhat more aware of the potentials for sexual abuse here.) However, although Beale’s motives aren’t that pure—he plans to use Dickie to help him beg and steal—he and Dickie form a father-son relationship. And if that isn’t enough, Dickie soon encounters two different mother figures: a woman in this time, who wants to adopt him, and a woman in the Jacobean era who just wants to mother him.

For yes, this is another time travel story—although it takes some long, tedious chapters to reach the time travel part. The tedious bits are meant to showcase just how tough Dickie has it—although, in the classic mold of Good Lame Children in literature, he never lets this impact his sunny temperament or his basic faith in people. But the time travel does place Dickie into one major dilemma. In his own time, he is a poor, disabled wandering kid—with an adult completely dependent upon him for companionship.

In the past, he is a wealthy, pampered child who—most importantly—is not lame.

And since Dickie can, to an extent, control his time travels, he has to choose: stay with the man who needs him, enduring hard work, poverty, and difficulty in walking, or stay in his wealthy, privileged past, which even includes a pony? (And relatives getting dragged off to the Tower of London suggesting some major political instability, but no one can have everything.)

And this is where Nesbit writes herself into a dilemma.

An actual poverty-stricken child of Dickie’s age, given the choice between staying with a homeless guy he has known for just a few weeks, and a pony, not to mention the servants, luxurious food, no money worries and so on, would, unquestionably, pick the pony. (If the choice were between poverty-stricken parents, or at least an adult that Dickie had known for longer than a few weeks, I can see this being more of a dilemma, but as it stands, not at all.) Worse, Dickie is fully aware that the homeless guy has urged him into questionably moral deeds—begging, breaking and entering, and so on.

But yet, Nesbit also choose to make Dickie into a poor crippled orphan, and thus, Extremely Good, so Good that Dickie is willing to return to poverty and disability, giving up the pony,just to turn a homeless beggar and thief into a hardworking, honest man.

I’m not certain that any writer could have pulled this off; certainly Nesbit couldn’t. I can believe in Nesbit’s magical rings and wishes; I can certainly believe in her portraits of children who do thoroughly selfish and foolish things or spend more time thinking about food and fun than about being good. But not this. And in the end, even Nesbit could not bring herself to believe it either—which in turn caused her to tangle up the last chapters of her book so that Dickie’s very understandable decision to stay in the past, and let his thief-father figure remain in the present, comes off as the self-sacrificing option. Which, since Dickie has spent much of the book wanting to remain in the past, is not exactly as satisfying as Nesbit may have hoped it would be. For all of Nesbit’s attempts to suggest the value of self-sacrifice and selfishness, Dickie gets exactly what he wants because he’s willing to give up something he doesn’t want at all.

Merging the book’s plot, however briefly, with that of The Book of Arden doesn’t help either, primarily because we already know what happened there, losing a lot of the tension, even with events told from Dickie’s point of view. (Indeed, Nesbit more than once orders readers to go read the other book – a good way to try to drum up sales, I suppose, but creating some narrative dissatisfaction in this one.)

But the fundamental problem is not plot issues, or contrivances, or even unrealistic characterization, but Nesbit’s concern for her future literary reputation.

By 1907/1908, when Nesbit was planning and writing Harding’s Luck, she was well established as a popular, clever, children’s writer. But then, as more than occasionally now, “popular,” “clever,” and “children’s” did not add up, in the eyes of important (and generally male) critics, as “good” or “of literary merit.” This dismissal may also have helped explain why Nesbit, aware that women could and did have successful careers, suddenly allowed some of her characters to begin speaking against this, and arguing instead that women should focus on taking care of their children. Significantly, although she was to return to the sparkling, light-hearted style that had served her so well in previous books, in her later children’s books, her maternal figures tended to focus more on nurturing, and less on careers.

Nesbit, on personal, friendly terms with some of these literary critics, knew what they were looking for, and she was prepared to change her writing to meet it. Thus the serious tone of this book, and its often self conscious “literary” feel.

As an effort to please mostly male critics, Harding’s Luck is partially successful—Gore Vidal, for one, named it as a favorite Nesbit. But it’s just not as fun as other Nesbit books; its description of the Jacobean era as some sort of ideal place for the working class does not ring true at all (especially because the point of view character in the era is most distinctly upper, not working class); and above all, the book is hampered by its sense of artificiality, the sense that it was written to please others, not the writer. A lack of belief pervades the book, robbing it of its magic and wit, weighing it down with earnestness instead of fun. Fortunately, Nesbit would not keep to this model with all of her later children’s books.

Sidenote: the book also contains a rather odd passage about a Jewish pawnbroker, clearly meant to counter anti-Semitic statements, but which instead rather unfortunately ends up adding to the sense that Jews are completely different than everyone else in England. The pawnbroker is portrayed positively, however (and is unquestionably more honest than many of the other minor characters), and for its era this is a tolerant and even remarkably kindly take on the stereotypical representation of a Jewish pawnbroker.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where time traveling machines and spells remain in limited supply.


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