There is no bond like having read and liked the same books.
The Wonderful Garden or The Three Cs is decidedly one of Edith Nesbit’s more obscure children’s novels. The only copy I could find was an audiobook, since no online texts are available, and even hard copies of this 1911 novel seem to have vanished from most libraries and all but the most expensive bookstores. Which makes this, incidentally, the first book during any of these rereads that I have listened to, but not read. This both allowed me to revel in the Edwardian charm—and this book often drips with charm—and become more aware of a certain—how can I phrase this—padding, and a strong feeling that just perhaps Nesbit was getting paid by the word.
The three Cs refer to the main protagonists of the book: idealistic, responsible Caroline; passionate Charlotte, and curious and occasionally sulky Charles, three siblings whose parents are away in India. Thanks to this, the children are shuffled off to a Mysterious Great Uncle Charles (generally called “Uncle” in the book to prevent any confusion), but not before getting a book that might—just might—be magical, especially when combined with other books: The Language Of.
This is not, as you might be and I was hoping, the language of elves, but rather of flowers, that complicated Victorian system of conveying messages in bouquets, something that Nesbit covers with a touch of humor and a certain fierce glee in this book; careful readers might even learn what various flowers supposedly “mean.” But the three Cs are less interested in sending messages, and more interested in working spells.
And they have reason to try. On their way to their uncle’s, they meet up with a troubled, sulky boy named Rupert, travelling with his tutor, whose parents are also in India. Rupert is clearly in need of help. As is their uncle, who is trying to finish a book while searching for some lost ones. And an old woman about to be turned out of her home to serve the needs of wealthy weekend visitors, Rupert’s tutor, and a leopard. So the three Cs gather flowers and other plants together (and in one case, mashed potatoes, to serve as “potato”) to weave their spells.
Do they work? Nesbit is more than coy on this point, especially since in this book, the children are not encountering magic rings or creatures, but working with actual plants (and food) that ordinary children could track down, with a little assistance. (It helps to know Latin.) Each and every magical success—including a rather spectacular one where a painting comes to life—can be easily explained away by coincidence, perfectly ordinary events, tricks, or the plain fact that people don’t typically become invisible with or without the aid of plants. But by the end of the book—partly thanks to that trick with the painting, which is partly awesome, and partly, the more that I think about it, rather cruel—even the highly skeptical Rupert is beginning to think that this whole magic thing may have a point to it. Readers, however, are gently encouraged to remain more skeptical.
I’ve suggested that the book meanders, and it does, with pacing a problem throughout. Rupert’s original rescue happens far too quickly, and his later emotional issues linger far too long. And in some of the scenes the children—including Rupert—are far too obtuse. Nesbit had milked this childish lack of insight for laughs in previous novels, but here, when it takes Charles and Charlotte several hours (and seemingly endless chapters) to catch on to what Caroline is doing (evident to a reader and to other characters almost immediately) it grates.
And unfortunately, many of the scenes require far too much suspension of disbelief. True, this is the same author that wanted us to believe in magical rings, a vain but shy phoenix, and time travel. But it’s one thing to believe in the impossible, and another thing to believe in the “oh come on now,” which happens several times in this book: when the children visit a castle whose young lord just happens to arrive when they are getting tossed out; the entire incident with the leopard; and the incompetence of policemen. (The last is, admittedly, based on a lengthy middle class tradition of the bumbling police officer, but it just makes no sense here, especially since the other not particularly observant adults aren’t tricked as well.)
Which is not to say that that the book isn’t worthwhile, or doesn’t have its amusing moments: as I mentioned, it drips with charm. (It also drips with stereotyped language and descriptions of certain ethnic minorities, one reason I suspect that it has been quietly dropped from some libraries and is not in print.) And, as nearly always, Nesbit slips in cutting observations about social and economic inequities in England. The children here are very aware of class structure and differences: they apologize profusely for mistaking a clergyman (middle class) for a workman (decidedly not working class). The clergyman, to his credit, announces that he’s quite proud to work with his hands, but this is lost on the children, who are later furious to be mistaken for mere “village children” instead of their proper, gentry class level, which would allow them to visit a lord.
These class distinctions are highlighted in a rather brutal passage, where Caroline meets a hard working woman, who makes her living selling fresh ginger beer and lemonade to travelers on the road, who is getting forced out of her home and her job by wealthy people from London, careless of their effect on others. The woman can do nothing: as a member of the decidedly working class, she cannot approach, much less socialize with, her noble neighbors. Even the children have difficulty—but as members of the gentry, they can talk to the lord (however overawed they may be, and however problematic their meeting might be from a narrative perspective); his tenant cannot.
And Nesbit, who earlier could imagine women combining marriage and career, here has Caroline announcing, with a touch of bitterness, that she could either be an Arctic explorer, or married, not both, particularly bitter since Caroline is by far the most intelligent and courageous of the three children, and her brother Charles is not that bright. And in a rather nice touch, Rupert is decidedly unpleasant, depressed about his separation from his parents and other aspects of his life, and taking his anger out the only way he can—on his friends and socially and economically powerless adults. It’s classic Nesbit at both her most subtle and her most harsh.
Mari Ness recommends listening to this book in a park, but preferably a park with more English plants, instead of parks teeming with alligators. She lives in central Florida.