The Railway Children, re-visited
Time travel is fraught with terrors, personal time travel most of all. Whether it is in the discovery that one's ancestors were criminals and murderers, or only that one's youthful tastes weren't as sophisticated as one thought (see note #74, on The Secret Garden here, for one example of that phenomenon).
My own childhood favourites include a surprising number of Brit-lit classics. Lewis Carroll and A.A. Milne, of course, held pride of place, along with the likes of Kipling's Jungle Books, Lang's Yellow Fairy Book, Edward Lear's nonsense poetry, Graham's Wind In the Willows, Barry's Peter Pan, Edward Ardizzone's marvellous Little Tim books and the Lonsdale/Turner translations of Tintin (just off the top of my head).
And E. Nesbit's now-105 year-old classic, The Railway Children, which I recently pulled from my shelf, starting another voyage into my own deep past.
"'Only the rats!' said Peter, in the dark."
The Railway Children
By E. Nesbit
Written with a sophistication that might nowadays qualify it as "young adult", The Railway Children is still very much a children's story, with 12 year-old Roberta (Bobbie), 10 year-old Peter and eight year-old Phyllis taking centre stage.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to a nearly perfect Edwardian family. Patient and loving Mother and Father, polite children, suitable servants and even a dog called James occupy a sumptuous home in London, until one night, Father is visited by two mysterious strangers, who take him with them when they leave.
By the end of the first chapter, the family has everything (apparently even James the dog, who is never referred to again) and finds itself exiled to a small, rat-infested rural cottage overlooking a railway line, where the children's mother will make ends meet through freelance writing.
The Railway Children is very much about coping with loss — of income, of status and, especially, the loss of a loving husband and father.
Being British, upper lips are kept mostly stiff, but Nesbit never lets the reader forget the pain of separation under which the book's principals are all operating.
On the surface, the children seem to quickly forget that loss. With no school to attend, a mother busy earning a living and no servants to look after them, the young trio spend their days playing along the railway line and making friends with people in the nearby village — and especially those involved with the railway itself.
Bobbie is a bit of a Mary Sue — too sensitive and self-sacrificing for a modern heroine, probably — but she is also courageous and stubborn, and she seems real, which is what matters most.
"Oh! my Daddy, my Daddy!"
Peter is even more believable. A good kid, he is nevertheless a 10 year-old boy chafing under a matriarchy, and Nesbit writes like someone who knows boys very well. Peter wants peers, other boys against whom he can test himself, something an Edwardian boy simply can't do with his sisters (and maybe, that most human boys couldn't do with their sisters — but that's another question entirely).
Though they try not to, Bobbie and Peter are prone to bickering and squabbling, and they are often baffled by the strange and apparently arbitrary rules and regulations that govern the lives of the adults around them.
Indeed, though this is a children's book, it is one whose adventures are more often social than physical, and very often of a kind that leaves the reader squirming, embarrassed by and for the kids or those whom they inadvertently humiliate. While not about the Edwardian class system, The Railway Children is replete with tacit and explicit references to it and to its repercussions on the people who have to live with it.
Chapter 9, "The Pride of Perks", in which the children innocently humiliate their working-class friend Albert Perks, the porter at the railway station, is an acutely painful read. Perks' defensive pride is as tragically noble as it is unfairly necessary for his self-respect. More, Nesbit's depiction of the children's own, slow-dawning understanding of the complex and apparently senseless ways of the adult world — along with their own hurt and anger — are brilliantly portrayed.
If Nesbit's characters are not quite full-colour paintings, they are finely-rendered sketches. The reader feels for and with them and if the novel's ending feels a little forced, maybe even saccharine, it's a forgiveable flaw.
More than a century after it was published, The Railway Children remains an affecting and compelling story, very well-told. It moved me greatly as a child and nearly 40 years later, it moves me still. I think it will still be as a affecting when its second centenary comes around.