The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

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Reviewed by Harriet

There surely won’t be many people reading this who haven’t seen the film or the TV series, even if they haven’t read the original book, which has been a best seller since it was first published in 1906, 110 years ago. I’ve been a Nesbit fan since I was tiny, as my mother was before me, and have read most of her children’s’ books many times. But I’m always happy for a re-read, so when Alma Classics brought out this new edition, I was delighted to get a copy and raced through it in record time. What a great novel it is, and what a tremendously important writer Edith Nesbit was. Although there are some terms and references which may need explaining (and this edition has a few notes and a useful glossary at the end) the book reads as freshly and entertainingly as it ever did.

It’s typical of Nesbit’s novels that the children who are the centre of the novel have one or more parent who is for some reason absent, and this one is no different. At the beginning of the story Roberta (12), Peter (10) and Phyllis (8) are living happily with both their parents in a comfortable middle-class house with servants to do the hard work. But then one evening some men come to the door, and their beloved Daddy has to go away with them. Life then changes dramatically. A horrible interim period ensues in which their mother is away most of the time, and obviously suffering from pain and exhaustion, and then she tells them that they will be moving to a little cottage in the country, with no domestic help and very little money.  And so they do. There’s no money to send them to school, Mummy is closeted in her workroom all day and every day, writing stories. If one of them sells, Peter is sent to the village bakery to buy buns for tea. 

Some, perhaps most, children might be unhappy and complain about this new state of affairs. Not so the railway children – for they soon discover the railway that runs along the track at the bottom of the hill, and most of their subsequent adventures revolve around it. In one dramatic scene they manage to stop a train from crashing into a landslide – the girls have removed their red flannel petticoats and made them into flags, one of which Bobbie bravely waves from the track itself, putting herself in grave danger. In another episode they rescue a schoolboy who has broken his leg on a run through the tunnel. 

All very exciting. But it’s their relationship with the trains themselves, and most particularly with one of the passengers, that really moves their lives forward. This is a nice old gentleman, who starts things off by waving his handkerchief at them every day when the morning train goes past. They are able to get messages to him via the kindly Station Manager, and he helps them in several important ways. First, Mummy falls ill and he sends parcels of nourishing food. Then, they rescue a sad, sickly Russian who has got off at the station by mistake and speaks no English. Luckily he and Mummy can communicate in French, and he turns out to be an important dissident writer – the old gentleman steps in and manages to track down his missing wife and family. But he also has a hand in the wonderful climax of the book. Bobbie discovers from an old newspaper what has happened to their father – he’s in prison, having been unjustly found guilty of treason. The old gentleman has strings to pull, and so one morning Bobbie goes alone to the station:

Only three people got out of the 11.54. The first was a countrywoman with two baskety boxes full of live chickens, who stuck their heads anxiously through the wicker bars; the second was Miss Peckitt, the grocer’s wife’s cousin, with a tin box and three brown paper parcels; and the third: ‘Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!” That scream went like a knife into everyone in the train, and people put their heads out of the windows to see a tall pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging tightly to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her.

There’s so much to love about Nesbit’s writing. She was a life-long socialist, so her books always show a great deal of sympathy for the poor and dispossessed – the Russian here was probably based on a dissident writer she knew. She liked to show that girls had as much spirit and good deal more sensitivity than boys, who are usually rather full of themselves, clumsy, but well-meaning. She knew that children need space and time and freedom to explore the endless possibilities of an exciting outside world. And perhaps most important of all she knew how to write engagingly and is willing to step into the narrative and speak to the reader directly, as she does here:

I hope you don’t mind my telling you a great deal about Roberta. The fact is I am growing very fond of her. The more I observe her the more I love her. And I notice all kinds of things about her that I like.

If you happen to know a child who hasn’t read this great novel, please put that right as soon as possible. If you don’t (or even if you do), read it yourself. Hooray for Alma Classics for bringing out this attractively illustrated and informative new edition.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

E. Nesbit, The Railway Children (Alma Classics, 2016). 978-1847496010, 250 pp., paperback original.

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