The Railway Children by E Nesbit

I didn’t read The Railway Children as a child. I didn’t come across a biography of her as one of the founders of the Fabian Society, either, though really I don’t know why not for she sounds a most fascinating personality and I read as many biographies of that period as I could lay my hands on.

Nesbit was a tomboy who grew up to mix it with the best of society; with her husband Hubert Bland she furthered the causes of socialism, she knew everyone in the literary world of the time, was friends with George Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells, and lived through a greatly changing world, from 1858 to 1924.

Apparently she first made a name for herself as a writer of short pieces for adult magazines, and I imagine I may have read some of these in the days when I was collecting bound copies from the late Victorian and Edwardian period, but her name didn’t register with me at the time.

The Treasure Seekers was her first success for children, published in l899, with new editions every few years. Everyone wanted more of the Bastable children, but The Railway Children was the book made into the famous film with Jenny Agutter in it. That was first published in l906 and has never been out of print since.

I’d seen the film of The Railway Children, and on television I saw a BBC production of The Treasure Seekers and I’d enjoyed both, but for many years it didn’t occur to me to read them in the original. I read Frances Hodgson Burnett, yes. ‘Q’, yes. (You don’t know ‘Q’? A treat in store). I read George Macdonald, C.S.Lewis. But not E Nesbit.

In fact, I don’t think I’d have bothered to read her at all if it hadn’t been for Noel Coward. In his memoirs he said that the best present he’d ever been given, was from Nesbit. This puzzled me somewhat as I thought that surely Nesbit must have died before Coward started writing. Yet he was serious about it. There was even a copy of Nesbit’s Bastable stories on Coward’s bedside table when he died.

So why the fuss?

Coward went on record as saying that everything he knew about characterization and construction, had come from Nesbit’s children’s stories. I don’t know if any of her adult stories have lasted the course. I suspect not. We are talking now only about her children’s stories. But Coward wasn’t just talking about The Railway Children. Or even about Five Children and It, which was recently made into a film which has not been well reviewed, and sounds pretty awful, in fact.

Coward was talking mainly of the books about the Bastable family, although he admired The Railway Children as well. There are in fact three books about the Bastable family; The Treasure Seekers, the Would-be-Goods and The New Treasure Seekers, and I’ve got them in a compendium volume.

There is a common theme in all her children’s books, that of a family of children coping with unexpected poverty and a missing or dead parent. I think it was Arthur Ransome – followed closely by Enid Blyton – who said the first thing he did when he began a story about children, was to get rid of the adults. You can see why, can’t you? Mind you, William Golding took this to its logical conclusion in The Lord of the Flies, and look where that landed the children!

Which brings me back neatly to the rule for a well constructed story, whether by any of the above writers, or by Tolkien or Philip Pullman, and that is…a disadvantaged person (or child) overcoming evil.

There are of course many other themes in literature, such as Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl…which was Alfred Hitchcock’s mantra. There are also quest stories. Occasionally you get a third major theme, which is moral issues, such as overcoming temptation. When you get achievement, quest and moral issues all together in one tale, you get the best storylines.

New writers often start with a good idea, but have to learn the hard way how to make a story work. And it is hard work, getting published.

Construction is King. Once you have the main idea – the skeleton of the story, if you like – then Tension and Identification are its courtiers.

Tension is a must. If you fail to set up a problem at the beginning, then there is no page-turning element in your story. Evil, or adverse circumstances, or whatever, have to be real enough to believe in. In the Bastable books, mother dies and their father’s partner skips with the money, reducing the family to poverty. The book shows – from the children’s point of view – how they cope with these two blows.

In The Railway Children roughly the same situation is set up in the first chapter; their father is hauled off by officialdom without any explanation being given. This is very cleverly done and – a nice bit of symbolism – the child Peter’s broken engine mirrors the breaking-up of their home AND ties in with their future, which is to live by the railway line.

The children know enough to realise there is a mystery and that Father has gone, but they don’t know why. Even when the eldest – Roberta, known as Bobbie – does learn something, she never knows it all and she agrees not to pass what she knows on to her younger brother and sister.

Do we really need to know, either? I don’t think we do. We really do not need to know what department of the government their father worked in, or what secrets exactly he was supposed to have sold to the Russians. It is enough that Bobbie eventually discovers what has happened, because the book is told mostly from her point of view.

So mystery enhances their bewilderment and grief at the disappearance of their father from their lives. Their removal from a comfortable household with servants, to an uncomfortable and isolated house in the country brings more changes, including the fact that Mother now has to earn their living by writing stories.

This change of scenery provides them with opportunities for exploration, distracts them from their plight, and brings them into contact with new people – very different from those they knew in town – who become important to them, and to the story. The subtext of grief is always there, cleverly indicated but not hammered home.

Here we see another nice piece of technique. How to describe their surroundings. Conveying this to the reader is sometimes like stirring Christmas pudding…stodgy. Often the writer employs too many adjectives and after a couple of sentences most readers skip to the next bit of dialogue. (All right, I know some people LIKE pages of description, but this is a story for children and impatient adults, so cut the adjectives out.)

If the surroundings are new to the children, write as if you were seeing them for the first time through their eyes…and give their reactions to what they see. In The Railway Children it is necessary for us to ‘see’ the surroundings, in order to understand the story. But Nesbit’s description doesn’t hang fire, because the children react first to the desolation of their immediate surroundings and then to the excitement of finding the railway bridge and station.

If Nesbit had just said ‘nearby there was a railway station down a steep slope’, you wouldn’t be at all bothered about it. But she says, ‘the way to the railway was all downhill over smooth short turf with here and there furze bushes and grey and yellow rocks sticking out like candied peel from the top of a cake. The way ended in a steep run and a wooden fence…’
The ‘candied peel from the top of a cake’ is a child’s analogy, not an adult one, but it brings the picture alive. ‘The way ended in a steep run’ is grammatically incorrect and I can see a teacher’s red pen hovering over this. ‘How can a ‘way’ run? A ‘way’ is an inanimate feature and doesn’t have two legs, does it?’ But the phrase ‘the way ended in a steep run’ conveys its meaning perfectly to the reader.

Which reminds me that the first thing I do when my computer has been interfered with by the repairers and updaters, is to remove that wobbly green line which protests that almost all my dialogue is ungrammatical. My reported speech, too.

In Nesbit’s day, of course, it was all done in pen and ink…until the introduction of typewriters. Her career covers that period in which the ‘lady typewriter’ became important. But in The Railway Children, Mother does all her work with pen and ink.

Perhaps because of her earlier training in short stories, Nesbit divided her book-length tales into anything between twelve and sixteen chapters. Each of these chapters can be read as a story in itself – which is a plus factor for any parent obliged to read to children of a certain age. The overall theme is one of children making their own amusements, against a background of loss.
The settings vary; The Railway Children, of course, gains immeasurably from the presence of the train, which has always held a fascination for children of all ages. Some of the other stories are set in the country, some in suburbia.

There is interaction with adults, but they are portrayed as busy people, usually softened by contact with the children. Even so, these adults – however fleetingly we see them – have characters of their own.

They are not just ciphers, with the possible exception of the Old Gentleman in The Railway Children, who doesn’t come across to me as nearly such a rounded character as Perks, the Porter. I can’t imagine the Old Gentleman returning home to a mansion in the country. Does he keep dogs and ride to hounds? I really can’t be sure. Maybe the fault is mine, but he doesn’t come alive to me. I think the Old Gentleman is just intended to be a sort of Deus ex Machina, a Dickensian-type jolly, a stock character whom the reader would accept without question.

Getting back to construction, if you read several of these chapters – particularly of the Bastable books – you find yourself seeing the world from the point of view of children. For instance, when the children first observe a train close up to, their reaction is one I’d never have thought of. Peter says, ‘It seems so odd to see all of a train. It’s awfully tall, isn’t it?’ To which Phyllis replies, ‘We’ve always seen them cut in half by platforms.’ Which makes me think again how well Nesbit was able to get inside a child’s mind.

Her characters know a little about the world they live in, and their place in it, but not enough to prevent them getting into lots of trouble. Sometimes they sense that what they are doing would be forbidden by adults, but as they haven’t had a positive prohibition not to do…whatever it is…they go ahead and do it…and take the consequences.

Before we deal with the characters of the children, I want to point out a trick of construction which Nesbit uses to perfection. She does it several times. She sets the scene. For instance, the children may be thinking up some new game to play, or quarrelling, or trying to do something to help their mother. At that point Nesbit drops some piece of information into the story and then gets on with the adventure, whatever it might be. Until suddenly you realise that the apparently unimportant piece of information dropped into the plot earlier, is crucial to the denouement.
If you don’t mind, I’ll show you how this is done in detail, not from The Railway Children but from The Would-be-Goods in the Bastable family chronicles.

Oswald is the eldest and tells the story, and he’s a much more amusing story-teller than Bobbie in the Railway Children, by the way. The family is staying at their friendly uncle Albert’s big house in the country, and they are playing in the garden. Oswald covets his younger brother’s cricket ball and suggests a swop, to which Noel agrees – though later Noel wants to go back on the deal. They quarrel. The girls want Oswald to give the ball back to Noel, but he won’t.

Oswald is ostracized by the others because he won’t let Noel have his ball back, but while playing on his own Oswald finds a door leading onto the roof, which means exploration! Adventure! He tells the others and they make it up and play around on the roof.

The day after they go down to the river where there’s an Angling Competition going on, and everyone else is frightfully busy with that, so they go along the canal and see a friend’s boat grounded on the mud with no water left to float it with, so they open the lock gates – and it’s hard work – and go home very pleased with having done a good deed…until they learn that letting all the water out of the canal has ruined the Angling Competition and everyone’s furious with them.

That night there is a sudden storm and the roof starts leaking. The children think it’s fun at first, and then it isn’t funny and they eventually have to rouse the adults and it’s all hands to the deck and in some ways it’s amusing, because of the ways the children – particularly Oswald – find to staunch the flow. Eventually the rain stops.

Next morning before breakfast Oswald goes up on the roof to see if he can find the hole where the rain had come in. You’ve forgotten about the cricket ball by now, haven’t you? Read on…
‘He did not find any hole, but he found the cricket ball jammed in the top of a gutter pipe which he afterwards knew ran down inside the wall of the house and ran into the moat below. It seems a silly dodge, but so it was.

‘When the men went up after breakfast to see what had caused the flood, they said there must have been some obstruction in the pipe which ran down into the house, but whatever it was, the water had washed it away, for they put wires down and the pipe was quite clear. While we were being told this Oswald’s trembling fingers felt at the wet cricket ball in his pocket. And he knew, but he could not tell.

‘I do not seek to defend him. But it really was an awful thing to have been the cause of, and the housekeeper is harsh and hasty. But this, as Oswald knows too well, is no excuse for his silent conduct.’

It all comes out about the way the children had ruined the Angling Competition, and Albert’s uncle is very sad about it and the children are reduced to tears – except for Oswald, who is still fingering the ball in his pocket.

At last, ‘He stood there and made up his mind he would go for a soldier. He gave the wet ball one last squeeze and took his hand out of his pocket, and said a few words before going to enlist. And Albert’s uncle said – and his voice made Oswald hot all over, but not with shame – he said: I shall not tell you what he said. It is no one’s business but Oswald’s; only I will own it made Oswald not quite so anxious to run away for a soldier as he had been before.’

There are some important points to consider here. First: construction. I make no apologies for bringing in this extract because having once realized how the clue was laid and how effective it can be to make it part of the denouement, I have used the device over and over again. Plant a clue, distract the reader with some new business and then let the planted clue lead to the denouement. Noel Coward believed that this story, called ‘The Waterworks’ was the most perfect of all the stories which Nesbit wrote and I agree with her.

Please note that she uses this device TWICE in this one story. The cricket ball, lost and responsible for the flood, and the opening of the lock gates, which was not intended to hurt anyone but led to the ruin of the Angling Competition and a pecuniary loss for the inn people who’d been preparing a meal for the anglers.

Another important point is the way that Oswald, as the story-teller, tells the story in the third person but sometimes drifts into the first, and you don’t even notice he’s doing it, but by using this device, the writer is able to us insights into Oswald’s character. In the third person she can make comments on how Oswald perceives his actions and their consequences. In the first person you are closer to what he’s actually feeling at the time.

Oswald also drifts from past to present tense. This is never disturbing, but conveys layers of information in the simplest possible fashion. So, for instance, Oswald is narrating a splendid adventure and its conclusion in the past tense – as is usual (though not exclusive) in the case of a third person narrative – and then you get a comment by Oswald on his behaviour, and it is in the present tense, because that is what Oswald is thinking about it afterwards.

A certain percentage of modern novels are written in the present tense. I find this jarring, though not always terminal. There is a trend towards exploring these devices led, I suppose, by the Mann Booker prize, which encourages writers to explore. I’m not sure that many of these books will last. It is generally agreed that it is easiest for the reader if the books are told in the third person.

Anyway, this device of being at one and the same time the narrator in the third person and the commentator in the first, is not something for a beginner writer to use, and indeed I’m not sure anyone else has done it in quite this way.

In The Railway Children most, but not all, of the story is told from the point of view of Bobbie – christened and introduced by Nesbit as ‘Roberta’ but soon shortened to ‘Bobbie’, but the narrator is consistent in using the third person. This point of view is called the POV by writers and there are many arguments for and against having a single POV in a story.

The argument for is that you have – hopefully – achieved Identification for the reader with the narrator. There is always a break, a sort of mental hiccup, for the reader when the POV changes within a book. For instance, the first part of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is told by a stranger to the district, but the story is then taken up by the housekeeper. In the Ellie Quicke Mysteries, I introduce small sections showing what the baddies are plotting, interspersing them throughout the course of the narrative which is otherwise seen through my heroine’s eyes. I do this to heighten the tension, and it’s a trick that, I think, succeeds very well. But I do try to keep these sections short, so that the reader doesn’t get too much of a break in continuity.

The argument against having one POV is that you can’t cover all the relevant facts of the story. Well, often you can. Sometimes you have to have someone else come in and report what’s been happening elsewhere. This can be made humorous. The new character can speak in a different voice, using different grammar, different language even. But you have to remember that a different POV means more work for the reader.

The Eden Hall books are told entirely from the heroine’s point of view, while events she couldn’t have experienced, are conveyed to her by other people in dialogue. In Ellie Quicke, I often use telephone conversations to help the plot along.

Again, referring back in particular to Charlotte Bronte, don’t you get a ‘bump’ when the author addresses you directly? ‘Dear reader,’ she says. And the web of enchantment that has been woven around you, is broken.

In the same way, there is a distancing effect at the end of The Railway Children, when the author draws back from showing us the reunion of the family, taking on an authorial tone instead of the voice of one of the children. Perhaps she was right to do so, but it reminds me of Lawrence Olivier’s film version of Henry V. You started in the theatre watching a play with boy actors in women’s parts, but then you were transported into a ‘real’ France. You followed the battle scenes, the love scenes, the triumphs…and then suddenly you were back in the Elizabethean theatre, with heavily made-up actors replacing Lawrence Olivier and Rene Fleming…and wasn’t that a horrid let-down? It’s a device which is useful, but takes some skill not to jar the reader.

To write a good story which sticks in the mind, you have to THINK and THINK before you start writing. People often ask me how long it takes to write a book and I say, ‘thinking time is extra’ to the time it actually takes to getting the book down onto the computer.

Thinking time is what it takes to create believable characters.

People used to say to me that C S Lewis was so good at characters. I have to disagree. Invention, yes. But the children in his books are more or less interchangeable.

But look how Nesbit introduces the children in the Bastable family: ‘Dora was trying to mend a large hole in one of Noel’s stockings. He tore it on a nail when we were playing shipwrecked mariners on top of the chicken-house the day H.O. fell off and cut his chin, he has the scar still. Dora is the only one of us who ever tries to mend anything. Alice tries to make things sometimes. Once she knitted a red scarf for Noel because his chest is delicate, but it was much wider at one end than the other, and he wouldn’t wear it. So we used it as a pennon and it did very well, because most of our things are black or grey since mother died, and scarlet was a nice change…’

And didn’t that reminder of their motherless condition strike you to the heart, not least because it came out of the blue?

Noel is a poet, by the way. (Not particularly good, but he perseveres). ‘H.O.’s shoes squeak, which infuriates everybody. Oswald is the oldest. He won the Latin prize at his preparatory school. Then there is Dicky, who is good at sums.’ There are six of them, and each one has his own character neatly laid out.

Characterisation in The Railway Children is also neatly given us on the first page: ‘Roberta was the eldest. Of course mothers never have favourites, but if their mother had had a favourite, it might have been Roberta. Next came Peter, who wished to be an engineer when he grew up; and the youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.’

None of these characters are perfect, and this is their charm. They get bored, quarrel, misunderstand things, persuade themselves that it wouldn’t do any harm to do…whatever mischief strikes them…because they haven’t specifically been told not to do…whatever it is. And they own up and take their punishment when necessary.

They are inventive, sometimes funny, brave but not foolhardy when threatened by baddies. They all mean well. The trouble they get into usually stems from imaginative play, but as they live in a child’s world, it sometimes means that this imaginative play impinges on the real or adult world with disastrous consequences. They infuriate the adults, though some of the said adults still have enough ‘child’ in them to appreciate what the children have done and even, occasionally, to join in.

The children learn all the time.

Of course the storyline of The Railway Children is a lot of rubbish. They rescue a stranded foreign poet, and a boy who’s broken his leg in a tunnel, and even manage to stop a train from running into a landslide. Each one of these events is just about possible by itself, and given the freedom to roam the countryside which the children had in those days, they appealed wonderfully to a generation of children brought up against a background of the Boer War and the expansion of the Empire.

Remember that Oswald probably will end up as a soldier and Peter as an engineer. But even in what we would regard as an idyllic, protected childhood, they come up against the unpleasant side of life and have to learn to deal with it.

They exercise their ingenuity. They are encouraged to explore. But they must always remember their manners – and on the whole they do. The contrast with today’s children is interesting.
Are our children today encouraged to explore by themselves? To show good manners? To be ingenious in solving day to day problems?

My copy of The Railway Children says that it has never been out of print since 1906. I wonder what today’s children make of this story. Can they possibly identify with Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis? And if not, is it the train – the perpetually fascinating train – which holds the attention of the reader of today? Or is it just that Nesbit’s children are real, in the best possible sense of the word, and that today’s children can recognise that fact, can identify with the characters and…perhaps…wish that they could have the same adventures?

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