It seems Edith Nesbit found being a writer of children's books something of a professional limitation. Shirley
Foster and Judy Simon, in their What Katy Read: Feminist Re-readings of
"Classic" Stories for Girls
(University of Iowa Press 1995), record that
in April 1905 Edith Nesbit wrote disconsolately to J B Pinker, her literary agent,
“I wish you could get me an order for a serial for grown-up people … I
don’t think it is good for my style to write nothing but children’s
By way of context, Foster and Simon note that 'by 1905 she had published the most successful children’s novels of her day,
including The Story of the Treasure Seekers
(1899), The Wouldbegoods
Five Children and It
(1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet
(1904), the last of
which had inspired H G Wells to write to her prophetically, “You go on every
Xmas with a book like this and you will become a British Institution …”' adding that 'Nesbit remained dissatisfied with the medium that brought her success, ironically sensing that the increasing celebrity of her work was in inverse relation to her ambitions to be taken seriously as an artist'.  When it comes to explaining this dissatisfaction, Foster and Simon are clear what's to blame.
renewed critical attention being paid to the novel in England from the 1880s
onward, with the concomitant attempts to develop a theory of fiction, insisted
on the reclamation of the genre for intellectuals, a category which inevitably
excluded women and children. [127-8]
In the broadest sense what we are talking about, and witnessing over the 1900s and 1910s, is the setting-in-motion of a kind of reordering of children's literature as a category, one that would lead, by the end of the century, to the creation of what has now become the world's biggest publishing phenomenon: Young Adult. Dickens-as-child happily read Fielding and Smollett when he was growing up, because there was nothing else. By the end of the century there were plenty of books for younger readers, but little by way of 'transition' texts to bridge childhood and adulthood. One of the notions that intrigues me is the idea that the creation of these intermediary novels had as much, or more, to do with the amour propre
of the authors as it had with the consumer demand of readers. Kids were content to read what they were given. By the same token, adults were generally happy to read the Alice
books or Treasure Island
and so on. But there was a sense that something was lacking
from children's books. What was it? Some quality of respectability, perhaps? Or adult kudos? But why would we even want
that? Doesn't it hint at a sort of category error that misses the very point of the genre?
The gender connection is a useful one; the link, in other words, between the denigration of children's literature and the infantalising of women and women's achievements. For Foster and Simon, what makes Nesbit interesting as a writer is the extent to which she was able to subvert the procrustean orthodoxies of patriarchy. This was something she certainly did in her notoriously (or gloriously) Bohemian life. Is it also the saving grace of her novels?
Family life as it is ultimately envisaged in the resolution to [The Railway
Children] presents parents and children in a stable and orthodox
interrelationship with adult authority providing the ethical and behavioural
guidance through necessary to educate and socialize innocent pre-adolescents.
Within this formal narrative scheme, however, Nesbit … uses children’s
literature as a political and proto-feminist tool. All her books explore the
anarchic potential of childhood and in their identification with a juvenile
perspective gain a licence to satirise adult mores and expose the disabling
effects of a patriarchal and capitalist establishment. [Foster and Simon, 129]
I think it's worth challenging this, admittedly attractive reading. That's not to say I'd want to suggest The Railway
is a book that works to prop-up
the patriarchy. This, after all, is a book that contains the much-quoted exchange between Roberta and her brother:
girls help to mend engines?” Peter asked, doubtfully
course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys and don’t you forget it.”
[RC, ch. 13]
It's true, too—I mean, it's true that girls can be as clever as boys, and vice versa. Still, there maybe the slightest creak of unease about this, slogan-wise, the merest lack of nuance, or of what is sometimes called 'intersectionality'. We might say: what stops talented girls from achieving as much as talented, or often less-talented, boys is: sexism
. That's true, too, of course. But it's also true that sexism is not an abstract set of arbitrary rules living, somehow, inside the heads of men and women. It is a social praxis, and as such is inextricably tangled up with questions of class and history. Some girls (like Edith Nesbit herself) were able to capitalise upon their cleverness, and make their way in the world. That Edith did so was down to her talent and her hard work, but it was also down to the fact that she wasn't hamstrung by being born working class, denied education and so on. There are middle-class girls and women in The Railway Children
. There are some working class women, but in marginal roles ('Station Master's wife' for instance. Does this character even have a name?), completely defined by their roles as mothers and caregivers.
I'm making heavy weather of this point, I know. Blame the conflicted sense I got, re-reading The Railway Children
after many years: namely, how absolutely saturated
this novel is in unspoken class assumption. Banished to the countryside when the father is arrested, the family find themselves in tight financial straits. They can't afford to buy enough coal to keep the house warm. Young Peter's response to this is to steal coal.The crucial thing about this is that Peter resolutely refuses to consider himself a thief: he is 'a coal miner'. It's just that the coal he is mining comes from the supplies the railway company had previously bought and stored. The Station Master catches him in the act:
"So I've caught you at last, have I, you young thief?" said the Station Master.
"I'm not a thief," said Peter, as firmly as he could. "I'm a coal-miner." [RC ch.2]
Peter's defense is that what he was doing could not be theft, since it entailed labour: firstly, 'if I took it from the outside part of the heap, perhaps it would be [theft]. But in the middle I thought I could fairly count it only mining'; and secondly it cost him effort 'carting that beastly heavy stuff up the hill'. The chutzpah here is rather wonderful. It's certainly enough to win over the working-class Station Master ('"Well," said the Station Master, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll look over it this once.'). Labour is the magical add-on that justifies any and all middle-class anti-social behaviour. Of course, it can only be an add-on if one has stuff to add it on to. Which reminds us of the definition of a proletarian: that person who has nothing to add-on to
, who has nothing but
their labour to sell.
This runs right through the novel. We could summarise it thuswise: when working class kids take coal without paying it's 'theft'; but when middle-class kids do this it's 'coal mining' and 'we'll say no more about it'. And actually, this is a subset of a larger logic at work behind many of the scenes of this novel. When middle class kids do something, from driving a railway engine, to handling a barge ('"it was simply ripping, Mother," said Peter, when they reached home very happy, very tired, "right over that glorious aqueduct. And locks—"' ch. 8), it is play
. When working class people do these things it is work
. For a socialist writer like Nesbit to confuse these two categories is .... well, intriguing, to put it mildly.
Maybe that's unfair. Play is the salient in all the best children's writing. The world Nesbit paints in this novel is
one where adults are mostly bumbling and ineffectual, from comical foolishness right up to the level of gross professional incompetence that puts the lives of hundreds of people in mortal danger, as when the signalman Homer-Simpsons his way snoringly through his duties. 'My hat!' Peter ejaculates. 'Wake up!'
Prima facie, this and other like episodes in this novel are saying: adults and especially working class adults are simply not competent to do the jobs society requires them to do. It is saying: thank heavens for the intervention of nice middle-class children, for without those catastrophe would ensue and lives be lost! Nor can this simply be addressed and remedied; it can't even be talked about, because 'poor people are very proud, you know' [ch.9]. All the real work of the novel (keeping the railway running safely, getting father out of prison) devolves on the kids, and this labour is indistinguishable from the children playing. One can become alienated from one's labour, as Marx shows: but can one become alienated from one's play
? I suppose so, actually.
What elevates this beyond the level of mere class bias (and there's certainly no shortage of that quality in 20th-century children's literature) is the extent to which Nesbit makes us aware, by working into her novel a meta-level on which it is revealed, that labour and play are not
the same thing. That level is the question of literary
labour: for the mother in The Railway Children
is, as Nesbit was herself, a professional writer—professional in the strict sense that she writes to earn money, not as a posh-lady hobby or for reasons of personal expression. Writing is the production of entertainment, and entertainment is play rather than work. Producing entertainment, though, is work not play, and that's part of the point. The maternal woman's labour is the production of the world of the novel itself.
The Railway Children
is very closely involved in this metatextual self-awareness. When 'Jim' is injured in the tunnel, the kids go in to rescue him:
"Don't you see," replied Peter, impressively, "that red-jerseyed hound
has had an accident—that's what it is. Perhaps even as we speak he's
lying with his head on the metals, an unresisting prey to any passing
"Oh, don't try to talk like a book," cried Bobbie, bolting what was left
of her sandwich. [ch. 11]
Oh, don't try to talk like a book says the character in a book to the other character in the book. Later, shortly before the Old Gentleman deus-ex-machinas the novel's happy ending we get
"I say, Mother, why can't his grandfather pay for a nurse?" Peter
suggested. "That would be ripping. I expect the old boy's rolling in
money. Grandfathers in books always are."
"Well, this one isn't in a book," said Mother, "so we mustn't expect him
to roll much."
"I say," said Peter, musingly, "wouldn't it be jolly if we all WERE in
a book, and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly
What's clever, here (well: up to a point) is the way this moment of metatextual insight foregrounds precisely the dilemma with which Nesbit herself was concerned. A novel in which everything magically comes out alright, against all odds, and everybody lives happily ever after sounds like a children's novel—and of course that's just what happens in The Railway Children
. One of the ways we separate out 'adult' or 'proper' novels from the feminised 'mere children's stories' is the extent to which the former refuse to collaborate in the 'and they all lived happily ever after' logic of the latter. We take tragedy more seriously than comedy, and 'realism' more seriously than fantasy, although for the life of me I don't know why. But I'm not talking about me; I'm talking about that coercive 'we' that measures 'being taken seriously as an artist' in quanta of 'includes things in her book that aren't the sort of things that happen in books'. I daresay I don't need to dilate upon the sheer self-contradiction inherent in that.
This is relevant because The Railway Children
works in part (and by works I mean: generates its undeniable affect and power) by carefully balancing its realist and fantastic valences. On the one hand it is a story about recognisable human beings, who suffer not wicked-fairy curses or imprisonment by ogres, but a father locked up in prison, and the attendant social stigma and reduction in material wealth. The author's thumb is in the balance, as it were, in that the father is not sent to prison for anything demeaning, like fraud, theft or assault, but for reasons mysteriously tied-up with politics and the Russian Revolution. It is part of the novel's deliberate textual strategy that the specifics are not made explicit.
"Are you going to tell the others?" Mother asked.
"Exactly," said Mother; "so you understand."
This is from chapter 10, entitled 'The Terrible Secret' and it marks the covenant between adult and child in terms of shame and secrecy and what must not be said.
At the same time, The Railway Children
is of course a fantasy, a fantasy of what it would be like to be released from the tedious round of (urban) school and duty, free to roam the countryside, to play, to become heroes and heroines. Trains are exciting, especially when you're a kid. In part this is because trains are always more than just trains for children, more that is than their function and utility. Here's Phyllis in the tunnel in chapter 9: '"It IS a dragon—I always knew it was—it takes its own shape in here,
in the dark," shouted Phyllis' [ch. 9]. This picks up on Phyllis's earlier insistence that the trail 'is a magic dragon' that will 'understand and take our loves to Father'. The sort of things kids have to learn in dull English and Geography lessons are sweetly mangled into fantasy versions of themselves: 'It's quite right what it says in the poetry book,' says Phyllis, 'about sharper than a serpent it is to
have a toothless child' [ch. 3]; and later in the book Mount Everest becomes the more Pilgrims-Progressy 'Mount Everlasting'. If it weren't playful then it wouldn't be any fun. Kids understand that.
Julia Briggs thinks the scene where Roberta is reunited with her father (‘“O my
Daddy, my Daddy!” That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone on
the train, and people put their heads out of the window to see a tall, pale man
with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms
and legs, while his arms went tightly round her’)
shares the emotional intensity with some of the greatest discovery scenes in
literature—Iphigenia and her brother, Lear and Cordelia, Leontes and Hermione.
I'm really not sure that this rightly catches the tone of this celebrated emotional climax; but it certainly touches on one eminent feature of Nesbit's writing: its intertextuality:
A number of critics have noted the extraordinary extent to which Nesbit’s
child characters are saturated in and fascinated by all kinds of literature. 3
after book, Nesbit portrays young people as irrepressible mimics who shape their
games, ideals, behavior, and even speech around texts created by adults. In The
Story of the Treasure Seekers, for example, the Bastable children swipe scenarios
for their activities from Kipling, Conan Doyle, Marryat, Edgeworth, de la Motte
Fouqué, Pope, and the Arabian Nights, as well as assorted picture books, newspaper
stories, and advertisements. At the same time, Nesbit herself reworks the material
of Charles Dickens, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Kenneth
Grahame. In her numerous studies of Nesbit, Julia Briggs brilliantly details both
sets of borrowings, but she never quite makes explicit their ultimate effect, which is
to break down the divide between adult writer and child reader by suggesting that
both parties can improvise on other people’s stories to produce their own narratives.
While this strong sense of equivalence may be a fantasy of Nesbit’s, it is nevertheless
a fantasy about equality, about sharing a propensity for the same game. [Marah Gubar, 'Partners in Crime:
E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving', Style 35:3 (Conventions of Children's Literature: Then and Now; Autumn 2001), 411]
This is also part of the 'labour' of writing. One of things this Marah Gubar article does is show how exercised Nesbit became when she thought her work was being plagiarised ('Nesbit “detested
plagiarism and thought it a stigma to be accused of it”'; 426). The work of story, in other words, is similar to the 'work' Peter undertakes stealing, or rather mining
, coal. It is that space where necessity and play, work and theft, all four fold into each other. It's the place, in other words, where adult incompetence compels children to undertake the labour that is needful as play
. It is in its way a very definition of the new mode of children's literature, stretched between infancy and adulthood, between play and plunder: YA.
There's more to say, of course, about trains; more than I can manage here, I think. Why do
kids love trains so much? Toy trains, real trains, the wooh-wooh of the whistle, the excitement of the big machines running along the tracks. I suppose we associate it more with younger kids, from
... to ...
... and of course to ...
The modular side of it presumably has to do with toys more generally. But The Railway Children
is about actual trains, and I'm assuming that one main thing about actual trains (for kids, but also for adults) is the excitement of their size. This may connect with related childhood enthusiasms such as: dinosaurs. Might we want to read trains (pace
Phyllis insistence that her train is actually a Dragon) as mechanical dinosaurs, and dinosaurs as sort-of organic trains? Is there any text that links these two things? Surely not.
The serious point is that trains figure as a children's version of the Sublime: equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. A socialist, or Fabian, like Nesbit might well project this Sublimity onto a more 'adult', explicitly political context: trains have a multivalent relationship to the logic of capitalism as such. Lenin, in 'Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism' (1916)
sees the railway as a potential liberatory technology of mass transit and industry that has been de facto hijacked by Imperialism as a mode of global oppression:
Railways are a summation of the basic capitalist industries: coal, iron and steel; a summation and the most striking indices of the development of world trade and bourgeois-democratic civilization. How the railways are linked up with large-scale industry, with monopolies, syndicates, cartels, trusts, banks and the financial oligarchy is shown in the preceding chapters of the book. The uneven distribution of the railways, their uneven development—sums up, as it were, modern monopolist capitalism on a world-wide scale. ... The building of railways seems to be a simple, natural, democratic, cultural and civilizing enterprise; that is what it is in the opinion of bourgeois professors, who are paid to depict capitalist slavery in bright colors, and in the opinion of petty-bourgeois Philistines. But as a matter of fact the capitalist threads, which in thousands of different intercrossings bind these enterprises with private property in means of production in general, have converted this railway construction into an instrument for oppressing a thousand million people.
A less tendentious way of reading the semiology of 'the train' is to see it as an index of a particular sort of modernity, or more precisely of a version of modern mobility. The first trains in literature—in Dickens' Dombey and Son
and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina
—are both linked to death by suicide of main characters. The deaths of many in The Railway Children
are only averted by
the children, as if only Rousseauian innocence in its most middle-class incarnation stands between the possibility of technological mobility and that most savage avatar of modernity-as-progress, the Railway-Juggernaut:
That's your Train-as-Velociraptor, right there. The children
element in The Railway Children
is the humanising, pastoralising and sanctifying portion of the phrase. But they are also, in an admittedly counterintuitive way, the apotheosis of the railway
element. This is because it is the children who act as the agents of social connectivity: uninhibitedly venturing into the homes of the working class as into the tunnels of the landscape, visiting and giving presents and begging favours from everybody until eventually, by giving the gift of the 'the hound' Jim's life back to Jim's grandfather they discover that he and the Old Gentleman are one and the same person and are able to beg
from him the life of their own father. And in this they actualise the function of railways as such. Here's a passage from Kai Eriksson's 'Foucault, Deleuze, and the Ontology of Networks' [The European Legacy (10:6, 2005), 595
Wolfgang Schivelbusch refers in his excellent history of railway journeys to a piece of writing by Francoise Choay on Georges Haussman’s rearrangement of Paris’s road network. According to Choay, the connecting lines of this network were like arteries,and the whole system was compared by Hausmann to that of blood circulation. It was divided into subsystems each of which had a center of its own. This center was not a particular place but rather a node of traffic or, as Hausmann described it, a point of reference. Schivelbusch traces the similarity between the objectives of city traffic and those of the railway system, showing how it became possible to think of a boulevard as dividing the city like a railway divided the countryside. What is crucial here is the way in which different systems, institutions, and metaphors constitute a conceptual model in and through which an emerging order is given shape. Railways influenced the way traffic arrangements were seen, but railways themselves were connected to the metaphor of the network.
Erikssons point is that networks like railways have thus come to constitute 'a generic model for considering societal phenomena'. And that's the moral of The Railway Children
too, summed up in slightly sappy form in this exchange between Mother and Roberta in chapter 8:
"So you've made another lot of friends," said Mother; "first the railway
and then the canal!"
"Oh, yes," said Bobbie; "I think everyone in the world is friends if you
can only get them to see you don't want to be UN-friends."
"Perhaps you're right," said Mother.
Which leads to my rather perverse conclusion: that one of the things Nesbit's novel is suggesting, in its own oblique and symbolic way, is that children are railways, and railways children.