Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Railway Children by E Nesbit

serialized 1905, published 1906






[A strange man has turned up at the railway station]

"What's that he's saying?" asked the farmer, heavily.

"Sounds like French to me," said the Station Master, who had once been to Boulogne for the day…

Peter pressed forward, so that when the crowd closed up again he was in the front rank. "I don't know what it is," said Peter, "but it isn't French. I know that." Then he saw what it was that the crowd had for its centre. It was a man— the man, Peter did not doubt, who had spoken in that strange tongue. A man with long hair and wild eyes, with shabby clothes of a cut Peter had not seen before— a man whose hands and lips trembled, and who spoke again as his eyes fell on Peter.

"No, it's not French," said Peter.

"Try him with French if you know so much about it," said the farmer-man.

"Parlay voo Frongsay?" began Peter, boldly, and the next moment the crowd recoiled again, for the man with the wild eyes had left leaning against the wall, and had sprung forward and caught Peter's hands, and begun to pour forth a flood of words which, though he could not understand a word of them, Peter knew the sound of. "There!" said he, and turned, his hands still clasped in the hands of the strange shabby figure, to throw a glance of triumph at the crowd; "there; THAT'S French."

"What does he say?"

"I don't know." Peter was obliged to own it.



observations: See also earlier entry on The Railway Children.

This is an unexpected section of the book: the stranger who has got off the train turns out to be a Russian writer, exiled from his native land, looking for his wife and children. He has been in trouble with the authorities in Russia: the children’s mother says
He wrote a beautiful book about poor people and how to help them. I've read it. There's nothing in it but goodness and kindness. And they sent him to prison for it.
The horror of unjust imprisonment is of course relevant to the family’s situation, but it’s still quite revolutionary stuff for a book of the early 1900s - E.Nesbit was very much a socialist and moved in left-wing circles, and it does show. The family helps to sort out the man, with the help of that very useful Old Gentleman. Sadly authors today don’t feel they can use such a deus ex machina to put everything right.

Peter is well to the fore here, but near the beginning there is this excellent exchange:
"CAN girls help to mend engines?" Peter asked doubtfully.

"Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys, and don't you forget it! How would you like to be an engine-driver, Phil?"
This is addressed to Phyllis, obv a girl, and although she does say "My face would be always dirty, wouldn't it?" in unenthusiastic tones, the excellent Roberta says "I should just love it… do you think I could when I'm grown up, Daddy? Or even a stoker?"

The picture is of Trotsky, the right age and era although more or a revolutionary than a writer, and comes from the Library of Congress. Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo, heroine of this book, and appears in the scene featured in the blog entry.

The question of talking French turns up in the same author’s Five Children and It, here on the blog.

13 comments:

  1. Moira, I like the way Edith Nesbit writes. I've read a few of her short stories including "The Mystery of the Semi-Detached" from Grim Tales. I have this in ebook form and will read it one of these days.

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    1. She's such an interesting character, as well as writing good books, she led a fascinating life. And the books can still appeal to today's children - and adults - even if some aspects are old-fashioned. I'm sure you will enjoy The Railway Children.

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  2. Moira - Oh, I haven't thought of this book in such a long time! Thanks for reminding me of it. I do like Nesbit's writing style. If I can put it this way, it flows well without being too much. And I like the way she portrays a young person's perspective - not always an easy thing to do.

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    1. That's a very good description Margot, it's hard to define why she is still so good after all these years, but you put it very well.

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  3. I'm tempted to direct the topic towards Jenny Agutter, but I did that last time. Read the book - can't remember it. Watched the film - enjoyed it.

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    1. Did it make you cry at the end? When someone finally mentioned it in relation to my tear-jerkers piece, I was surprised that I, and everyone else, hadn't mentioned it already. The 'that's my Daddy!' line is a killer, especially for parents.

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  4. Someday I will have to read this. I don't suppose you have a print edition to recommend?

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    1. You can get it free online! In the UK you can get cheap classics for about £1 or 2 ($2-3) - but I used to buy Penguin/Puffin children's classics editions, which you could buy in the USA then. But that seems to be OOP now - you might find it 2nd-hand.

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    2. For something like this I would rather have paper, and I had read that things were missing from the kindle version (the children's lists???). And then I saw that some at Amazon are abridged. Etc. But I can check a wonderful independent bookstore we have and get their advice, and then try online...used, if need be.

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  5. I haven't read anything by this author, but have read some philosophy and history by Trotsky in my younger days, and he was a good writer, albeit not of fiction.

    His writing really forced me to think in ways I often don't.

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    1. I have read about him, but not much by him - what a fascinating man. And such an extraordinary life.

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  6. Oh, you, the college days, study groups, good professors who told students to read a lot on economics, politics, history and philosophy. Those days we read everything and gobbled up books that pushed our thinking. And if we didn't do that for school, everyone was in study groups, reading, thinking, discussing -- everything.

    Those were the early 1970s with the anti-war, anti-draft, Civil Rights, women's and gay movement going on. And I live in New York City, which was just full of discussions and actions. So, one had to read to stay in the discussions.

    Our minds were stretched to the maximum, constantly thinking.

    And now I read mysteries, my NY Times and interesting blogs, like this one.

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    1. I recognize that bittersweet description so well....

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