Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

published 1907



The hall was crowded with live things, strange things, all horribly short, as broom sticks and umbrellas are short. A limp hand gesticulated. A pointed white face with red cheeks looked up at him, and wide red lips said something, he could not tell what. The voice reminded him of the old beggar down by 


the bridge who had no roof to his mouth. These creatures had no roofs to their mouths, of course they had no – 

"Aa 00 re o me me oo a oo ho el?" said the voice again. And it had said it four times before Gerald could collect himself sufficiently to understand that this horror alive, and most likely quite uncontrollable was saying, with a dreadful calm, polite persistence: "Can you recommend me to a good hotel?"

The speaker had no inside to his head. Gerald had the best of reasons for knowing it. The speaker's coat had no shoulders inside it only the cross-bar that a jacket is slung on by careful ladies. The hand raised in interrogation was not a hand at all; it was a glove lumpily stuffed with pocket-handkerchiefs; and the arm attached to it was only Kathleen's school umbrella. Yet the whole thing was alive, and was asking a definite, and for anybody else, anybody who really was a body, a reasonable question.







observations: When I did an entry on Pamela Brown’s The Swish of The Curtain recently, various commentators were reminiscing about BBC teatime serials for children, of which Swish was one. Crimeworm remembered one where ‘they had created some kind of "dummies" - I don't know how else to describe them - as the audience and they utterly terrified me.’

Daniel Milford-Cottam, great friend to this blog, knew exactly what she was talking about:

That series with the dummies was [the 1979]The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (who also wrote the original book The Phoenix and the Carpet). The dummies were called "Ugly-Wuglies" and I have been DESPERATE to see the series for real ever since I heard about them. One of my ex-boyfriends remembers it from the first time round and says the Ugly-Wuglies were remarkably terrifying. It's one of the BBC dramas I REALLY want to see because I only know it from a couple of pictures from an old paperback cover. 

I only know this because I've read (and loved) the book - it is one of E Nesbit's less well-known books but it's pretty amazing. There's a gorgeous scene in it where the children are asking their French governess for hairpieces to make up the dummies with, and she whips out her hairpins to reveal that all her abundant hair is her own, and then asks if they want her (definitely not false) teeth too. Very funny and very affectionate.

So naturally I had to read the book (and another Nesbit he recommended, coming soon) – it’s in the public domain so you can get it free for a Kindle. It is a complete delight, and the French governess is an intriguing and (as Daniel pointed out) quite sexy figure. But the stand-out feature is undoubtedly the Ugly-Wuglies, who are indeed terrifying. The children make dummies out of household objects to represent an audience, but they accidentally come alive, and are real people – but ones made out of hockeysticks, coats and bits of paper. They are more troublesome than dangerous, but there is something very creepy indeed about them. I think they must have given young children nightmares, and would make a great animation project for an enterprising film company, who could do wonders with the concept nowadays. 


STOP PRESS: Daniel has established that you can see the relevant episode from the 70s BBC series on YouTube - it's here:




  


And this is what the Ugly-Wuglies look like: 



Interesting contemporary notes: E Nesbit makes it clear she thinks all schools should be co-educational; and also has one of the children reporting on being horrified by the conditions in prisons – so much so that he lets some thieves escape. The children say ‘Wireless is rather like magic’ – I was interested, thinking this was a bit early for radio (I’m ever alert for false anachronisms) but I think this is wireless telegraphy, transmitting Morse code clicks rather than voices. As ever she has funny sidenotes – a boy says he can make his nose bleed at will, and another boy ‘congratulated him on this accomplishment, at once so useful and so graceful.’

Thanks again to Daniel for comments and recommendation – every time I read an E Nesbit I remember how funny she was, and how different from most writers for children, in her own time and now.  There are several entries for her on the blog - click on the Nesbit label below.

The first two illustrations are from an edition of the book. The third picture I came across in a schoolgirl annual while doing a different entry, and she seemed to fit in nicely….

18 comments:

  1. Love your enthusiasm, but it's not shared I'm afraid. Can confidently say I won't be coming across these when logging the blue tubs!

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    1. No probably not... It seems to have made a big impression on everyone who saw the TV programme, but you may have been the wrong age for that...

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    2. obviously far too young....

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  2. French Governesses are an interesting character trope generally - I was struck by how thoroughly nice, sensible and humorous the Governess is in Enchanted Castle. She's allowed to be intelligent AND attractive AND pleasant - not a combination usually accorded to French Governesses who
    have a tendency to be comic fish-out-of-water figures, either spiky and humourless, or silly and almost useless, which makes E. Nesbit's governess such a lovely character.

    There's also the Sinisterly Sexy French Governess beloved of Gothic fiction - I can't think of one offhand, but I'm pretty sure Victoria Holt wrote at least a couple. An extension of the Femme Fatale.

    In schoolgirl stories, the Mamzelle is almost always the comedy teacher - although I do love how in one of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers books (I think it's the last one - oh no, In The Fifth at Malory Towers), the much-beleagured victim of "treeks," Mamzelle Dupont, gets her revenge for all those tricks played on her with a set of hideous false teeth. (Those books had two Mamzelles - the other one was spiky and bitter and I don't think we got to see much of her.)

    Which, actually, is another of these books where a big deal is made out of the kids putting on a play (although Mamzelle's treek has nothing to do with it.)

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    1. A lovely overview of mamzelles thank you, I should do a list of them. Yes I well remember the Enid Blyton ones, and the 'treek'. And the play too - Darrell wrote it, didn't she, and at the end the audience rose to their feet and shouted 'author', something that I then believed was wholly what you would expect at a play, any play. I had to unlearn a lot about life once I stopped reading EBlyton.

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  3. Moira - I love the way Nesbit writes from children's points of view. There's a really authentic sense I think of that mix of reality and imagination that you see in children's thinking. Nice to see these books are available so easily.

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    1. Yes indeed, her children are so much more real than those of many of her contemporaries - and just more real than many literary juveniles of any era. I think you can tell she had children of her own.

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  4. Castle is my favourite. The animated Greek statues – and marble dinosaurs – can be frightening, too.

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    1. I didn't read this one as a child, but I think it might have given me nightmares if I had. What an imagination Nesbit had.

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  5. Moira, I enjoy reading Edith Nesbit's stories and the last one I read was "The Mystery of the Semi-Detached" which was a part of her second collection of horror stories titled "Grim Tales." I agree, she is different from other writers of children's fiction and fun to read as well. I'll be reading "The Enchanted Castle."

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    1. She's great isn't she? And she wrote such a lot... I hadn't heard of the one you mention, but will look out that collection.

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    2. Moira, you can read "Grim Tales" at Gutenberg — http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40321/40321-h/40321-h.htm

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  6. I love E Nsebit. She really reminds me of my childhood in terms of the books and tv programmes. Thanks for reminding me of her books.

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    1. Yes, me too, and she really was very modern in outlook and very funy.

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  7. I agree, they sound very creepy in that extract. Possibly it is because I have no childhood memories of this, but it does not appeal to me.

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    1. I think you may be right Tracy - I don't think she was very big in America, so you don't have the same nostalgia we Brits have.

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