****I would challenge readers to try to work out or guess what the people in the top picture are doing, before reading the explanation immediately below ****
[Dickie and his new friend Mr Beale are going tramping together]
"Can you write?"
"Yes," said Dickie, "if I got a pen."
"I got a pencil—hold on a bit." He took out of his pocket a new envelope, a new sheet of paper, and a new pencil ready sharpened by machinery. It almost looked, Dickie thought, as though he had brought them out for some special purpose. Perhaps he had.
"Now," said the man, "you take an' write—make it flat agin the sole of me boot." He lay face downward on the road and turned up his boot, as though boots were the most natural writing-desks in the world. “I'm glad I wasn't born a table to be wrote on. Don't it make yer legs stiff, neither!"
[many adventures later in the book] Before long two most miserable children faced each other in Edred's bedroom, dressed as Red Indians so far as their heads and backs went. Then came lots of plate armor for chest and arms; then, in the case of Elfrida, petticoats and Roman sash and Japanese wickerwork shoes and father's shooting-gaiters made to look like boots by brown paper tops. And in the case of Edred, legs cased in armor that looked like cricket pads, ending in jointed foot-coverings that looked like chrysalises.
observations: When I recently read Nesbit’s The House of Arden, a whole bunch of Nesbit fans came into the comments (it was sooo nice!) and several of them recommended Harding’s Luck, which is a sequel to Arden. The connection isn’t obvious for a long time (and you could certainly read either book as a standalone) but eventually E&E from the first book turn up, and you can work out Deptford Dickie’s role in the first book.
For some people, it is their favourite Nesbit: I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a good rollicking tale, not at all predictable, and she makes a brave effort to make a hero of a rough, common boy. Nesbit has strong socialist principles, and that comes over in her books, but her life was spent amongst moneyed people with servants.
There’s a tremendously affecting bit near the beginning where Dickie wants to grow some flowers, but buys ‘bird seed’ at the hardware store, because he hopes that means the flowers will be bright flowers like a parrot’s colours. He takes up with Mr Beale, above – a most interesting figure, and not one you could put into a children’s book now – and there is an adventure resembling one of Oliver Twist’s.
I don’t know why the children had to dress quite so strangely in the second excerpt above, but I was very impressed by the imagination shown.
The book takes the House of Arden a lot further, and resolves various issues, but the ending left me open-mouthed. Everyone is in quite a difficult situation, all the main characters have behaved really well, trying to do the right thing, and Nesbit has carefully explained the temptations and problems (I have to be careful what I say, as I really don’t want to spoiler this for anyone coming new to it.) And then she cuts through it with a completely unexpected move on the part of Dickie, one that I have been thinking about off and on since I read it.
The illustrations are from a 1910 edition of the book. You can find the text free online.