begin, well I suppose I should begin by telling you how I became interested in the story
in the first place. It all started out around twenty eight years ago when my first
"real" girlfriend took me to see the new Warner Brothers "Railway
Children" movie, starring Jenny Agutter, and being of a somewhat sentimental nature,
naturally had a tear in my eye at the ending, even though it's a happy one !!
After having seen the movie on television on several occasions, I then
decided to read the book as books are always much "deeper" than their movie
counterparts, well I was hooked both on the novel and E Nesbit's story telling style, and
I must have read the book at least once a year since then. It was a
natural enough progression to start wondering what kind of person the author must have
been, and after consulting my local library, I found that there was at least two good
biographies available, so I promptly borrowed them both and studied them from cover to
cover. The more I read, the more I became entranced by the "larger than life"
character of E Nesbit and her amazing life story. This served only to heighten my
admiration of the author and her novel.
Another more personal reason for my love of "The Railway
Children" seems to be of a nostalgic nature. When I was a child I used to live in
what was then, a small village in the countryside, and in a couple of fields distance from
the back of our house was a railway line. This was still in the days of steam engines and
walking along the track was a relatively safe past-time, and walk along the tracks I did,
and like "The Railway Children", I made friends with the Station Master and
Porter and spent many a happy afternoon sitting in the ticket office whiling away the
hours. The railway line and the station have all gone now, built over with housing estates
and shops, the village has grown and is no longer the quiet place it used to be. I still
live in the vicinity, not far in fact, from "Halstead Hall", where E Nesbit and
her brothers used to play on the railway line when she was a child, the memories of which
served her so well when it came to sketching out the storyline for "The Railway
Children". I never read any of E Nesbit's children's stories when
I was a child, though I was an avid reader, it is only in the past ten years that I have
started to read through them (a psychiatrist would probably have something to say about
that !) and although I have enjoyed the "fantasies", her novels that keep away
from magic and stick more to "real life", are for me, the best of all.
The story of "The Railway Children" differs from the rest of E
Nesbit's stories in that it takes it's roots from her early married life rather than her
own childhood experiences. Of course the adventures the children were to have on and
around the railway line are based on Edith's exploits with her brothers when they lived at
"Halstead Hall", but the central theme of a dire tragedy overtaking the Father
and leaving Mother to support and cope with a young family on her own, stems from the
period when not long married, Edith found herself in just such a position. Hubert, Edith's
husband, had a brush making business but took ill and had to be nursed by Edith for some
time. Hubert's business partner took this opportunity to abscond to Spain with the company
funds, leaving Hubert and his family without any financial income. Edith then had to find
a means of support for them and took to writing short poems and prose to be published as
cards or in the small booklets that were in vogue at that time. Edith also found that she
could earn extra money by illustrating and painting floral motifs on postcards. So like
Mother in the story, Edith was "always writing, writing, writing". This then, is
the core of "The Railway Children", the wonderful adventures they were to have
at least has some basis in "real life" (as will later be shown) but are mostly
drawn from the author's imagination, although on some occasions, it is known that Edith
implored of her visitors "does anyone have any ideas for a plot?"!
have been said of "The Railway Children" story, mostly complementary, but at
least one, to my knowledge, less flattering review by Anthea Bell, in her Bodley
Head Monograph publication......
"My own view, (Anthea Bell), is
that it is not in the same class as the rest of her books, and without them might not have
survived to the television age at all- and that a discriminating child will recognise the
difference in quality subconsciously, enjoying The Railway Children, but not with the same
satisfying kind of enjoyment as the Bastable books provide. It is arguable that a series
of incidents such as rescuing trains, rescuing wounded boys, rescuing babies from fires
and rescuing foreign refugees constitute just as much of a fantasy as marvellous
adventures on a flying carpet. The story cried out for the liveliness of The Bastables,
and the pen of Oswald, to redeem it from sentimentality. One longs for a breath of
Bastable fresh air, in which just one of the rescues would turn out to be superfluous. The
children themselves have many good moments-even so, there is not quite the cheerful,
convincing family feeling that exist between the children in most of E Nesbit's books.
......she must have partly identified herself with Mother of The Railway Children,
perhaps this one lapse from the habit of objectivity which served her so well helps to
account for the difference in quality of this story".
Reproduced from the Bodley Head Monograph "E. Nesbit" published in 1960
In the main though, most
reviews "The Railway Children" were to receive were a little less biased,
typically, Noel Streatfield's appraisal in her E. Nesbit.: "Magic and the
Children" stands quite by itself amongst E Nesbit's books for her drawing of the
children, Roberta or Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis. The Bastables, because they were described
as Oswald saw them, though a living breathing family, were on occasion larger than life,
and the children in the magic books, because they had to be less important than a
creature, smaller than life, but the Railway Children are real, so real that not only
would they be recognisable sitting opposite their readers in a bus, but could earn that
finest tribute a child can pay a character or characters in a book: 'That was a very
Railway Children thing to do.'
There can be no question but that Nesbit had known her Railway Children for a very long
time indeed...... From the first page, because she knew her family so well before she
started to write their story, and because she knew so much both before the story began and
after it finished that she was keeping to herself, E Nesbit knew that she was going to
allow Roberta to run away with her, when the story was coming to life in her mind, E
Nesbit probably conceived each member of the family as playing an equal part in her story,
but gradually, as she wrote the book, and she states this clearly, Roberta ran away with
her heart and so with her pen. In studying the Nesbit books as a whole The Railway
Children has perhaps to be considered separately for it stands alone. It has not the
brilliance of the Bastable books, nor the blazing imagination of the magic books, but it
has that most difficult quality to get on paper, a solid home life. In this one book E
Nesbit shares qualities with Louisa Alcott, for her Roberta is just as alive as the four
Little Women, and indeed has something in common with both Jo and Beth. And though Peter
and Phyllis are a little less clearly drawn they are still living children, and by no
means mere feeds for Roberta. Because she made the family so real, it was hard for E
Nesbit to remember they were only figures of her imagination, and that the time must come
when she would have finished with them, for she ends her book as though she were following
them on tip-toe...... Many readers have wished since that she had not been so tactful, but
had written more books about the same children. Perhaps sometimes she even wished that
herself, for though she was to write of other children, she was never again to know them
in the round, as she had known her Railway Children".
Reproduced from the Ernest Benn publication "E Nesbit: Magic and the Magician"
by Noel Streatfield. Published in 1958.
A Consise Synopsis:
Edith Nesbits novel "The Railway Children" tells the story of the trials
and adventures of a middle class Edwardian family living in the suburbs of London at the
turn of the century. The story is set during the spring, summer and autumn months of 1903.
The family consists of three children: Roberta, known as "Bobbie" who at 11
years old, is the eldest of the three, followed by Peter, who wants to be an engineer when
he grows up, and Phyllis, the youngest, who means well! Then there is Mother and Father,
Mother writes poetry and stories to keep the children amused, and Father works for the
government in the Foreign Office. Edith Nesbit describes them as being "just
perfect". The family live in a red brick house called Edgecombe Villa, which has all
the modern conveniences, as the estate agents say.
One evening after
dinner when Father is enjoying his after-dinner cigar, the family are discussing the
possibility of mending Peters toy steam engine, which has suffered an unfortunate
accident, there comes a knock at the front door.
The Maid calls Father
into his study. Although the children cannot hear what is being said, they can hear voices
that are raised in anger.
When the shouting
finally stops, Father leaves the house with two official looking gentlemen, and their
Mother looks extremely worried.
Mother tells the
children that Father has had to go away on business and that she does not know when he
will be coming home again. There follows some weeks of misery and anxiety for the
children. Mother is almost always out, coming home late and tired. The children make a
promise to each other to be on their best behaviour and not to ask Mother any questions
about her obvious sadness.
One morning, Mother
seems to be more cheerful and tells the children that they are going to move to a
"darling little house" in the country. The children are relieved to see Mother
in a happier mood, but are still aware that something is very wrong.
Mother and the three
children move to "Three Chimneys", an isolated cottage deep in the sleepy
countryside. Mother cannot afford to send the children to school, and so the children find
themselves with a whole summer of freedom to look forward to. Mother tells the children
that they will have to play at being poor. Mother always seems to be busy now, she is
writing stories to sell to the magazines of the day. After living in the hustle and bustle
of London, and with the countryside being so quiet, the children naturally enough find
themselves being attracted towards the only real source of interest around, and that is
the railway. They come to know, and make friends with the porter at the station. His name
is "Perks" and the children spend many a happy afternoon in the porters
office drinking tea and chatting to him about the railway.
As the story unfolds,
the children find themselves being caught up in many exciting adventures involving the
railway and also the nearby canal. They make new friends at the station and in the nearby
village. Every morning the children wave at the 9:15 train, they call this train "The
Green Dragon" and they send their love to Father by it. They make one particular new
friend; an old gentleman that rides on the "Green Dragon" every day, he turns
out to be a rather special old gentleman, and he holds the solution to Fathers
mysterious disappearance and eventual happy reunion with his family.....
Pete Coleman. 12 / 03