Synopsis


Introduction

    Where to 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?"!

                                                              In Review

    Many things 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 Magician" publication.....
     "The Railway 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 Nesbit’s 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 Peter’s 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 porter’s 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 Father’s mysterious disappearance and eventual happy reunion with his family.....

Pete Coleman. 12 / 03 / 2000