E.Nesbit and her Child Readers

Seamus Heaney’s “The Railway Children” from his 1984 collection Station Island, offers an almost ekphrastic response to E. Nesbit’s classic British children’s story, The Railway Children. In the poem, Heaney comments on the perception of the world by children and their ability to grasp big truths even in spite of their ignorance of this capacity:

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting

We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telephone poles and the sizzling wires.
[…] We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of the needle [1]

The resonance is palpable. Significantly, the final line reflects a moral bottom line. Heaney’s references Matthew 19:24 and infers an inherent humility and the presence of innocence. Heaney is also implying, I contend, the prominence of certain moral values in Nesbit’s writing. Nesbit is, despite the absence of critical scholarship in support of this view, an author deeply interested in interweaving moral messages and education into her novels. Moreover, Nesbit held, like Heaney, a belief in the capacity of children to comprehend complex moral dilemmas and to respond with subtlety even as they remain innocent of their own ability to do so. In Nesbit’s Railway Children, the narrator comments that the Waterbury children “imagine worlds that adults can no longer fathom.”[2]

Nesbit developed her ideas about child development and education in one of her final works, Wings and the Child: or the Building of Magic Cities. Published in 1913, Wings and the Child expresses the importance of play in child development and outlines Nesbit’s theories on education.[3] For Nesbit, books are as inseparable from play as education is from play. Nesbit argued that it was important for children to experience history both through flights of the imagination and the contemporary man-made world[4].  A child’s imagination should be fostered as a highest good; [5] beauty in things, places and people is to be valued as an intrinsic good, and love and trust should be considered the most important factors in education [6].

Whereas, for George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, imagination is the key to preparing a child for moral education – ‘a baptism of the imagination’ is Lewis’s phrase – Nesbit’s telos is not so clear. However, Nesbit saw a clear distinction between education and instruction:

For Education which teaches a man everything but how to live to the glory of God and the service of man is not Education, but only Instruction; and it is the tree, not of life, but of Death. [7]

Nesbit provides an indication of the purpose of reading in “To a Child Reading,” a poem published in her Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism (1883-1908), an excerpt of which reads:

Yes, read the pages of the old-world story,
Of kings of noble deed and noble thought
Of heroes whose resplendent crown of glory
Bound their wide brows unsought.
But be not sad because their work is ended,
And they have rest which life so long denied:
They still live in the world which they befriended

For which they lived and died. [8]

The extensive list of books directly cited, and alluded to, in her stories demonstrates a reliance on books by other authors as a background and foundation for her work.  The educational value provided by many of the books cited by Nesbit is to be found in their use as similes to explain new experiences, places and people. The similes often function as reference points: as in, “It was something like Arabian Nights magic, and something like being in church”,  and “where palm trees and all the tropical flowers and fruits you read of in Westward Ho! and Fair Play were growing in rich profusion.”[9] Moreover, Nesbit often encourages her readers to seek out further information; for example, in The Story of the Amulet, Nesbit encourages the reader to read Plato or to visit the Mummies at the British Museum if the reader has not already seen one. [10]

The act of reading and the books Nesbit cites are not merely incidental to the plot in her fiction. That is, they are either utilitarian (provide additional background material) or they are sources for the children’s knowledge – even when the actions of the children based on this knowledge leads to comical or unfortunate consequences. Ultimately, even if you have read the right books, Nesbit aims for her books to be good books. By reading her stories child readers might get a glee-filled glimpse into the magical realms she and so many other authors have imagined.

References:
[1] Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print. 216
[2] Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co; New York: Macmillan, 1906. Print. 370
[3] Nesbit, Edith. Wings and the Child: Or the Building of Magic Cities. London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: Doran, 1913. Print. 13
[4] Ibid, 50
[5] Ibid, 27-28
[6] Ibid, 53, 93
[7] Ibid, 104
[8] Nesbit, Edith. Ballads and Lyrics of Socialism, 1883 – 1908. . London: The Fabian Society, 3 Clements Inn, W.C; London: A.C. Fifield, 1908. Print. 23
[9] emphasis added; Nesbit, Edith. The Story of the Amulet. London: T. Fisher Unwin; E.P. Dutton, New York, 1906. Print. 95, 45; The Pheonix and the Carpet. London: George Newnes; New York: Macmillan, 1904. Print. 66-67.
[10] The Pheonix and the Carpet. 160.

1 Comment

  • Ann says:

    C.S. Lewis alludes to the importance of reading the right books as well, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. “Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s laid, but as I said before, Eustace has read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.” (Lewis C.S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Harper Trophy, 1952. 92.)

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