Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Railway Children

Something about the holidays makes me want to read old children's books. It probably has to do with being at home in my old room, surrounded by my old books, many of which I received as Christmas gifts. Christmas is a pretty nostalgic season anyway, and if you throw old books into the mix, I'm toast. One of my favourite books when I was a kid was Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, which was given to me by my mum's sister the Christmas I was 6 (I know this because, like a good book-giver, my aunt wrote the date and who it was from on the first page).

The Railway Children tells the story of a well-to-do London family who are forced to move to a small country cottage after the father is arrested on charges of espionage. This is all set pre-WWI, so the transition from the city to the country is quite a shock, not simply because the children have lost their father, but because they are living in very different circumstances. They no longer have the money for fancy food or large closets, which is hard on the mother but kind of an adventure for the three children, Roberta (Bobbie),  Peter and Phyllis. 

At the bottom of the garden of the new house ran the railway, and the children became fascinated by the trains and all the regular passengers, especially a man they called The Old Gentleman, who always waved back to the children, who would stand on the fence and wave at the trains. It didn't take long for the Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis to become a regular fixture along the railway line, and soon the conductors and the local station master came to know them quite well. The novel is filled with adventures the children had along the railway line, including one that involved the girls tearing up their red petticoats so they could flag down a train after they saw that a rockslide had buried part of the tracks. 

Of course, this is a story about family as much as childhood adventures, and a lot of it takes place in and around the little cottage. Details such as how the mother is concerned about money around birthdays and how Peter injured himself with a garden rake are as central to the children's lives as the railway that they love, and Nesbit manages to wind the adventure around the mundane in such a way that the story seems as if it could really be true. 

Nesbit's descriptions of Three Chimneys (the family's country cottage) and the nearby town and the countryside are just so vivid that I have to believe it's all based on somewhere real that I would very much like to visit. When I was a kid I dreamed of having the sorts of afternoon adventures Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis had, and now when I read this book I rather taken by how nice their cottage sounds. There's a bit of romance around the penny-pinching the family is forced to do, and Nesbit plays on the idea of a simpler life in the country without losing sight of how financial matters and worry over the father would have made life less than idyllic. That day-to-day awareness, and the fact that the children's adventures aren't too outrageous, pull the story into the realm of the plausible, which makes for a much more compelling read.

Behind the scenes of all the happy and sunlit adventures the children have, though, is a kind of political story that I totally missed as a kid. The father is arrested at the beginning because he has been charged with spying for the Russians, and later in the story the family takes in a Russian man who they find half-dead. He tells them that he is a writer and was thrown out of his country for the stories he told. The Railway Children was published in 1906, and Nesbit seems to have been working out some political backlash in the edges of her children's novel. The political in no way overtakes the more light and cheerful story of the Waterbury family, but it does add just a hint of something weightier that sets this novel apart from many of the other children's books of the time. That being said, you just know that Nesbit worked out how to give the family a happy ending.

The Railway Children
by Edith Nesbit
First published in 1906 (cover image shown from Scholastic Canada edition)


  1. Oh, I loved the Railway Children when I was younger too.
    Also, I read "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About" last week and absolutely loved it. So thanks for writing about it/recommending it!

  2. I'm so glad you liked it! Every time I think of Pel I just chuckle.

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