As a child I was disturbed by Nesbit’s books. I don’t know what disturbed me: perhaps the bewildering fusion of carefully observed everyday details and fantastic incidents, and the reckless way she played with conventions, from gender roles and class relations to the rules of fairy tales. It may have been her acute consciousness of the material consequences of impossible events: the necessity of having money and food to get through them, the likelihood of getting into trouble because of them, and the deeply-ingrained dirt they would leave on your clothes and hands. It was also, I think, a matter of tone. Reading her again I can see how I would have missed a lot of her jokes, and taken seriously things an adult reader would think of as witty, never quite knowing how to respond to any given sentence or situation. Yet as an adult one can also appreciate how she slides between emotional registers and literary tropes with effortless ease, never letting a reader of any age settle down in the comfortable knowledge that she knows where she is being taken. Perhaps this formal and stylistic flexibility is what’s made her so hugely influential, sparking the synapses of writers as different as John Masefield, Mary Norton, C. S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Nicholas Stuart Gray and Diana Wynne Jones. Her fusion and diffusion of literary tropes and genres made it possible for her stories to go off in any direction she chose, and these are invaluable qualities for a fantasy.
Five Children is about wish fulfilment, like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’; but unlike those stories it’s aimed at children, so that the disparity between what’s wished for and what’s obtained is exacerbated by the disparity between the social and economic rules that govern adults and children. This disparity is pointed up by the impossibility of telling any grown up at all about the fact that wishes are being granted, for obvious reasons (what adult apart from Conan Doyle believes in fairies?); a communication gap that remains in place throughout the novel, so that the unfortunate kids are never able to get advice of any kind from adults, not even the Psammead, who makes a point of not advising anyone. That’s an attractive subversion of the widespread tendency in contemporary children’s literature to moralize: if the truth only gets you into trouble then morals, too, are a matter of perspective. So is commercial value: the children wish for gold and can’t spend it, partly because they’re seen as too young to have any. And so is adulthood: they accidentally wish their baby brother grown up, and get a chance to see for themselves the childishness of adult behaviour. Size, too, is relative: when one of them grows to a giant’s dimensions he finds himself even more confined and restricted by the economics of his situation than he was before (he becomes a fairground attraction and ends the day almost crying of boredom). This is a brilliant comment on the confining lunacies kids are encouraged to accept as reasonable in their journey towards becoming active participants in the capitalist system. (And it’s nice to think that this episode was written very close to H G Wells’s brilliant take on giant children, The Food of the Gods, which uses size for even more explicitly political purposes, testifying to Wells’s lifelong fascination with the works of Swift…)
But besides this basic adult/child division there are also disparities in the rules that govern masters and those that bind servants, which get highlighted when the children wish for the servants not to be aware of any of the wishes they come up with – a condition that leads to a number of wonderfully absurd situations. Servants don’t dream, the children believe, except in the strictly regulated terms described in dream interpretation manuals; they simply follow routine unquestioningly. This conviction finds its most absurd expression in the episode when the kids wish for a castle under siege, and see the servants sitting in the courtyard feeding the baby as if nothing has happened. But the book also undermines their view of service repeatedly. In the absence of the children’s parents, servants in the middle-class household are the adults with whom they interact most closely – especially Martha; and Martha rescues them from bullies and the police, sees through their schemes with ease in every chapter, and eventually goes off to get married to one of the men they have encountered on their adventures with a forcefulness and independence that take them completely by surprise.
The episode that best explodes their theories about class difference doesn’t involve Martha. It’s the chapter where they inadvertently ask that their baby brother, the Lamb, be ‘wanted’ by everyone, which leads to his being kidnapped by an aristocratic lady in a carriage, immediately followed by a battle over him in her absence between the coachman and footman. There’s little distinction here between the effects of the lady’s desire for the child and that of her servants – except that the servants show some awareness of the child’s material needs, something the lady has no notion of and never mentions.
The same episode brings out the pervasiveness of racial prejudice in Victorian England. It ends with an alarming encounter with a group of gypsies, which seems at first to confirm every accusation that’s ever been leveled against travellers. The ‘ragged’ gypsy children make ‘dust-pies in the road’, the gypsies themselves have ‘dust-coloured’ hair, and the whole episode is permeated with an atmosphere of terror by memories of the age-old clichés about gypsies abducting children along with other kinds of private property. But the encounter only takes place after we’ve witnessed the equally determined efforts of an aristocratic household to abduct the Lamb; and it closes with a brusque dismissal of the anti-gypsy prejudice, as well as an odd little confirmation of an aspect of gypsy myth that ties them (alone of all adults) to the magical world of the Psammead. Like all the Psammead’s enchantments, the desire for the Lamb gets cut off at sunset; and at once the gypsies are astonished by the fierceness with which they’ve been striving to gain an additional toddler for their community, and distance themselves from the Lamb as fast as possible. Only one woman remains attached to him, though her attachment changes from a desire to possess him to simple good will. She sweeps aside anti-gypsy myth with admirable economy: ‘I don’t know what made us go for to behave so silly. Us gypsies don’t steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you’re naughty. We’ve enough of our own, mostly. But I’ve lost all mine.’ And she follows up this quiet revelation of tragedy by bestowing on the Lamb another wish: a Sleeping Beauty blessing, the stuff of fairy tales rather than racist horror stories. The alert reader will remember that such a blessing was what Jane thought they should ask from the Psammead at the beginning of the chapter, until Anthea pointed out that the creature’s gifts only last till sunset. So if the gypsy’s enchantment is effective, it will prove to be the most valuable gift the children have received in the course of their adventures.
Complications are what this story is all about: complicating simple assumptions, and demonstrating the knotty complications that tangle up every transaction at the turn of the twentieth century. One such complication is the theory of evolution and its consequences. The Psammead or Sand Fairy invokes evolution both in its appearance (it looks like a monkey with antennae) and its great antiquity: when it was young all you ever had to wish for was a Megatherium, because feasting on meat for a week or two was the height of anyone’s aspirations. The children, by contrast, live in an age when there are so many competing things to wish for that it’s inevitable any one wish will clash with a dozen other desirable things or situations. The complexity of this environment is for the Psammead a mark of the world’s decline; and the children’s adventures tend to support the creature’s opinion. Each of their wishes ends up by highlighting the problem of food – the Megatherium question – by making it difficult to get their dinner (i.e. lunch); and this forces them to conceive elaborate and sometimes disastrous schemes to feed themselves, as against the exhilarating hunts of the good old Neolithic era. A great example is the chapter where they wish for wings, which ought to render them angelic – except that angels don’t need feeding, according to Milton, and the children have to compromise their own angelic nature by convincing themselves it’s right to steal if it’s to stave off starvation. The chapter concludes with them imprisoned at the top of a church tower; most of their adventures, in fact, lead to some form of imprisonment, and in each case this could be taken as symbolic. The locked church tower could stand for the arbitrary restrictions imposed by religious doctrine; and this interpretation would seem to be supported by the final section of the chapter, where the vicar regales the children with moral thoughts on their misadventure which we, the readers, never get to hear. Meanwhile the gamekeeper who freed them from the tower praises their pluck for committing theft without ‘peaching’ on some presumed grown-up accomplice. This clash of values – vicar against gamekeeper, spiritual against secular, middle class against working class – points up a disconnect between the gamekeeper’s understanding of the material conditions under which the oppressed must operate and the lofty abstractions that sustain the rich. It’s clear that the children’s understanding of the world is much closer to the gamekeeper’s than the vicar’s – though the vicar’s wife is also closer to the keeper, since she’s concerned not with giving lectures but providing refreshments.
The complication of early twentieth-century existence means that everyone who negotiates the bifurcating paths and competing values of the everyday must possess certain qualities; and Nesbit’s characters tend to describe these qualities in terms of military strategy. This brings us, as all discussions of Nesbit bring us, to the question of gender. One of the brilliant things about her books is that they concern groups, not heroes: clusters of children whose dynamics constantly shift in response to changing situations, so that no one member of that group is ever dominant (though it should be said that Anthea is clearly the child whose perspective dominates in Five Children). Here the group is evenly divided between boys and girls, with the Lamb as an androgynous extra (he wears a dress, like all Victorian toddlers) and the Psammead as the androgynous catalyst for their adventures. And each child takes command of at least one chapter – except for Jane, who, as the youngest after the Lamb, never takes the lead after her disastrous wish on the very first day. If they’re an army, it’s a democratic one, a band of freedom fighters working to subvert the quasi-military discipline that’s being imposed on them by the society within which they operate.
Something I noticed this time round was the way the position of commander-in-chief is exchanged among Nesbit’s characters. When Cyril plots to steal food from the vicarage using their wings Jane exclaims admiringly, ‘How clever of you!’ and he answers with becoming modesty: ‘Not at all […] any born general – Napoleon or the Duke of Marlborough – would have seen it just the same as I did’. During the siege of their house, transformed to a castle, Robert ‘consented to be captain of the besieged force’; and when Anthea conspires to get the Lamb to safety in the episode with the miniature Indians ‘she could not help seeing that she had acted with the most far-seeing promptitude, just like a born general’. The last commander-in-chief is the children’s mother, who on her return from a protracted absence responds to a crisis in the ‘dashing and decided way’ of a ‘born general’, as Cyril points out. Two boys, a girls and a woman share the honours of the book’s generalship between them, and in the process subtly modify the reader’s understanding of what it is to be a general. To negotiate the bewildering demands, conflicting desires and unforeseen accidents of the everyday in the new century, Nesbit implies, takes the tricksiness, skill and pluck of a professional strategist. But in Nesbit’s world, even a general’s qualities can hardly prevent things spiraling out of control. That was a prophetic perception, coming as it did a decade and a half before the outbreak of global warfare.