Thursday, November 22, 2018

Two Childish Fantasies

The Enchanted Castle / Edith Nesbit
London: Fisher Unwin, c1907.
352 p.
read via Open Library

To fill up a couple of spots on my Century of Books list, I went for some children's books. I started with this lovely story that I'd never read before, even though Nesbit's Five Children & It was one of my favourite childhood reads. 

Fortunately I found a nice readable copy with original illustrations on Open Library, and settled in to enjoy a story by the master of what I like to call realistic fantasy. In all of these books, the magic that the children run across is tricky; it isn't what it seems, it takes their wishes very literally, and there is always something in every situation that they didn't expect - usually not a good thing either. 

The setting is doggedly pedestrian, usually children stuck alone on a summer holiday somewhere with only some old relative - or in this case, the poor French teacher - looking after them.

In this novel, three siblings are staying at the sister's school during a holiday period - they can't go home as another sibling has chicken pox, so these were last minute arrangements. Gerald, Kathleen and Jimmy are plucky children who like to pack lunches and go exploring around the countryside. One day as they hike into the grounds of the local big house, which is quite castle-like, they find a sleeping princess who must be awoken with a kiss. Turns out she's only the housekeeper's niece, but until they discover that she seems quite royal indeed - especially when she puts on a magic ring and turns invisible. 

The simple logic of magic in Nesbit's world is so funny and clever; the children puzzle out how the ring works and can estimate how to solve the problems it's causing by mathematically determining the duration of its effects. They encounter lovely, dreamy magic and some fairly terrifying bits; they learn to be careful what they wish for, and they inadvertently repair a doomed love affair among the adults around them while they are at it. 

Of course, since it is over one hundred years old, there are some bits that are dated and not in tune with our present expectations, like the incident where Gerald paints his face and pretends he's a fortune-teller. But there isn't much here that is egregiously offensive. 

This is heavily influenced by classical mythology, with a scene where the children frolic with Greek gods who are statues by day. There are magic rings, hidden rooms, ghosts, American millionaires, and sandwiches and cakes galore. It's so very British, and a total delight. I like Nesbit's wry descriptions of characters and the way she makes the fantasy in her books both ridiculous and pragmatic at the same time. Definitely an enjoyable read for 1907!

The House Without Windows / Barbara Newhall Follett
New York: Knopf, c1927.
52 p.
read via Scribd

Now on to my second try, a mercifully short novella about Eepersip, a young girl who runs away and lives in the forest and at the seaside among all the wild animals, making her clothes out of ferns, flowers, or seaweed. 

It's immensely florid in writing style, and plotting is very slight. Eepersip decides that living in civilization is not for her, and just walks away into the hills one day, leaving her parents to search for her ever after. She eludes them and when she finds out later that she has a little sister, she returns home to lure that sister away to live with her in the woods as well. That only lasts a few weeks and the little girl goes home to Mummy -- Eepersip is quite disappointed by this but all I could think of was thank goodness for that poor mother! 

The most interesting thing about this book is the actual circumstances of its writing (although the name Eepersip is surprisingly earwormy). There is a historical note included in the document that I read (linked above); this book was first written by Follett when she was 9, then rewritten from memory at 11 and published with the assistance of her father. She was apparently a girl who was intense and a bit of a prodigy; she loved nature and writing, and though she'd been married in her early 20s, one day she just up and disappeared, walked right out on everything like Eepersip had, and was never heard from again. And never tracked down. Eerie echoes of her first story. 

But unless you are reading this for its historical curiosity value, it's not really worth reading at all. Very influenced by the period and by the youth and idealism of its very young author, and therefore not of lasting interest.


  1. Well, the Nesbit one sounds lovely and quaint. I haven't read nearly enough of her works!

    1. Yes, it is so lovely & as always, funny as well. I really do enjoy her tales of magic.

  2. I love Nesbit's books! I just wished I owned them all. ;D

    1. I read so many of them often when I was a child - can't believe I'd missed this one. My favourite is still Five Children & It just for that Psammead...


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