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NA208512 - NESBIT, E.: Railway Children (The) (Abridged)
The Railway Children
The Railway Children is E. Nesbit’s most famous novel. Written in 1906, it has survived the ravages of time and fashion to become a well-loved staple of most children’s literary diet. Perhaps one of the reasons it is so popular today, is that it harks back to a time of innocence when children were children, not the safety-conscious mini adults they are in today’s world of tabloid terrors. The world, its people, and all its secrets are at Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis’s feet. Bobbie climbs happily into the doctor’s cart for a ride; Mother welcomes total strangers into her home and door keys are left on doorsteps. Adventures are there for the taking and the children are allowed to explore their environs and their own capabilities unfettered by fear — a freedom available to very few children today. E. Nesbit’s world is a nostalgic escape from the one most of her readers inhabit.
And yet it is not a purely sugar-and-spice world. The adventures the children encounter are often terrifying or dangerous, and the lessons they learn hard. The scene in the railway tunnel is a genuinely frightening episode. At first the children risk being wiped out in the pitch black by a passing express train, as they search for a lost young boy. Later, they risk life and limb again, by standing in the path of a thundering train in order to prevent an accident. The children’s courage is rewarded in the novel in various ways, sometimes materially, but more importantly to E. Nesbit, by the love and respect of others and their own feelings of self-worth.
The children learn some tough lessons about human pride and the ethics of charity. Perks’ birthday and the scene where the old gentleman brings the hamper are good examples. The children are not out-and-out goody-goodies but as fallible as real children. They do make gauche and embarrassing mistakes, they do upset their parents and they do get some sharp reprimands. They also come face-to-face with the ugly reality of injustice and the abuse of human rights. Not only has their own father been wrongfully imprisoned on a trumped-up charge, but they also learn about the cruel treatment of political prisoners from the Russian refugee they find at the station. Nesbit’s commitment to presenting children with serious political themes in a way they can understand extends to her portrayal of the working-class characters that share the stage with the middle-class Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis. A keen socialist and founder member of the Fabian Society, Nesbit treats Perks, the barge couple and other similar characters with dignity, intelligence and sensitivity. They are anything but mere figures of fun. Perks commands unanimous respect from his fellow villagers and lives in horror of being a “charity” case. Bill the bargeman, although brusque and aggressive, is shown to be generous and fair beneath the surface, and, despite his nights at the pub, a loyal family man. Nesbit’s description of the bargees at the Rose and Crown shows genuine admiration for the working-class way of life.
Born Edith Nesbit in 1858, her childhood was unsettled, and spent between France, Germany and England. She married young and experienced poverty. This was when she decided to turn to writing, and discovered a knack for family adventures: The Story of the Treasure Seekers came in 1899, The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Story of the Amulet and The Railway Children in 1906.
Notes by Anna Britten
About the Readers
EVE KARPF trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her extensive experience of voiceover, audiobook and radio work includes stints on BBC Radio and Spitting Image, and cartoon series’ such as Oscar’s Orchestra and Dennis and Gnasher for BBC TV. She is regularly seen on TV and her film credits include A Touch of Class and Human Factor.
DELIA PATON trained at RADA and after extensive stage experience, she moved towards radio and television work. Her many television credits include the BBC series Survivors, Backs to the Land, Seal Morning and Eastenders and she has written and performed her own adaptation of Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë as a one-woman show.
ROBERT BENFIELD played the role of Perks in the hugely popular stage version of The Railway Children at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, with which he has had a long association. He has also performed in theater throughout Britain, including Scarborough’s Theatre in the Round, and the Greenwich Theatre.
SARAH CORBETT, THOMAS MARTIN and NICOLA GRANT are aspiring young actors at school in St. Albans.
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