Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

I've never been a fan of the adult fantasy genre, but for some reason, I am still drawn to juvenile works. I adored fantasy books when I was a kid -- Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Madeline L'Engle, L. Frank Baum, I still love all of them. But somehow I have never found the appeal of adult fantasy unless it's somehow rooted in our world, like Anansi Boys (one of my all-time favorites.) Maybe it's only the child in me that has an imagination and can still appreciate it. I still love children's fantasy, new and old.

Sadly, somehow I managed to miss all the classic works of E. Nesbit. (And why are so many great, classic works of fantasy written by British writers? Or am I just a literary Anglophile?) The works of E. Nesbit is as beloved in England as the Wizard of Oz or The Wrinkle in Time series, yet I'd never heard of them until I was an adult.

This is the second Nesbit work I've read (the first was Five Children and It, which also has a decent movie adaptation). The Enchanted Castle, first published in 1907, is about three children, Gerald, Cathy, and Jimmy, who are forced to spend the entire summer holidays at Cathy's school because of contagious cousin at home. So, though not orphans, we have children running around unsupervised, getting into mischief with magic. They're out exploring one day and find a passageway that leads into a nearby manor home -- the eponymous castle -- and inside they find a sleeping girl whom they believe to be enchanted. She's really the housekeeper's niece, but they soon realize there is magic about, and hilarity ensues. People turn invisible, wishes are granted, statues come to life, and there's a subplot with long-lost lovers. Of course, it all turns out well in the end.

The interesting thing about Nesbit's books is that the magic always backfires -- basically, the children get their wishes, but it takes them awhile to figure out that sometimes what they wish for isn't what they really want. So in each adventure the children learn a little something, but not enough to keep them from messing about with magic. There's a lesson here, but it's not preachy.

I enjoyed this book, but I think it might be difficult for a child today -- Nesbit's writing style takes getting used to, and I think it might frustrate a child that's too impatient. Gore Vidal wrote an essay about Nesbit's work, and he thought that Nesbit wrote about children but not necessarily for children. [Vidal also wrote that "the librarians who dominate the "juvenile market" tend to be brisk tweedy ladies whose interests are mechanical rather than imaginative." Vidal wrote this essay in 1964, before I was born, and I'm guessing that was the last time a librarian wore tweed. Fellow librarians, please feel free to comment.]

Of course, Nesbit was writing a hundred years ago -- it's hard for me to guess what children liked a century ago, though it's my impression that they were treated more like small adults and were expected to grow up a whole lot quicker. Maybe they had longer attention spans, but they definitely had less choices when it came to children's lit.

Here's an example from chapter one:

Gerald could always make himself look interesting at a moment's notice, a very useful accomplishment in dealing with strange grown-ups. It was done by opening his grey eyes rather wide, allowing the corners of his mouth to droop, and assuming a gentle, pleading expression, resembling that of the late little Lord Fauntleroy -- who must, by the way, be quite old now, and an awful prig.

I think it's pretty funny and clever, but I don't know many eight- to eleven-year olds who would have the patience to read this book. My daughters are eight and twelve and [brag alert!] they're both extremely advanced readers. They did not have the patience for this book, even when I was reading it aloud and promised to skip ahead to the part with the magic ring. I'm glad I read this book, and I'm definitely going to read more Nesbit, but I think it would be a tough sell to the kids unless they're hardcore British fantasy lovers.


  1. I agree that children were treated differently then, but I also think adults just didn't understand them very much, hence books that were difficult for children. I don't think adults tried too hard to understand children. But maybe I'm wrong. That's just what I imagine.

  2. I think children were just expected to grow up faster. A lot of them had responsibilities thrown at them a lot sooner, people married younger, died younger, etc. Most of the early children's fiction was really didactic, or harped on the fact that it was important to be good now so you'd get into heaven, since so many people died young -- Death and Baby Death would be so pleased! (See Amanda's vlog if you're confused: )

  3. I was really excited about a new fantasy author I'd never heard of! Definitely want to give it a try.

    It's interesting that you say you don't think kids would appreciate it. Too bad it comes across that way. I'm trying to think of any British children's lit that I get that impression from and I realize I'm woefully ignorant. Haven't read Secret Garden, for example, since I was kid, but then I didn't feel it was hard to read. Not sure.

    Sorry this is rambling comment. I should stop when it gets this late.

  4. I am a children's librarian and I can tell you that families still take out the books, and seem to like them. I loved her when I was a child, but I grew up in a no TV house so it was like a strange little slice of the Victorian era in the 1960's/70's.

    I think it helps to read her if first you have read Andrew Lang's colored Fairy Books: "The Red Fairy Book," "The Blue Fairy Book," etc., Joseph Jacobs "English Fairy Tales," and books by Howard Pyle. George MacDonald's "Princess and Curdie" and "The Princess and the Goblin." Then you have a background of archaic language that helps for reading other 19th century Children's literature.

    You can also read the Edgar Eager magic books which promote E. Nesbit for new generations, she is always the favorite author of his child characters.

  5. I am a teacher, not a librarian, and have also recently discovered Nesbit, mostly because I love C.S. Lewis and he mentions her as an influence. I don't think that it is so much that she was writing about, not for, children. She was doing both! The real problem is that modern readers, adults as well as children, are less literate than in the past. Note that adult works such as Charles Dickens, which many common readers today find difficult, were wildly popular in their day. There has been a decline in literacy. I blame not only TV, but something that began before electronic media, a sort of glorification of anti-intellectualism and the "average guy" that Lewis often spoke of as one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of democracy run amok.

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