After my recent intense experience reading Zola, a children's classic was just the thing, especially since I'm still obsessed about the Victorian Celebration. Originally, I'd planned on reading either The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley or At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Neither of them really grabbed me, but then I realized that The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit qualified as a Victorian! One of Nesbit's earliest children's books, it was published in 1899, and so it still made the cutoff date. And I just loved it.
I'd never heard of E. Nesbit when I was a child -- of course this was years before blogging and online library catalogs, and though my public library was pretty good, it's nowhere near what libraries are today. After I started library school, I'd read a couple of Nesbit's fantasy stories and liked them well enough, but something about The Treasure Seekers just spoke to me -- I found it delightfully charming and really funny -- I kept reading bits out loud to my eleven-year-old daughter, and finally I just started reading her entire chapters.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Told from the point of view of one of the children, this is the story of the six Bastable children: Dora, Oswald, Dicky, the twins, Alice and Noel, and the youngest, Horation Octavius, also known as H. O. Their mother has died fairly recently, and after her death, their father also fell ill and lost most of his wealth (it's unclear, but it sounds like his business partner made off with most of it) This once genteel family is now scraping by; they've given up school and summer holidays and all the silver plate has been "sent off to get the dents removed, but never sent back" -- probably pawned or sold. So, the children are full of plans to restore the family fortunes. They brainstorm all sorts of ideas, such as digging for treasure, writing poetry for money, becoming bandits, and saving elderly people from danger, who will then reward them. The book was originally published in serial form, and each chapter details a different adventure as the children try various schemes, (some of them definitely hare-brained) so it's easy to read in small snatches.
I thought Nesbit did a fantastic job creating the characters of these six children -- they all had personalities, and what's best about them is that they're definitely flawed -- they argue and bicker amongst themselves, like real siblings, and they have flaws. Some of their schemes are morally and legally questionable, and they usually learn their lessons from their bad behavior, but it's not at all preachy. The adults were good too. The children often wind up needing grownups to help them out, including "Albert-next-door's uncle" who never gets an actual name, but seems like a real hoot -- he's a writer, and if he'd been real, I'm sure he would have gotten a lot of good material from the Bastable children. (Could this be E. Nesbit herself in disguise?)
I also loved the wry humor -- here's one of my favorite bits:
I have often thought that if people who write books for children knew a little more, it would be better. I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading this story and you were writing it. Albert's uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip. I wonder other authors have never thought of this.
There are lots of funny little comments like this throughout the book. The plot's pretty good, and I found the ending particularly satisfying. I'll say no more since I never want to give anything away.
I was also happy to read this one because I had an unread copy on the shelves -- I bought it last year at Books of Wonder, the celebrated children's bookstore in New York. I only wish they'd had a hardcover copy -- it was the recent paperback copy pictured above, but it was on sale for only $5 so I couldn't pass it up. Of course now I'll have to track down the two sequels, The Wouldbegoods and The Story of the New Treasure Seekers, neither of which are available at my library. So I'll probably end up adding two more books to my shelves! Has anyone read either of them? Are they as good as the first one?