Sunday, January 4, 2015

Thoughts on the Classics: The Railway Children

 Three children, forced to alter their comfortable lifestyle when their father is taken away by strangers, move with their mother to a simple cottage near a railway station where their days are filled with excitement and adventure. First published in 1906, this beloved children's classic has charmed generations of readers.

The Railway Children
Nesbit, E. (1906). 
Source: Own copy, Kindle
For some reason I always find myself reading Children’s Classics around Christmas. Last year it was Anne of Green Gables, this year The Railway Children. The Railway Children is another one of those children’s classics that I completely missed as an actual child. I went into it knowing only that a) my husband and his family all love the TV adaptation, b) there is a railway involved somehow, and presumably trains, and c) one of the children is called Phyllis.

I’m glad I’ve now crossed it off the list, and although it was enjoyable enough, I don’t think it has gone straight into the list of ‘books I can’t wait to read to future children.’ The story is a set of loosely interconnected adventures had by three siblings who are uprooted from their upmarket London home and go to live in a country cottage after their father mysteriously leaves with some gentlemen that come to call one evening. Unsurprisingly, many of their adventures centre around the railway that goes past the cottage and the nearby station.

The stories are entertaining enough, in the same sort of tradition as many such books I enjoyed as a child (Enid Blyton, Swallows and Amazons etc.) – the children are all genuinely good, with a desire to help those around them, with just enough mischief that children will identify with them rather than despise them. Unfortunately though, there were more elements that frustrated me about The Railway Children as an adult reader than many of the other children’s classics I’ve read for the first time as an adult. I found the lack of explanation about the father’s disappearance until late in the novel unnecessary. Perhaps a child reader would empathise and understand more with children who aren’t always told what is going on, but on the whole it just seemed a little off, especially as it causes a dramatic and ongoing change in the families circumstances and three young children are left to continually imagine the absolute worst. I think this added to my distaste generally about how the change of circumstances is treated. Nesbitt seems to have attempted to put a commentary on social class and wealth into a novel for young children, and because this is ultimately a children’s story failed a little in terms of continuity – sometimes the ‘poor’ of the rural community are (rightly) portrayed as everyday human beings living their lives, while at other times they are distinctly defined by their lack of wealth, depending on what suits the story best at the time. I have to admit, every time we turned back to the later portrayal I felt a little sad. The families’ new state of being ‘poor’ is also a central theme of the story in a way that is romantic rather that practical i.e. at times there is ‘not enough food’, but when an opportunity is given to plant a garden the children grow flowers and destroy the planted vegetable patch by playing toy soldiers with no repercussions.

On the whole? The Railway Children may grow on me given time, as the story itself was charming and produced wonderful imagery reminiscent of many of my childhood favourites. But the more problematic aspects mean it may have to wait until we have children ourselves, who won’t notice the issues that frustrate me now, before I revisit it. 

The Railway Children is book 19/50 on my Classics Club list

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