The Railway Children

The Plot
Roberta, Peter and Phyllis are suburban children in Edwardian London. Their life is not unusual, but quite happy until the day their father mysteriously goes away. After their mother moves them out to the countryside, they find themselves free to explore the surrounding areas and make friends with all sorts of people they’d never have associated with before.

My Thoughts
I first read this book twenty or twenty-five years ago, when I was the age of the children who’re the main characters. I found it immensely enjoyable then and I still do now; this is a book I have on my regular rereading list, along with Pride and Prejudice, Maison Ikkoku, and a handful of others.

The setting for all but the very first part of this book is a small farm near a village with a small railway station and a canal within walking distance. It’s not too far distant from London, but in those days one didn’t really have to get very far from London to feel one was in the country. Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis (Phil) have moved there abruptly with their mother after their father is called away for reasons which are not explained to them. The children adapt to their new circumstances much as children do, without really questioning them too deeply, since their new poverty (at least relative to their old upper middle class life) doesn’t affect them in the most fundamental ways — they still have enough to eat, their clothes are adequate, and their house is comfortable. Added to that is (from their perspective) a plus: they’re allowed to run freely about the countryside, as there’s no money for school or a governess and their mother is too busy trying to earn money (via writing, perhaps the only outlet possible for a married woman of her class) to provide them with lessons.

Their newfound freedom provides most of the adventure in the book, as they explore their new home and meet the people living nearby. The structure of the book gives it an almost episodic feel, in spite of the fact that many narrative threads continue through the whole story: most chapters open with the children preparing to do something, an adventure building to a climax, and then a resolution. This structure is fairly typical of Nesbit’s writing and more generally, I think, of other similar books published around the same time.

The book is somewhat atypical to my mind in that it features two girls and a boy as its protaganists. And considering the time period, it treats them all with great equality. Bobbie and Phil participate equally in adventures, they are allowed to come up with ideas both good and bad, and no one child comes to dominate or be ‘in charge’ of the group. Contrast this with The Secret Garden written around the same time, which begins as a book about Mary Lennox and ends with the character of Colin starting to crowd her right out of her own story.

Nesbit wrote multiple sequels to two of her works, and I wish she’d gotten around to writing one for this book too. Though the tale has a satisfying ending, I’m always up for more time spent with characters I like.

In Short
This stand-alone novel from the imagination of E. Nesbit is my absolute favorite of her works. It never fails to make me want to visit the English countryside, walk around outside and look at things, and ride about in a train. Added to the enticing setting, there are three protaganists whose interaction with one another rings true and who are neither too quarrelsome to find sympathetic nor too good to find unrealistic. The book stands up very well to repeated rereads and is clever enough for any age reader.

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