The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit.
|[Image from Mid-Suffolk Light Railway Museum]|
The Railway Children is one of my favourite all-time children's novels. It was written by Edith Nesbit and first serialised in The London Magazine in 1905 then published as a book a year later in 1906 and it embodies that wonderful Golden Age myth of the Edwardian era.
That's not to say the 'railway children' - Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis - had it easy, their childhood was a matter of making the best of what they had. It starts in London:
They were not railway children to begin with. I don't suppose they ever thought baout railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook's, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud's. They were just ordinary suburban children, and they lived with their Father and Mother in an ordinary red-bricked-fronted villa, with coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bath-room with hot and cold water, electric bells, french windows, and a good deal of white paint, and 'every modern convenience', as the house-agents say.
Pretty quickly their lives are turned upside down with a knock on the door and the sound of raised voices in the library. That night their father leaves without saying goodbye, and it's hinted at early on that he has been imprisoned. The children and their mother must begin a new life in Yorkshire in a house called The Three Chimneys where they are now relatively poor and must find a way to amuse themselves when they aren't helping their mother. It is there they discover the railway:
They all climbed on to the top of the fence, and then suddenly there was a rumbling sound that made them look along the line to the right, where the dark mouth of a tunnel opened itself in the face of a rocky cliff; next moment a train had rushed out of the tunnel with a shriek and a snort, and had slid noisily past them. They felt the rush of its passing, and the pebbles on the line jumped and rattled under it as it went by.
“Oh!” said Roberta, drawing a long breath; “it was like a great dragon tearing by. Did you feel it fan us with its hot wings?”
“I suppose a dragon's lair might look very like that tunnel from the outside,” said Phyllis.
But Peter said:—
“I never thought we should ever get as near to a train as this. It's the most ripping sport!”
“Better than toy-engines, isn't it?” said Roberta.
(I am tired of calling Roberta by her name. I don't see why I should. No one else did. Everyone else called her Bobbie, and I don't see why I shouldn't.)
“I don't know; it's different,” said Peter. “It seems so odd to see ALL of a train. It's awfully tall, isn't it?”
“We've always seen them cut in half by platforms,” said Phyllis.
“I wonder if that train was going to London,” Bobbie said. “London's where Father is.”
“Let's go down to the station and find out,” said Peter.
So they went.
What follows is their adventures around (and even on) the railway. They meet the villagers, befriend the rather grumpy stationmaster Mr. Perks, save a Russian exile Mr. Szczepansky and even a young man, Jim, who breaks his leg in the tunnel. Most importantly, their habit of waving at the train each day leads them to meet a kind old gentleman.
In some respects, this seems to show what we refer to as 'the good old days', the long summer before the war when the sun shone, the bees buzzed, the country was full of flowers, and there is good to be found in everyone. The children amused themselves and never came to harm, and everything turned out alright in the end. There is something a little darker at work, however: The Railway Children was in part inspired by the Dreyfus Affair where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely imprisoned for five years. The father, we know, was imprisoned too and there's something sinister lurking in the background of the novel in that the children know their father is gone and they know their mother is desperately hurt by it, but they don't know why. There is, then, a dark mystery in the novel, but, happily, it is eventually solved. It's for that that I love it - it's a children's novel, but it's a grown-up's novel too, it stretches across generations and indeed the hundred-odd years since it was published and remains to me one of the most moving books I've ever read, the only book in which one small, broken sentence can still move me to tears.