The princess is looking to get married, and she begins her search in a rather un-fairytale way: “You know, of course” (says the author) “that a handsome book is sent out every year to all the kings who have daughters to marry… only instead of illustrations showing furniture or ladies’ cloaks and dresses, the pictures are all of princes who are of an age to be married, and are looking out for suitable wives. The book is called the Royal Match Catalogue Illustrated,–and besides the pictures of the princes it has little printed bits about their incomes, accomplishments, prospects, and tempers, and relations.” Apparently living in a fairy tale world doesn’t preclude a background check.
In E. Nesbit’s world, fantasy and real life collide all the time. A boy talks to a china cat, while a king resigns so he can catch butterflies (“My kingdom can buy a President and be a republic if it likes,” he says).
Another boy begins his story with complete honesty: “We had never seen our cousin Sidney till that Christmas Eve, and we didn’t want to see him then, and we didn’t like him when we did see him.”
It’s a world where kids can hear the wind talking, where you can breathe underwater, where animals, at least, will always tell you the truth. In my first and favorite E. Nesbit book, The Enchanted Castle, Gerry and Kathleen and Jimmy find a magic ring–only of course they don’t know about the magic until it’s caused them heaps of trouble. (But of course! Since when do magic rings come with directions?)
E. Nesbit writes quirky, realistic, and thoroughly imaginative stories. And the best part? She was published between 1885 and 1913–a hundred years ago. I would never have guessed it. Beyond the charming language that comes with reading about British schoolchildren, there’s virtually no barrier to read across. (Similar to the books of C. S. Lewis–who, incidentally, mentions some Nesbit characters, the Bastables, in The Magician’s Nephew.)
In Nesbit’s writings there’s a carefree playfulness balanced by the very serious work of being a kid. I love it, and I love how she weaves adventure into daily life (it was probably there all the time). Then Ms. Nesbit talks about the nagging feeling you have afterward. What if the adventure was all made up? Well, she says, if you try to explain everything away, then “you are the kind of person who always makes difficulties, and you may be quite sure that the kind of splendid magics that happened to [other children] will never happen to you.”
These are the E. Nesbit books I’ve read (and loved) so far. All of the above quotations are from her short story collection, The Magic World. She wrote many more, and also books for adults (which I’ve not read but I’d like to hear your review if you have).
If you like E. Nesbit, you might like:
Alice in Wonderland
The Oz series (begun with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
The Princess Bride
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede
And this article, talking about the American imagination and why E. Nesbit never caught on in the U.S. (a terrible thing, in my opinion). What about you? Have you read anything by E. Nesbit? Anything to recommend?