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How to Handle a Phoenix in Your Fireplace

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Edith Nesbit is considered to have ‘single-handedly invented the modern magic adventure story for children,’ and her literary impact is still felt today.

Dragons swamped Victorian England. Dragons the size of flies, dragons the size of sheep, dragons the size of pigeons. Some ate only Prime Ministers, when they were to be found. Others ate only lilies of the valley. But it was the dining-room-size dragons you had to watch out for, especially if you were a little boy or girl. Who could save Her Majesty’s kingdom from this green scaly invasion? Why, dear Saint George of course! Or so reason Effie and Harry, the young protagonists of Edith Nesbit’s short story “The Deliverers of Their Country.” But when Saint George can’t help them, what are the children to do?

“The Deliverers of Their Country” is just one tale in a collection of short stories by Nesbit titled “The Book of Dragons.” In the judgment of children’s-books connoisseur Peter Glassman, Nesbit “single-handedly invented the modern magic adventure story for children,” and her literary impact is still felt today. Like many a writer, she was rather eccentric and lived an often-tumultuous life. Nesbit was born in Surrey in 1858, and her father died suddenly when she was almost four. Much of her childhood was then spent either at a boarding school or traveling around Europe with her family for her sister’s health. Various poems were her first published works, but it wasn’t until 1899, when her first children’s book The Story of the Treasure Seekers was published, that she found success. And what success it was. Her book The Railway Children has never been out of print since its publication in book form in 1906.

Why have so many generations of children flocked to Nesbit’s tales? Yes, there is humor and adventure, but more important is the fact that, as Nesbit’s biographer Doris Langley Moore said, her stories “were the product of a mind capable of throwing off in an instant all the shackles of adulthood while yet retaining all the skill of experience.” She had an amazing ability to write about relatable children, children we’d want to be friends with, in the most realistic manner. In her stories are arguments and fights, tears and peacemaking, fear and bravery, all told in a straightforward, engaging style.

It is this manner of writing that truly sets Nesbit apart and makes her work instantly recognizable. The most shocking details are told in the most matter-of-fact manner, as seen in this paragraph from her short story “Uncle James, or The Purple Stranger,” about a rather peculiar island:

Of course, the consequence of the island having spun around the wrong way was that when the animals began to grow on the island they all grew the wrong sizes. The guinea pig, as you know, was as big as our elephants, and the elephant — dear little pet — was the size of the silly, tiny, black-and-tan dogs that ladies carry sometimes in their muffs. The rabbits were about the size of our rhinoceroses, and all about the wild parts of the island they had made their burrows as big as railway tunnels. The dormouse, of course, was the biggest of all the creatures. I can’t tell you how big he was. Even if you think of elephants it will not help you at all. Luckily there was only one of him, and he was always asleep. Otherwise I don’t think the Rotundians could have borne with him. As it was, they made him a house, and it saved the expense of a brass band, because no band could possibly have been heard when the dormouse was talking in his sleep.

Especially in her short stories, Nesbit’s characters perform the most unexpected actions or are confronted with astonishing circumstances, yet in true British fashion, they rarely seem to do more than raise an eyebrow. Magic, of which there is quite a lot, is treated with the utmost respect and presented to the reader in the most logical way. This isn’t to say magic is somehow “debunked” — far from it. You see, there are rules to magic and its uses, and Nesbit’s characters find this out — often to their chagrin. As Naomi Lewis wrote in her 1988 introduction to the illustrated edition of Nesbit’s Melisande, “She knew that magic has its rules, and most important of all is the matter of the wish. Do be careful, she warns us in story after story: Your wish may very well come true, but not in a way that you intend or like.”

In the course of her professional life, Nesbit wrote more than 40 books, plays, and short stories for both children and adults. She also influenced, directly and indirectly, such esteemed authors as J. K. Rowling, Edward Eager, and C. S. Lewis. The first of Lewis’s Narnia books, The Magician’s Nephew, even makes a reference to the Bastable children, the heroes of Nesbit’s first book. Readers may be most familiar with her three-book series beginning with Five Children and It, wherein Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane, and the Lamb (the baby) discover a Psammead (Sam-mee-add) who can grant wishes. Adventures and hilarity ensue as the children learn the true meaning of “Be careful what you wish for.” We see these children again in The Phoenix and the Carpet, in which they acquire a magic carpet and have a very proud and snobby Phoenix hatch in their living-room fireplace. The Story of the Amulet also showcases the children and is full of exciting escapades.

Because her style is so distinct, Nesbit doesn’t suit all readers. Even this fan finds some of her works dull, such as The Enchanted Castle, or just too odd, such as The Story of the Amulet. That said, all her stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading give a charming glimpse into the life of an English child at the turn of the century. Nesbit herself was very involved in societal events of the day, as she was a professed socialist and a founding member of the Fabian Society (wherein the Labour Party has its roots).

Despite my few complaints, I’m a staunch promoter of many of Nesbit’s tales. The loveliest, I believe, is the aforementioned Melisande. This mathematical, magically correct fairy tale shows Nesbit’s “fondness for games with numbers,” as Naomi Lewis said, and draws out a great many other themes. In it, poor Princess Melisande is cursed with baldness at her christening, but then an unwise wish on her 16th birthday gives her more hair than she can handle. It’s a delightful, rollicking tale, made still more so in picture-book form with P. J. Lynch’s illustrations.

“But what about Effie and Harry?” you must be wondering. “You never said if they saved England from the dragons or not.” Well, if you must know, they do get carried off by a dragon, and unfortunately, he is the size of a dining room. But as to whether or not they become the deliverers of their country, I’d better not say. Perhaps you’d like to discover it for yourself.

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Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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