Now that Halloween and it’s cornucopia of scary stories is past, it’s time to look at the final part of the year, when the shadows lengthen early and the evenings run cold. These are the evenings when it’s good to snuggle up with a few, warm comforts as we step into the long nights of the year. So, pick up a warm drink, a good companion and a nice, old-fashioned kid’s book, like The Railway Children.
It makes sense that the Industrial Age created “the Cult of the Child” and Children’s Literature. Before then time, working and middle-class kids went with their parents to the fields and shops and started helping as soon as they could stand. Children weren’t read aloud to at night because many of their Georgian-era parents lacked the energy, or ability to read at the end of the day and they had no money for books. Then came the era of machines and their descendants started working indoors. The money was better but these Victorian parents were often absent from their children’s lives and they missed the little ones they labored for. It’s no surprise Victorian children were read aloud to in the evenings and that their stories often dealt with children learning to function without their parents. Enter Peter, Roberta (Bobbie) and Phyllis: the Railway Children.
As the famous first line says, they weren’t railway children to begin with. At first they were just a brother and two sisters, tolerably decent as children but not the examples of perfection the Victorian age wanted. They squabbled at times, their morals weren’t perfect and they were used to a standard of comfort. Then, their father is taken away and everything changes. The servants are dismissed, the house and fine furniture are sold and Mama says they have to “play at being poor” in the country. Mama changes from their supervisor and playmate to a woman who stays shut up for hours, writing stories to keep up with the bills. And the children, left to themselves, become fascinated by the trains that run through the valley below their ramshackle house in the country. The adventures trainwatching leads them to paved the way for Jane and Michael Banks, the Pevensie children and other heroes of British kid-lit.
The story must have had a ring of familiarity to it for its author, Edith Nesbit. As a child, she lost her father as a child and endured several family moves. Later, she became one of the era’s few working moms, writing fiction to support her own brood of children and her unsuccessful, philandering husband. Chained to her desk by necessity, it would have been easy to Edith to remember the free if lonely days of her own childhood or imagine what her own unsupervised kids were getting into.
It’s what my grandmother would have called, “a thoroughly English book” and I suspect The Railway Children was one of the stories she grew up with. There’s an editorializing narration, plenty of strange and wonderful coincidences and (I’m sorry to say) characters painfully distrustful of anyone not English. Still, Peter, Bobbie and Phyllis carry the philosophy that everyone deserves kindness (at least until proven otherwise) and, as the heroes, their beliefs carry the day. It’s a lovely belief to hold onto at night or share with children, even if it is thoroughly old-fashioned.