Thursday, 19 February 2015

Five children and all the rest

Edith Nesbit has been a landmark ever since I read Five children and it exactly forty years ago. I didn't read it as a child, because it wasn't available; I read it as a scholar of children's literature, and of fantasy in particular. I bow to Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald, but all children's fantasy goes back to Nesbit. Her magic code (my coinage, which eventually became the title of my PhD thesis) is as central for fantasy as Asimov's three laws of robotics for science fiction.

I wrote my second academic article, in Russian, on Nesbit in 1979, and it was later revised and published in English in the inaugural issue of Marvels & Tales in 1987. Nesbit's fantasy novels were key texts in my PhD. I taught Five children and it in every course I could squeeze it into.

I don't worship authors, and I have never been particularly interested in Nesbit as a person, but last year I happened to visit her grave.

I am sceptical of sequels and prequels, especially written by someone else. (I have written an infuriated essay on so-called sequels to Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables). But if done well, they can be wonderful. Jacqueline Wilson's Four children and it was a joy to read.

Some days ago I stumbled upon Kate Saunder's Five children on the Western front. I must admit that I had not read anything by this author, but I was intrigued by the title (and it acknowledged “inspired by...”). 

It was, obviously, very different from Wilson's witty and hilarious book, a playful travesty rather than a proper sequel. I could not help comparing Five children on the Western front with A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which is one long, idyllic prologue to the Great War where all title characters die. The mother is of course modelled on Nesbit. 

Five children on the Western front starts with a glimpse of the idyll, portrayed in Nesbit's trilogy, and moves on quickly to the War, with a prolepsis suggesting that two boys of the adventurous five, whom Nesbit calls exceptionally lucky children, will not make it. The reader's privileged knowledge over the character is a tremendously attractive feature for me, as a professional as well as pleasure reader. It makes my guts turn. There they are, the five children – actually six, with an additional sister, cleverly called Edie, short for Edith. There they are, once again exceptionally lucky to meet their old friend the Psammead, on a warm and sunny autumn day of 1914. Cyril is an officer, about to be dispatched to France. Everybody knows that the war will be short, maybe a couple of weeks. If the Psammead knows otherwise he keeps it for himself.

It is a powerful book. It is perfectly stylised: just enough “beastly” and “A1 brick” to feel Nesbit-y without overdoing it. The characters are developed in a remarkably believable and tactful way, from their never-wishing-to-grow-up pastoral to inevitably-growing-up in the shadow of war. I would say, Nesbit couldn't have done it better herself. She most probably couldn't have. The Great War had this effect on writers: they hid in the Hundred Acre Wood with Just William and Swallows and Amazons. But from a hundred years' perspective, it feels profound: all early twentieth-century children's literature children would die in the Great War. I don't believe literary characters have a life outside the text, but this book makes me change my mind.

I have now lived in the UK almost seven years, and even before the centenary last year I had been deeply moved by the Great War indelible trauma. The collective memory doesn't shout: “Hooray, we won the war”, as many other nations do. Instead, it soberly and respectfully mourns its children.