1st Sep 2010
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit
My parents long ago moved out of the house I grew up in, but when I stay with them, there’s a book I often pick up and which always feels like coming home: E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers. I read it countless times throughout my childhood and it’s stayed with me ever since.
Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), who used an initial to disguise her sex and who thus inspired another writer who has often cited her as a favourite, was one of the first superstars of children’s literature. Of her many novels, The Railway Children and Five Children and It are perhaps the best remembered today but in 1899 it was the Treasure Seekers who made her name.
Ironically from a writer who played a large part in the early British Socialist movement, its plot is nakedly capitalist: the six children of the Bastable family have fallen on hard times after the death of their mother, and are determined to restore their fortune however they can.
As a searing examination of poverty, though, it’s not quite Hard Times; the hardships they endure include being reduced to only one servant, and their ideas range from digging for gold in their Greenwich garden to selling poetry to newspapers. The plot is deliberately episodic and the resolution is a fairly shameless deus ex machina.
Part of the pleasure of the book lies instead in its voice. The identity of the supposed author is kept a secret until the end but plenty of broad clues throughout the book make it easy for a child to work out who is talking to them, and feel pleased with themselves for having done so; Oswald Bastable is a narrator stuffed full of proper Victorian virtues – as a fan of Rudyard Kipling, he endeavours to live by a code of gentlemanly honour and courage – and is also a little boy who’s been forced to grow up too fast. He frequently misunderstands the world around him, and blunders confidently into situations only to make things worse. Nesbit makes his ingenuous prose completely convincing while delighting in meta-textual excursions, such as Oswald’s comments in passing on the shortcomings of most other books (principally that they are either drippy or boring) or writing herself into a cameo role as a slyly amused poet.
None of its value as a milestone of realist fiction for children, of course, cut any ice with me as an actual child. I loved its vivid cast of characters: motherly Dora, sensitive Noel, tomboyish Alice and insufferably precious Albert-next-door. The book is shot through with humour, kindness, gentle adventure and a robustly sensible morality, all of which I find as charming today as I did as a girl and which was popular enough 100 years ago to provoke two sequels. Some things never go out of fashion.
Post by Kate Phillips