Wednesday, 8 August 2012

July 2012: E Nesbit's "Treasure Seekers" and our September book

We met in July to share the hugely enjoyable adventures of Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel and Horace Octavius (HO) Bastable, as they tried to find the means to restore their family's fortunes in E Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers (1899).

A socialist and a founder of the Fabians, Nesbit led a notoriously complex personal life, but it was her need for money to support her family which encouraged her to publish children's stories, and the echoes of her real-life "treasure seeking" resonate through her fiction.  Writing with an eye to the Sunday-school sensibilities of her Victorian audience, she nevertheless managed to deploy knowingly subversive humour, social observation and some biting sarcasm.  The first person narrative voice is unusual for its time, and solving the "mystery" of who is telling the stories is all part of the fun.

The children come from that lost era before television, computer games and manufactured entertainment intervened, and reading about their imaginative games and amusements is a joy.  Much of their charm is in their innocence, while their wild inspirations for how to set about making money are frequently drawn from classic literature; stories which were so familiar to Nesbit's readers at the time.  They have an occasionally antiquated turn of phrase too: referring to their “ancestral home” for example.

We laughed out loud at some of the adventures – and the adults’ reactions to their attempts to sell Oloroso sherry, to develop medicines, and to edit their own newspaper which included some Sensible Advice (“It takes four hours and a quarter now to get to Manchester from London; but I should not think anyone would if they could help it.”).

There are some uncomfortable moments for 21st century readers with modern sensibilities: the children can be unkindly judgmental of others such as Albert-next-door with his frilly collars and knickerbockers (an early version of Violet Elizabeth Bott); there is some semitic stereotyping and the word "nigger" - common 19th century parlance - makes an appearance.  (We always try to read original editions of the books we select, and while we are unsurprised to read words or descriptions that are unacceptable nowadays, they are often unsettling when they appear.)

We talked about the role of the pet dog in children’s literature – from the Bastable’s partner in crime, Pincher, to the almost-human Timmy in the Famous Five; we discussed the structures of fictional families – often four, five or more children with twins not uncommon, all trying hard to be good but so often failing, while a previously deceased mother or father causes the remaining parent to be largely absent, hard working to the point of exhaustion and much loved.  The Bastable children benefit from the kindly intervention of Albert-next-door’s rather mysterious uncle – we felt that there was another story here ripe for the telling.

We were able to examine some E Nesbit first editions from Bath Library’s archives, while we were recommended to read A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book for its closely related echoes of the Nesbit family’s chaotic lives.

We are taking a holiday in August and meeting again on 5 September when our next book will be Erich Kastner's iconic Emil and the Detectives (1929), set in pre-WW2 Berlin and translated from the original German.

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